Earlier this month, a new Eminem song entitled “Give Me the Ball” leaked to the Internet. Well, new might not exactly be the word for it — it’s believed to be an unused leftover from previous recording days, estimated by hip-hop and basketball archaeologists to be from somewhere around 2007 or 2008. But what’s most notable about the song is how it feels like it’s practically from another lifetime — one in which, of course, the Detroit Pistons were still one of the elite teams in the NBA, and not the lottery-bound mess they are now.
The clearest demonstration of this disconnect is evident in the four Pistons namechecked by Em in the song’s lyrics — ‘Sheed, Chauncey, Rip and Tayshaun — one of whom is now retired, one of whom was traded years ago, one of whom is currently stuck riding the bench and one of whom is just a phone call away from being traded to a contender. The dissonance is enough to make the song’s repeated use of the familiar “DEEEE-TROIT BASKET-BALL!!” chant sound mocking, practically self-parodic.
The song’s not great — the beat’s uninspired, the rhymes are weak (“Chauncey Billups” with “raunchy Philips”?) and Marshall’s grasp of hoops lingo in general is often times lacking (use of the phrase “points on the paint”). But it did get me thinking about Eminem and his career — especially as applies to one Piston not mentioned by Em throughout, most likely because he wasn’t on the team yet at the time of recording: Tracy McGrady.
The comparison between Eminem and Tracy McGrady might not seem like an obvious one at first, primarily because their styles and personalities seem essentially at odds. Eminem’s appeal was always tied up in his incredible intensity, the forcefulness of his personality, his unwillingness and occasional inability to shield the uglier pats of himself from the world. McGrady, while a transcendent talent, has rarely been one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and though he undoubtedly seems to care about winning and losing, it’s impossible to tell exactly what’s ever going on behind his droopy brown eyes — an enigmatic quality further compounded by his much-publicized obsession with sleep and his unfortunate blood association with Vince Carter. When playing the “Which Rapper Equals Which Basketball Star?” game that so many of us have drunkenly dabbled in at times, there are probably a couple dozen NBA names more commonly linked to Em before Tracy’s.
However, the arcs of their careers have an interesting number of parallels. Both were at the top of the world at the beginning of the 21st century, when Eminem released two multi-platinum smash albums with countless hit singles and Tracy McGrady racked up two scoring titles and began a streak of seven consecutive All-Star appearances. Eminem was unquestionably the most popular rapper in the world at this point, while McGrady likely trailed only Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson in popularity (or at least, in jersey sales) on his end.
But as dominant as both were in their respective fields, there was a sort of ephemeral quality to their successes, mainly because neither really fit in with the predominant narratives of their time. Em’s hits were everywhere when they were popular, but had no place to retire to — too hard for recurring pop radio, too weird for hip-hop and too … well, not rock for rock, few of his songs stayed in regular rotation anywhere after their runs had passed. And while T-Mac was certainly prolific during his best days, he had few single games or performances that were meaningful or memorable enough to really endure in the public memory. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to name a game of his that would likely be replayed on NBA TV or ESPN Classic (with the exception of his 13-point final-minute comeback against the Spurs, which I suppose stands as his “Lose Yourself.”)
Part of the problem for the legacy of both came with their inability — whether out of profitability or circumstance — to play well with others. Though Eminem rose to prominence under Dr. Dre’s tutelage, and occasionally showed up on singles with the Good Doctor, the great majority of Marshall’s biggest solo efforts, featuring no notable guests or outside contributors. (Even the primary exception, the Dido-featuring “Stan,” is mainly just him plus a disembodied-sounding vocal sample). Eminem was not part of any real scene to speak of, and his posse of choice, D-12, was a group of unexceptional talents whose biggest hit was a half-serious rant about how much more famous Em was than the rest of them.
Meanwhile, “group of unexceptional talents” would be a generous description of some of the supporting casts that surrounded McGrady. T-Mac’s most productive scoring seasons were wasted with the likes of Darrell Armstrong and Juwan Howard proving to be his most competent complimentary scorers. (I’m not sure who the analogue would be here for a perpetually-wounded Grant Hill. Perhaps if 50 Cent had promised Marshall guest verses on “In Da Club” and “Wanksta” to give his career a little late stage boost, only to kick him out of the booth at the last minute.)
In any event, the time in the sun for each would come to a precipitous and largely unexpected fall in the second half of the 00s, as the production of both cratered with little warning. Eminem’s fourth album (“Encore”) wasn’t as successful or as well received as his first three, while a trade of McGrady to the Rockets (and a promising pairing with fellow star Yao Ming) resulted in disappointing postseason returns. Then Eminem went AWOL for a few years, dealing with personal issues, drug dependencies and a lack of musical focus, only to return with “Relapse,” a highly-underwhelming effort that sold well but made fans wonder if his comeback wasn’t a little premature (and has since been all but disowned by Em himself). Meanwhile, around the same time, McGrady started to suffer from shoulder and knee ailments that likewise dampened his production and ultimately disappeared him for a year or two as he recovered. When he finally did return, as a member of the Knicks, the results were similarly questionable and pundits were left to question if T-Mac had anything left in the tank.
But this is where things get interesting, as in the last year-plus, Eminem has officially breathed a second life into his career. Clearly incapable of reproducing the same results playing the rebellious, trigger-happy, wickedly funny ne’er do well that he was at the beginning of his career, Em re-invented himself as something of a hip-hop self-psychiatrist, using his music as a way to talk through his problems, rather than using it to just say “fuck the world” as he might have in his younger days. Commercially, he’s as successful as he’s ever been, scoring two No. 1 singles off his last album (the aptly titled “Recovery”), which was also the best-selling album of last year. And having been acknowledged as an influence by a new generation of pop stars, he’s part of more collaborations than ever before, appearing on hits by artists like Drake, B.O.B. and Nicki Minaj, and inviting Rihanna and Lil’ Wayne to come on his own singles. Consequently, for possibly the first time in his storied career, Marshall Mathers truly belongs.
Of course, this all begs the question: Can Tracy McGrady achieve the same kind of comeback? Well, the jury’s still out on that one, but at the very least he’s trying on the Pistons, with a similar sort of stylistic re-invention. Fully aware that the explosive athleticism of his youth is now behind him, and that his days of averaging 30 (or even 20) a game have likely gone with his knees, McGrady has refashioned his game to be more of a playmaker. As unusual as it seems for a 6-foot-8 natural scorer to be playing facilitator, McGrady has shown a certain knack for it, and he’s used his court vision skills to evolve his role on the Pistons from bench afterthought to starting point guard. His numbers aren’t huge yet, but he’s helping the team win games — the Pistons have now gone 11-11 with T-Mac as a starter, which might not sound impressive, until you remember that in their 31 other games this season, they’re 9-22. What’s more, he’s playing well with others — McGrady’s Detroit ascent has been concurrent with the rise of rookie big Greg Monroe, whose play seems to have benefited at least some from his chemistry with T-Mac.
In fact, I’m wondering these days if Tracy McGrady isn’t the key to overcoming the ghosts of the championship-era Pistons. The past few years, there’s been no team in the league more depressing than Detroit, since the remnants of that contending core (Hamilton, Prince, Wallace) have meshed so poorly with the amassed young talent (Stuckey, Daye, Monroe) and the brought-in freelancers (Gordon, Villanueva). When signed for the veteran minimum, McGrady looked like he belonged squarely in the latter category, but now I think he was really the fated to be the piece to tie it all together. The guy to make smooth the transition from the old guard to the new guard, while gradually integrating the hired guns into the mix. It’s moving slowly, but it’s moving in the right direction, and at the very least, the team’s not so miserable to watch anymore. McGrady and Monroe appear to have re-energized them, and I find myself taping games of theirs that I never would have even flipped past earlier in the season. For that alone, T-Mac has to go down as the bargain-bin signing of the summer.
Where do things go from here for McGrady? When he began with Detroit, his jersey wasn’t even made available for sale. Now will he attempt to sign a long-term contract with them to continue the work he’s started? Or will he sign with a contender as a veteran presence, trying for that piece of basketball immortality that he so missed out on in his career’s first half? Whatever his choice, clips like these from a recent game against the Sixers show that even in a reduced role, he still has the skill set — slamming alley-oops, nailing threes, dishing to open teammates, and even rapping along to a song by an old kindred spirit — to merit himself a second act. Tracy McGrady is not afraid.
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