By Tim Casey
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. -- Sweating profusely in humid conditions late Thursday afternoon, Tracy McGrady took numerous swings during batting practice in a nearly empty TD Bank Ballpark. Until signing with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the unaffiliated Atlantic League in April, the former seven-time NBA All-Star who retired last year hadn't played baseball since high school. So far, he's pitched in only four games and hasn't made any plate appearances.
McGrady said he's enjoyed his brief minor league tenure, although he doesn't plan on extending his career past this season. He also doesn't anticipate making a basketball comeback.
"Not unless LeBron James calls me," he said, laughing.
For the record, James hasn't contacted McGrady, and McGrady claims he hasn't followed James's recent saga as he decides where to play next season. McGrady, though, can somewhat relate to what James is going through, albeit on a much smaller scale.
10 years before the Heat signed James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Magic nearly assembled a "Big Three" of its own. During the summer of 2000, Orlando's pursuit of Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and McGrady dominated the league's summer news.
Still, it was nowhere close to the fervor surrounding the Heat in 2010 or James's travails this week. If Twitter existed in 2000, and if ESPN and other media outlets covered offseason transactions like they do today, the thought of a Duncan-Hill-McGrady combination would have led to around-the-clock speculation and debate.
"The media has gone to a whole 'nother level at this point, but it was still quite a story and was thoroughly covered," Magic senior vice president Pat Williams, who has been with the franchise since its inception in 1987, said on the phone on Thursday afternoon. "It's all gone up to absurd heights now."
For the time, though, Orlando's resolve to sign an unprecedented trio of young stars from other teams received national attention. McGrady, who turned 21 that May, had recently finished his third season with the Raptors and was the Magic's third priority. On the first weekend of July 2000, the Magic hosted Duncan and Hill, both of whom were free agents and top 10 players in the league. Duncan, 24, had already won an NBA championship with the Spurs and been named to the All-NBA's first team in each of his first three seasons. Hill, 27, made the All-NBA's first or second team in five of his six years with the Pistons and had averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game during the 1999-2000 season. Both players were represented by agent Lon Babby, who is now the Suns' president of basketball operations.
Thanks to shrewd moves over the previous 15 months by general manager John Gabriel, the Magic had enough money to sign Duncan and Hill to maximum contracts and also try to convince McGrady to join them. Four years after franchise center Shaquille O'Neal left for the Lakers as a free agent, team officials were desperate to become nationally relevant again.
"These were special players, All-Star, elite players that were going to be available," Williams said. "We cleared the decks and were determined to make inroads … That was our big thrust to get back on the stage that we had lost when Shaq departed."
When Duncan and Hill visited Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel reported that each employee and person working out at the team's complex wore a t-shirt that displayed the players wearing Magic jerseys with the tagline "Imagine…" across the front. The organization held parties for the two All-Stars, provided them with first-class accommodations and made an impression. Duncan even skipped a flight home and stayed another day to meet with Magic executives at dinner.
"To say we're not down here on pins and needles would be a lie," Spurs owner Peter Holt told the Orlando Sentinel at the time. "We are."
Soon after leaving Florida, Hill said he would sign with the Magic. On July 12, Duncan announced he would remain with the Spurs. San Antonio center David Robinson cut his vacation short and helped convince Duncan to stay in Texas.
"I don't know that we ever felt totally confident," Gabriel said on the phone on Thursday afternoon. "You just really don't know, but we thought we had a chance at both of them. There was a point in time where we thought we had a chance at all three."
With Duncan signing elsewhere, the Magic then turned their sights to offering McGrady a maximum contract. McGrady, who entered the league out of high school in 1997, had averaged a career-high 15.4 points per game for Toronto the previous season. The Bulls, Heat and others pursued McGrady, but he grew up 40 miles from Orlando and always wanted to play for his hometown team.
In four seasons with the Magic, McGrady led the NBA in scoring twice and made the All-NBA first team twice and the second team twice. Orlando never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, though, as Hill battled multiple ankle injuries and played in only 47 games combined over the four seasons. During his free agent visit in 2000, Hill walked on crutches due to an injured ankle. He never fully recovered.
"It was sort of bittersweet in that we got two of the best young players in the league at the time," said Gabriel, who is now the Knicks' director of basketball operations. "Unfortunately for Grant he never really got to play along with T-Mac the way we had hoped they would have been able to team up together because of injury."
In June 2004, the Magic traded McGrady to the Rockets, where he had a few more outstanding seasons before injuries derailed his career. Hill remained in the league until 2013 but never regained the Hall of Fame promise he showed with the Pistons in the 1990s.
And 14 years after nearly signing with the Magic, Duncan remains in San Antonio, a five-time NBA champion and arguably the best power forward in history. Standing in front of the dugout on Thursday afternoon, McGrady seemed content with his life. Still, when asked about Duncan, he couldn't help but think about what might have been.
"If Tim Duncan could have been removed from San Antonio and went to Orlando, I think that would have been my ideal situation," McGrady said. "Absolutely."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.