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Letting Go of The “Next Generation”

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Update: T-Mac has officially announced his retirement after two months playing minor league baseball.

Originally posted on Apr. 17:

T-Mac threw his first professional baseball inning in an exhibition game last night for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Independent League. That’s right. If you haven’t been following Tracy McGrady’s post-playing career, the 7-time NBA All-Star is attempting a career as a pitcher in professional baseball following a 16-year career in the NBA. He has been clocked at 91 MPH and describes a career in pro baseball as something he’s “dreamed of since he was a kid.” T-Mac started the game against Alvin Community College and allowed 1 run on 3 hits. After 15 pitches, he was back in the dugout. McGrady hasn’t made the opening day roster yet which needs to be cut down from 34 players to 27. However, it is hard for me to believe that an Independent League team wouldn’t take T-Mac (as long as he’s not completely over-matched) just for the box office appeal. Regardless of whether he makes it or not, that’s not the real story for me.

T-Mac retired from the NBA at 34 years old last season. Few will remember that McGrady finished his career bouncing around the NBA with the Knicks, Pistons, Hawks, and Spurs. Fewer will even remember the season he spent playing in China following in the footsteps of fellow former NBA superstar Stephon Marbury. When one mentions Tracy McGrady, I will remember him and distant cousin Vince Carter wearing those Dino Raptors jerseys in the late 90’s. I’ll remember how dynamic and inseparable the two of them were and how cool the dunk contest used to be. I’ll think about how they somehow made basketball relevant in Toronto, especially to a 9-year old kid living in Chicago who had no reason to be interested in anything other than Bulls basketball. I’ll remember his days with the Magic where he truly emerged as a NBA superstar and the blockbuster trade for Steve Francis that sent him to the Houston Rockets in 2004.

It’s impossible to think of T-Mac without recalling one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen. The 13 points in 35 seconds he scored to lead a comeback against the San Antonio Spurs in 2006 was truly one of a kind. His six years alongside Yao Ming on the Houston Rockets will be viewed as a disappointment by many due to T-Mac’s notorious inability to escape the 1st round of the playoffs. It wasn’t until 2013 with the Spurs that T-Mac finally made it out of the 1st round and at that point he was just a seldom-used bench player. However, you still can’t discount the entertainment value and competitiveness of those Rockets teams or the 22-game winning streak they went on in 2008.

When I think of T-Mac now attempting a career in pro baseball, I think of something else before any of these though. I think about the harsh realization that the players of my childhood, and I’m sure many of yours, are nearly extinct. The players who entered the league in the mid to late 90’s and grew up as we did. The players we idolized and aspired to be. It doesn’t feel like T-Mac should be retired from the NBA as he’s only 34 and I think we will always think of him as the young kid on the Raptors just out of high school. It was at the end of the 2008 season, 11 years after he was drafted in 1997 out of high school, that his career became derailed by knee and shoulder injuries.  It’s truly hard to believe that it has been six years since T-Mac has been an All-Star caliber player. The question I ask myself when I hear about baseball playing T-Mac is, “Just how many are left? How many are still left that played in the 90’s?”

I had a poster on my wall growing up that may be familiar to some of you. I got it in one of those Scholastic NBA books that we used to order at school. It was the “Next Generation” poster from 1998 and I can still recall all 20 players on there. As the years went on, I would always think back to it and remember exactly how many players are still playing on that poster. Bryant Reeves and Kerry Kittles were two of the first ones to check out while Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Jerry Stackhouse and Juwan Howard were among the most recent. Only five remain: Kobe, Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Tim Duncan which is an indication that the 90’s NBA player is in fact an endangered species.

It’s crazy to think about that these 90’s players were in the process of beginning their careers in the NBA before potential 2014 lottery picks Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins were even in kindergarten. Of the 90’s players remaining, only two are still playing at elite levels and appear capable of playing for the foreseeable future, Dirk Nowitzki (1998) and Duncan (1997). Obviously, Kobe (1996) is still capable of of playing at an elite level if not hurt, but at this point that is a big if and the Lakers are woeful. Steve Nash (1996) appears to be just about done as his body his breaking down. KG, who is the last remaining player from the 1995 draft, and Ray Allen (1996) seem to be on their last legs and it is difficult seeing either of them making it past the end of next season. Former All-Stars Vince Carter (1998) and Paul Pierce (1998) are no longer superstar-caliber players, but have both been effective in secondary roles on playoff teams. It’s impossible to believe that Derek Fisher (1996) was drafted after KG, but he’s still draining treys as a backup PG for the Thunder. Shawn Marion (1999), Rashard Lewis (1998), and Elton Brand (1999) are still hanging around for the Mavericks, Heat, and Hawks respectively while Jermaine O’Neal (1996) has enjoyed a career resurgence filling in for the oft-injured Andrew Bogut on the Golden State Warriors.

The upcoming Bulls-Wizards series actually features three pre-millennium players: Nazr Mohammed (1998), Al Harrington (1998), and Andre Miller (1999). I doubt any will factor into who wins this series. Jason Terry (1999) and Chauncey Billups (1997) are actually still on rosters (the Nets and Pistons respectively), but you wouldn’t know it. I doubt they will be around too much longer. Antawn Jamison (1998) is still considered active, despite not being on a team currently. His career likely came to an end after the Clippers traded him to the Hawks this season for the rights to something called a Cenk Akyol. He was waived the next day which I’m not sure if that says something more about Jamison or this Cenk Akyol fellow. Finally, the Knicks just signed Lamar Odom (1999) so I guess he counts too. That’s twenty 90’s players left, the same amount of “Next Generation” players on my poster from 1998.

As I think back to T-Mac and his pitching endeavors, I wonder how these guys handle life in their post-playing career. Many go into coaching or front office roles and others go into broadcasting, but being retired before 40 years of age from something you have put your entire life into cannot be easy to handle. We as fans have difficulty moving on as well. I have trouble letting go of the “Next Generation.” However, it is much easier for us to move on as young talent emerges to form a “New Generation.” I don’t think that we ever think about how these former superstars move on when it appears that their lifelong dreams have been met. I initially thought that T-Mac’s attempt at a professional baseball career was simply the typical case of a former athlete who just can’t let go. The case of a superior talent forced to retire due to injury at 34 years old while he watches players he entered the league with still competing in the NBA every night. However, I don’t think that anymore. T-Mac has let go of his NBA career and is instead pursuing a different lifelong dream with the Sugar Land Skeeters. I think that is something we can all learn from.

This time next year it will likely be impossible to fill out a “Next Generation” poster of 90’s players. There probably will only be around 15 players remaining. Just as the injuries piling up signaled the pursuit of something else for T-Mac, the inevitable extinction in the coming years of the pre-millennium athlete probably signals something similar for me. It’s time to finally let go of the “Next Generation” and completely embrace a “New Generation.”

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Divac is the Editor-In Chief of The Schmozone and founder of Leaveit2divac.com. He is a fantasy sports maniac with terrible gambling habits and has a strange, irrational obsession with everything that is NBA legend Vlade Divac. Divac will be posting his outrageous commentary on daily sports topics in "The Daily Flop" section and one day dreams of being re-born as a mediocre Eastern European NBA journeyman.