CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tracy McGrady is jumping straight from high school to the NBA draft for the simplest of reasons.
Because he can.
There are no academic barriers to college, no severe financial hardships forcing him to the pros at 18. He readily admits he's unprepared for the life he's chosen. But McGrady said once it was obvious he'd be a top 15 pick, he never thought twice.
"I'm not ready. But I'm going to be ready," McGrady said. "Some struggle forever to get there. I always wanted to be a lottery pick.
"I said if I was 15-20, I'm coming out."
There's no turning back now. He's signed with agent Arn Tellum, which forfeits his college eligibility, and is reportedly driving a $50,000 Lexus. Nike and adidas have been in a bidding war to sign him to an endorsement contract. In the end, adidas won out, signing McGrady to a six-year, $12 million shoe contract on Wednesday.
Even for a cocky teen-ager, McGrady's confidence borders on arrogance. It's obvious that he's absorbed all the hype that suggests he'll go top 10 when the draft is held Wednesday at the Charlotte Coliseum.
At 6 feet 8 and 210 pounds, McGrady describes himself as Scottie Pippen with a dash of Penny Hardaway. He said he can be a star in any style of play, and adapt to point and shooting guard or small forward. He predicts he'll be gone by the eighth pick.
And when quizzed how a player of his current stature did not even make a top 500 recruiting list a year ago, he snickers, "They just missed ol' Tracy McGrady!"
Bob Gibbons sure did. Probably the country's best-known evaluator of high school basketball talent, Gibbons admits that a year ago, "I didn't know who Tracy McGrady was."
That changed abruptly last summer when McGrady outplayed 6-9 Lamar Odom, then considered the country's best high school talent, in a camp game.
"That day changed the kid's life," said Gibbons. "Odom was all cool and going through the motions that day. Two dunks over Odom gave McGrady the reputation he's achieved. Suddenly, everyone was talking about him."
Even McGrady said, "In one summer I went from unknown, to known, to Tracy McGrady!"
What college recruiters saw that day was a raw, skinny player with a 40-inch vertical leap, 44-inch sleeves and uncommon ball-handling skills for his height. But that was still far short of a complete package when McGrady moved last fall from Auburndale, Fla., to Durham, N.C., to attend Mount Zion Christian Academy.
Mount Zion is a church-sponsored boarding school (secretaries answer the telephones with "Praise the Lord") working to build a national basketball reputation. Gibbons said 10 Mount Zion players from the past season have the talent to earn Division I scholarships.
Hopkins had misgivings about McGrady, who had been suspended from his Auburndale team after an argument with a teacher. Those misgivings grew when McGrady met him wearing earrings. Hopkins said the jewelry made him look like a "sissy."
"He said, 'If you don't take those out, I might as well leave,' " McGrady recalled. "At first, I said, 'Who is this guy?' My ma told me who he was, so I took the earrings out."
Mount Zion provided the structure McGrady said he lacked in a single-parent home. Hopkins enforces rules where church attendance is mandatory and dating is forbidden. The players were awakened at dawn, often to run the steps of Duke's football stadium.
McGrady said he gained 15 pounds of muscle, plus the confidence and poise he needed. Mount Zion's proximity to Duke and North Carolina meant he got to scrimmage against top players, such as ex-Tar Heel Jerry Stackhouse, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. He did well enough in those encounters to start thinking he could jump straight to the NBA.
"I see Kevin Garnett -- two years in the NBA and he's already an all-star. Kobe Bryant is 18 years old, and he won the [NBA] slam-dunk contest," said McGrady. "That helped me make my decision."
Though the NBA is concerned over the pattern of high school players jumping to the pros, it's hard to say McGrady made an error turning down Kentucky and Florida State to register for the draft. Under the league's rookie salary scale, he'll get a three-year, guaranteed contract as a first-round pick. That scale gives the eighth pick a package worth a total of $4.25 million, with the 15th pick receiving $2.87 million.
McGrady is looking forward to the transition to the professional game. He talked with Bryant while in Los Angeles and got more perspective from Jermaine O'Neal, who was a first-round by Portland out of high school last season.
"I talked to Jermaine and he told me how the coaches will look at me," McGrady said. "Like how some nights you'll play 15 minutes and some nights you won't play at all because you are young. I just hope I can do like my boy Kobe and get some mad [a lot of] PT [playing time] in the playoffs. I'm coming in hoping to get at least 20. Be the sixth man, or something. Not just sitting on the bench.
"I'm just ready for the challenge of playing basketball. I can't wait to be on the same floor with [Orlando's] Penny [Hardaway] and (( M. J. [Chicago's Michael Jordan]. I want to see what his game is really like. I know I'll be watching him, but I am sure I am not the first one to do that. I think this will work."
Even if it were a mistake, McGrady has no patience with second-guessers.
"I don't bad-mouth anybody else. I made my own decision," McGrady said. "You didn't have anything to do with my decision, so you just worry about yourself."
Pub Date: 6/23/97