With under a minute to go and a win out of reach, a defeated and frustrated Tracy McGrady pulled up with a muscle pull in his thigh, asked to be subbed out, and watched from the bench as his Qingdao Eagles lost 95-84 to the previously winless Jilin Northeast Tigers. As McGrady walked back to the locker room with his teammates, they did so as the only 0-5 team in the Chinese Basketball Association.
With McGrady in an Eagles uniform this season, it was expected to go down in a big way this year in coastal Shandong province.
But, it definitely wasn’t supposed to go down like this.
In a series of events that have pushed the Eagles and McGrady to new depths with every passing game, these past two weeks — which were supposed to be the beginning stages of of McGrady’s CBA takeover — have instead turned into the opening act of a Shakespearian tragedy.
Victims of two heart-breaking buzzer beaters, one to Fujian’s Sundiata Gaines and another to Bayi’s Wang Zhizhi, and culprits of three uninspiring performances against Foshan, Shanghai and Jilin, the Eagles find themselves without a win, without direction and likely without a realistic shot at making the post-season. They’ve already gone through one head coach, and likely could go through another soon if their record continues to go south. The team’s roster seems to be in store for a shakeup as well, as the club is reportedly in the process of swapping out McGrady’s foreign teammate, D.J. Mbenga, who has been largely disappointing thus far.
As any foreigner who has spent time in this country, China forces you to learn quickly. It’s true as well for McGrady, who is currently learning a valuable lesson, one that foreign basketball players, businessmen, companies and governments have learned in similarly hard ways before him:
It’s not easy to simply walk into the Middle Kingdom, set up shop and enjoy immediate success.
When McGrady signed the most celebrated contract in CBA history in September, the buzz around China was palpable. A national icon going back to the days with his Houston Rockets co-star, Yao Ming, fans and media alike went into a state of frenzied anticipation over his CBA arrival . The club, who has never made the post-season in their short four year CBA history, came out publicly to announce that with their seven-time All-Star in tow, their goal was to reach the semi-finals. McGrady, eager to start his new career and brand-building in China, made pre-season promises of 50 point games and assurances over playing 48 minutes per game.
Not even one-fourth of the way into the 32-game regular season, and all of that looks out of the question.
Even several thousand miles away from his native Florida, basketball in China remains the same as it is anywhere else in the world — a team game. And as McGrady has quickly found out, through no fault of his own, is that he is the star of stars of his own one-man squad.
Stuck with a supporting cast that makes the 2000-01 Orlando Magic look like the 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers, McGrady is responsible for the Eagles’ entire offense output. What’s more, he’s been doing an admirable job in trying to prop it up. He leads the team in scoring, steals, free-throw attempts and assists and is in second in rebounding and blocks. He is their primary ball handler, initiator, distributor and scorer. He is their best post player, their best slasher, their best midrange shooter, their best passer, their best everything. When he goes out, the team quickly becomes out of sort, which is why he doesn’t go out that much — an average of 37.6 minutes per game with two games of 40+ minutes.
It’s unclear what McGrady knew about both the overall quality of the league, which is better than a lot of people give it credit for, or about the club’s roster situation. Based on his comments, it appears on the surface that he did not. For those who followed Qingdao’s offseason, however, the record shouldn’t exactly come as a huge surprise.
The Eagles saw seven players leave the team in the summer, a number that is very high in a league that sees little off-season player movement. Their biggest loss was the league’s second leading Chinese scorer, Li Gen, who signed a lucrative multi-year deal with the Beijing Ducks. A mass exodus which includes your best player is never easy for any team in any league to cope with, but it is especially troublesome in China where player movement in either free-agency or trades is still extremely uncommon. Save with a few exceptions, those who are released by their teams are either well past their primes or are unwanted third and fourth string reserves. That was the reality the Eagles were forced to face this summer when half of their roster was empty. Not surprisingly, their current record is reflecting that reality.
McGrady can take solace in one fact, however — this scenario has already been played about by another ex-NBA All-Star who had ambitions of branding himself inside the CBA. Stephon Marbury, only now an icon inside of Beijing, had to go through not one, but two years of playing on similarly bad teams before finally signing on with the Ducks last season, where he won a championship and had a statue of himself erected on the city’s west side.
Much has been written in both Chinese and in English about Marbury’s China journey. Among several qualities that allowed him to become the league’s most marketable foreign player, however, is his patience; his willingness to grit his teeth and bear a season and a half playing on two lower-tier teams, living in two cities with very little Western culture, before finally turning in his storybook season in the country’s capital.
Things rarely go to plan in China. Marbury’s original idea to build Starbury retail stores in Taiyuan, Shanxi province were nixed when his owner essentially ripped up his contract during the 2010 summer. But like virtually any foreigner who comes to China with big ideas experiences, failure precedes triumph. And although it’s not totally clear what will finally become of Marbury’s lofty business aspirations, he’s without a doubt the model for former big-time NBA stars in China to follow.
There’s still plenty of season for the Eagles to turn it around, and if they can hit the target on Mbenga’s replacement and bring in someone who can take offensive pressure of McGrady, the team will be in better shape. But With their next two games at home against a talented Liaoning squad and on the road against Marbury and the defending champions, Beijing, things could get worse before they get better.
The only question is, will McGrady be willing to stick it out to see the end of it.