- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The unprecedented career of Tracy McGrady took another emotionally deflating turn Tuesday when he underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on his left knee.

That brings to 12 the number of seasons in which McGrady will not lead a team out of the first round of the playoffs.

No other big-name player in NBA history carries such failure in his postseason portfolio.

Not even Pete Maravich, who played on some abysmal teams in Atlanta and New Orleans before becoming a supporting part of a Celtics team that advanced past the first round in his final season in the NBA.

That could be the lot of the 29-year-old McGrady, who has been stymied in each of his seven trips to the playoffs and now appears to be entering the diminishing-returns part of his career.

He may be still relatively young by NBA standards, but his lower limbs have accrued a lot of wear in more than 800 games and he has been bedeviled by problematic knees, a temperamental back and questions about his mental toughness.

McGrady succumbed to surgery after being plagued by a bum knee that robbed him of who he once was. He was averaging 15.6 points and shooting a mere 39 percent in 35 games before it was determined that he should shut it down.

His return date has been set at six to 12 months, a considerable time variance because of the nature of the surgery. Penny Hardaway and Chris Webber never returned to their previous form after undergoing microfracture surgery. Amare Stoudemire and Jason Kidd are among those who have recovered nicely from it.

Who is to say with certainty the fate before McGrady?

The seven-time All-Star seemingly had it all at one time, and if he was not at the top of the NBA, he was among its five best practitioners. He twice has led the NBA in scoring, and in 2003 he appeared to be on the cusp of a career breakthrough, of winning a playoff series that would start to formulate his legend.

Nothing could stop McGrady and the eighth-seeded Magic after they took a 3-1 series lead on the top-seeded Pistons. McGrady felt so confident about their chances that he told reporters before Game 5 that it felt great to “finally be in the second round [of the playoffs].”

McGrady would come to rue those words after the Magic were overwhelmed in each of the next three playoff games.

Perhaps, in the three-game period from April 30 to May 4, 2003, that was the beginning of the end of the player who had mesmerized so many before his postseason failings started to accumulate on his psyche and legacy.

Now McGrady has come to be seen as lacking in something, that indefinable element that allows a player to answer his team’s call when the lights are the brightest.

Whatever it is, you know when you see it. You saw it with Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins in a Game 7 in 1988. You saw it with LeBron James and Paul Pierce in a Game 7 last spring.

It is true that McGrady scored 40 points in a Game 7 loss to the Mavericks in 2005. Perhaps that is where the statistical improbability of it all crystallized with McGrady. Being a hard-luck postseason performer was his destiny, no matter how he performed and no matter who was around him.

And there never has been another like him, not in the 63-season history of the NBA. There never has been another player so able and yet so bereft of meaning.

It is not as if McGrady did not reach his potential. That is an unfair claim to stick on a player who once averaged 32.1 points in a season.

But he remains one of a kind in the worst way, as the immense talent who never could. He still could rewrite his ending, just as Kevin Garnett did.

His legacy-defining window, though, is closing fast.

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