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Tracy McGrady Recalls his Basketball Roots

July 31, 2017
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Tracy McGrady played before crowds of 20,000 fans in NBA arenas for 16 seasons but, like most pro stars, the beginnings are a lot more humble.

Tracy McGrady played before crowds of 20,000 fans in NBA arenas for 16 seasons but, like most pro stars, the beginnings are a lot more humble.

For McGrady, who will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September, those beginnings were at Auburndale High School where he played three years for Ty Willis before transferring to Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina as a senior.

McGrady never forgot where he came from and was back in Auburndale — again — for the T-MAC Weekend. He spent Sunday afternoon watching the 5-on-5 action at the high school gym that is now named for him. He looked back fondly at those beginnings and the memories.

“The in-state rivalries, the local rivalries we had with schools like Haines City, Winter Haven, Lake Wales, Kathleen — those rivalries and the guys they had on their teams,” he recalled as his biggest memories. “They were very talented.”

Auburndale wasn’t very talented his first year. The prior season was a senior-dominated squad, so when McGrady joined the teams as a freshman, the team took its lumps. But they had McGrady, and who better than him to build around.

“He had great vision, great hands,” said Willis, who had a reunion with McGrady on Sunday. “When you hear people say he made everyone better, that guy was the best I’ve ever seen at that. He made everyone better.”

McGrady was known in the area when he entered basketball. Baseball was his favorite sport and he was a Little League All-Star pitcher. He played varsity quarterback — he said he can still throw a football 65 to 70 yards — in the spring of his freshman year before giving up both sports to concentrate on basketball.

By his junior, the Bloodhounds were back among the top teams in the county, probably the fourth best behind Haines City, Kathleen and Lake Wales.

With players like Eric Anderson, Rich Gurley, Corey Bess and McGrady, Auburndale, however, could compete with any team on any given night. Perhaps his fondest high school memory was a game against Haines City at the beginning of the final week in the regular season.

“Haines City was No. 1 in the state (in 4A) and we knocked them out,” McGrady said. “That was a big game. It was a real big game. It was standing-room only in here, and those guys were really, really good. I felt those guys had a couple of D-I players on their team.”

One of those players was point guard Art Salary, whom McGrady called the best player in Polk County that he played against. He also mentioned Winter Haven assistant coach Jamie Phillips.

Willis remembered that game and recalled seeing a lot of people in the front row passing money back and forth. The atmosphere in the Auburndale gym that night was electric.

“There were certain teams around here that no matter what our records are, it’s going to be a crowd just because of the rivalries,” he said. “It’s tradition. I’ve always loved playing in front of a big crowd. It gets me the emotion and everything you would want in a basketball game at that moment. I relished those moments.”

Despite playing in the NBA, there something that remains special to McGrady about the high school environment.

“Playing in front of 20,000 every night is nothing compared to an environment like this,” he said. “The packed gym is tight and not so spread out. You can feel the energy. You can really hear the hecklers because everyone is so close.”

And playing with friends he grew up with was also special.

“You instantly have a chemistry,” McGrady said. “You have a bond that can’t be broken no matter what type of emotions you go through throughout the game. We can hold each other accountable. In the NBA, that has to grow.”

McGrady will always remember playing with his best friend Eric Anderson, whom he called the best player he played with at Auburndale. Anderson was killed in a parking lot shootout back in 2004.

“I miss him every day,” he said.

There are no more memories of high school basketball after his junior year. McGrady transferred to Mount Zion, for his senior year, a decision he doesn’t regret.

“No because it was needed,” he said. “It wasn’t tough for basketball, not at all. It was the right move and something I needed. Being away from my friends and my family, that was tough, but from a basketball standpoint it was not.”

He did look back wistfully about how his junior year ended. He got suspended the Friday before the district tournament and missed the tournament, and Auburndale lost in the first round.

“It’s one of my biggest high school regrets,” he said. “I felt like we had a really good team at that time, and we could make it to state. It was just unfortunate that I made poor choices in school that led me to being suspended and missing a game.”

Now in retirement, McGrady, who is an NBA analyst for ESPN, has successfully transitioned into life after basketball. The transition, he said, wasn’t difficult.

“It’s not tough when you feel you got every ounce of what you can get out of your system,” he said. “It was time to move on.”

And where ever he moves on to going forward, the roots remain here in Auburndale.

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