Earlier this week, I came across a piece regarding Tracy McGrady’s “freakish talent,” written by from Dan Devine of Ball Don’t Lie, Yahoo’s NBA blog. In it, he analyzes a variety of comments made about Tracy McGrady at the Sloan Sports Conference a few days back. Jeff Van Gundy, McGrady’s former coach and current ESPN analyst, said that McGrady’s “talent was otherworldly,” and that T-Mac “should be a Hall of Fame player.”
Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, followed up Van Gundy’s statement by saying that “ability got in the way of Tracy’s development.”
With these remarks in mind, Mr. Devine went on to write a piece about McGrady’s talent, injury history, and the belief that McGrady squandered his gifts by not working as hard as he could have to become a star:
Still, I can’t help feeling like selecting McGrady as the poster boy for wasted chances is at least partially a function of our own propensity as writers, observers, executives and fans to jam talented players into a hyperbolic chamber, imbue them with whatever dreams may come and then get all pissy when they don’t pop out, pure and perfect, exactly the way our imaginations envisioned.
Upon reading this, I was struck that we in the Hip-Hop universe often do the exact same thing to rappers. It’s happened to a number of MCs through the years, from underground to mainstream. For example, take the case of one Nasir Jones.
As we all know, when Nas first showed up on Hip-Hop’s radar, he was considered to be the next great MC on the rise. In fact, people went so far as to compare him to Rakim, who, at that time, I considered the GOAT. To further the Hip-Hop world’s fervor over the QB sensation, Nas put out Illmatic, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest Hip-Hop albums of all-time.
Illmatic is the equivalent of Tracy McGrady’s 2002-03 season, in which he put up an eye-popping 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game. As a bit of context, consider that Kobe Bryant, arguably the greatest player of the post-Jordan era, put up 30.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.2 steals that year, and he had Shaquille O’Neal in his prime on the block to occupy opposing defenses. McGrady was one of the best players in the league, and given his age and talent level, looked to be only getting better. Basketball fans across the league were giddy with anticipation about what he would do in the future, just like hip-hop fans were with Nas after Illmatic dropped.
But, in McGrady’s case, things did not work out as the world had hoped. Despite brief flashes of absolute brilliance, including his incredible 13 points in 35 seconds – one of the greatest sequences of basketball I’ve ever seen live – Tracy McGrady has never again reached the heights of that 2002-03 season. Now, beset by injury and in the midst of a mutiny on one of the NBA’s worst teams, he plays out his career in a sort of extended denouement. As a basketball fan, the disappointment is heartbreaking to see.
Nas has also had flashes of brilliance in his post-Illmatic career. Many consider Stillmatic, his 2001 release, a modern classic. And while It Was Written, his sophomore release, was widely panned when it dropped, it has aged well over time, getting more widely-respected over the years. Hell, “Ether” created an entirely-new term for destroying someone’s character with a single statement. But, despite these, and many other accomplishments, most would say that Nas has not fulfilled lived up to his raw talents as an MC.
But here’s the rub: we put these expectations on Nas from the very beginning of his career in Hip-Hop. Instead of allowing him to grow and put out material in his own fashion, Nas was, as Mr. Devine said previously, “imbued with whatever dreams may come”. Upon seeing the bright flash of the man’s talent, the Hip-Hop world jumped to crown him the next GOAT, the savior of the genre. Despite the wide array of great music that he’s put out over the years, Nas has been forever struggling against the nigh-impossible dreams of millions of Hip-Hop fans. We wanted a savior. Nas is an incredible rapper, and is definitely one of the top MCs to ever grace a microphone, but no man can be that savior. Whether he’s top five dead-or-alive is another story, and depends on your personal preference above all else. But I’d say yes.
Nas is not alone in being regarded as the Hip-Hop savior. Even in the past few years, acts like Blu, Jay Electronica, Papoose, and a host of others have borne the weight of absolutely massive expectations. I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard, as I’ve definitely dreamt about the heights that incredible talents can reach, whether it’s Blu, Jay Electronica, Freddie Gibbs, Danny Brown, or any rapper that proves themselves to be something special. Was it likely that these talents would fulfill such yearnings? No way. Have they spit verses that we will quote for years, and made music that every discerning hip-hop fan should hear? Yes, most definitely. Papoose notwithstanding. I’ll leave him to your own opinion. “Alphabetic Slaughter” is certainly something, though.
Back to Devine’s article on McGrady:
McGrady has led the league in scoring twice and finished in the top 10 six times. He’s made seven All-NBA teams (two first-team, three second-team, two third-team) and produced a 2002-03 season for the Orlando Magic that Zach Lowe of SI.com’s The Point Forward blog calls “perhaps the most under-appreciated great season in NBA history.” And according to the Hall of Fame Probability Rankings on Basketball-Reference.com, McGrady has the 13th-best shot for enshrinement of any active ballplayer, right between Chris Paul and Amar’e Stoudemire. (The top 10 are virtual locks for Springfield. Vince Carter’s 11, and he’ll be the subject of some debate when his time comes, I’m sure.)
In the end, both Tracy McGrady and Nas are legends. Yeah, I went there. McGrady turned in one of the great seasons in NBA History, had a hand in many incredible moments, and in the end, will be remembered for his absolute brilliance at his peak. Nas, no matter how many times someone cries “Nas lost” or gripes about the man’s ear for beats, is one of the greatest emcees to ever pick up a microphone. Blu, Jay Electronica, and the other remarkable talents we have in hip-hop today are not going to always be perfect. They will have their own unique foibles. But as a community, I hope we can look past these small issues and appreciate them for the incredible strengths they bring to the table.