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The Knick of Time

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Tracy McGrady never set out to become an NBA player. His intention was always to pitch for the New York Yankees. But a funny thing happened to him on his way to Gotham. He got sidetracked in Toronto, Orlando and Houston. It turned out to be a 13-year trek.

I've been T-Mac's agent ever since he turned pro. Before the Raptors drafted him out of high school in the first round of the 1997 draft, he camped out in the guest room of my home in Los Angeles. He was just 18, but he comported himself with a calm dignity that seemed to radiate from a lamp in his spine. What impressed me most about him was his emotional generosity: He established an easy rapport with my three young sons, whom he enlisted in a kind of conspiracy against seriousness.

Everyday after his workouts he would wait for Eric (then six), Matty (10) and Mike (13) to get home from school so he could take them on in Wiffle ball. And it was quite a sight to watch the 6'8" Tracy try to get one of his herky-jerky cutters past Eric, all 3'8" of him. Pretending he was facing Andy Pettitte in Game 7 of the World Series, Eric would swat at T-Mac's pitches with his hollow, lemony plastic bat. The impact of Wiffle ball on Wiffle bat produced a peculiar Wiffle thunk savored by Wiffloisseurs like me.

It's hard to believe that Eric is now 18 and about to enter college, and that T-Mac is 30, a seven-time All-Star and a two-time NBA scoring champ. With all his success, he's still grounded and an all-around solid guy. And, happily, he finally got to New York.

The most recent leg of his Big Apple-ward journey began in the summer of 2004, when he and I forced a trade to the Rockets. The idea was that playing alongside a consummate big man like Yao Ming would make an unbeatable combination -- the Lone Star equivalent of Kobe and Shaq. Unfortunately, injuries intervened, and the two were never on the court together for any significant amount of time.

With Yao out for the current season and Tracy coming back from knee surgery, the Rockets decided to rebuild. Realistically, Tracy, whose contract is about to expire, had no future with Houston. Considering the lack of player movement in the NBA -- and the fact that free agents are free in name only -- getting traded to the right team was critical. Tracy had to land where he would have a chance to play and might actually be re-signed, or at least re-signed and traded. He needed the opportunity to show he still has productive years ahead of him.

His salary is $23 million, the highest (with Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal) in the league. Which made a trade that much more difficult. To match it, many players would have to be involved in a deal. Contending teams were unwilling to break up their nucleus mid-season for a player who had missed almost an entire campaign.

After much discussion, T-Mac focused on the Knicks. He loves New York - the fans, the Garden, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni and his stick-to-his-principles-come-hell-or-high-water fast-break approach. And he's positively crazy about the team's young talent -- Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and all-star David Lee.

The Knicks shared the love and swapped for Tracy on Feb. 18. His impact has been immediate and somewhat staggering: T-Mac's debut gave the MSG network its largest audience for a Knicks game in more than a year. Viewership is up nearly 80 percent and merchandise sales -- mostly T-shirts and jerseys -- at Tracy's first home game rose 40 percent. In the week since he came aboard, the team website has recorded more page views than during any comparable span since 2005.

Bernard King was the Knicks' last genuinely exciting superstar, and they let him go in 1987. Today, after years of wadding their roster with overpaid, underachieving players, the franchise once known for "heart and hustle" is in the midst of its ninth straight losing season. Previous front-office regimes have been hard pressed to make prudent decisions while expected to win now. Basically, the long-term future of the franchise was mortgaged and frittered away in a frenzy of trading and deal-making that only made the Knicks worse. In N.B.A. parlance, the players they acquired -- often for valuable draft picks -- were just good enough to lose with.

It's vital for the health of the NBA that New York field a lively, contending team. A formidable franchise in the city would boost league TV ratings and merchandising prospects. The Knicks could do for basketball what the Yankees have done for baseball. From a marketing standpoint, the Yanks are this country's greatest sporting brand. If the NBA wants to be a true global game, the Knicks must be worth showcasing, too.

But the Knicks are in a tough spot. To improve in the NBA, they have had to shuffle their roster to clear payroll and create salary-cap room. Under cap rules, to sign two marquee free agents this summer at the starting maximum salary of $17 million or so -- say, LeBron James and Chris Bosh - the Knicks must renounce the rights to all their free agents. They would also have to renounce the rights to Lee and terminate his Bird Rights, an exemption that lets a team re-sign its own player for any amount up to the maximum allowed salary, even if it's over the cap. Plus, the team would forfeit its midlevel exception, a slot worth some $6 million. If the Knicks do snag two max-level stars, their only remaining players will be Gallinari, Chandler, Toney Douglas and the ever-enigmatic Eddie Curry. Any other newcomers would have to settle for the NBA minimum.

In baseball, the Yankees can outbid competitors for free agents. The Knicks don't have that option. NBA rules dictate that they can't even offer a free agent as many guaranteed years or as much money as his current team. The only lure left: the chance to play in New York. Will Show-Me-The-Lights-On-Broadway trump Show-Me-The Money? We'll soon see.

Whatever happens, the Andy Pettitte of Wiffle ball hopes the Knicks save a little space for him.

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