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RAPTORS' MCGRADY NOT YOUR ORDINARY ROOKIE

Presumably, there are no more sleepers on America's playgrounds. If a 5-year-old puts the ball between his legs and takes his brother off the dribble, some street agent or assistant college basketball coach scribbles his name in a notebook.

But as of 16 months ago, Tracy McGrady was a virtual unknown. Outside his hometown of Auburndale, Fla., hardly anyone knew his name. After his junior year in high school, he wasn't listed among the top 500 prospects by the top recruiting newsletters. A few schools showed marginal interest, but no major Division I coaches were on to him.

That changed very suddenly in July of 1996, when McGrady showed up at the ABCD camp in Teaneck, N.J. The 6-8 swingman began opening eyes from the first moment he walked on the court. In the senior all-star game, he reached the status of cult figure when he cupped the ball on the break and threw down a windmill dunk over a 6-9 opponent.

People who were in the gym that day say it was as if time had stopped. Campers came streaming out of the stands, hooting and falling down and high-fiving each other. And within the hour, college coaches were reaching for their telephones.

"Oh, my goodness!" said McGrady, who is training in Buffalo this week as a Toronto Raptors rookie. "When I got back to my hotel room, the phone was ringing off the hook. All kinds of college coaches were calling me. My high school coach said, 'Everybody wants to recruit you.' I said, 'Let's just take it one coach at a time and see what they're talking about.' "

Later that summer, aware he needed polishing as a player and a student, McGrady enrolled at Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., one of the top prep schools in the nation. He lived with the head coach and 12 teammates. He learned discipline and hard work. He also learned that the college coaches weren't the only ones watching him.

"My coach said I was an NBA prospect," McGrady recalled. "I didn't believe him at first. As the year went on, NBA scouts were coming to watch me and I was spotting them in the crowd. I said, 'This must be true.' "

He gave serious thought to playing at Kentucky, then reconsidered. The more pro scouts saw of him against top-flight high school competition, the more convinced they were that he could be the next Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant -- a rare talent who could jump straight from high school to the NBA. McGrady thought so, too.

"When the year was over, I was looking at the college guys coming out in the draft," he said. "I said, 'I'm better than most of these guys. I'm 6-8; I'm versatile; I do the things they can do.' So that's what made me jump."

Isiah Thomas, the Raptors' vice president and general manager, considered him the most talented player in last June's draft, after Tim Duncan. He had the ninth pick and didn't think McGrady would be there. He tried to trade up, to no avail. But when the eighth pick was announced, and McGrady was still there at No. 9, Thomas thrust his arms toward the ceiling and said "Thank you, God."

"He's uniquely skilled for his age," Thomas said Thursday. "He's, uh . . . I'll put it to you this way, he does the things we all wish we could do."

McGrady is one of those rare mid-sized players who can leap, run the court, pass and shoot. He can swing between the small forward and big guard positions, and even play some point guard. He's been compared favorably to Orlando's Penny Hardaway, his idol. He will wear Hardaway's No. 1 in Toronto. "I admire him," McGrady said. "He was a guy I always loved to watch, because he's so versatile. He's my role model."

Thomas said McGrady will be a backup for both guard positions and small forward. Head coach Darrell Walker will bring him along slowly, knowing how difficult it can be for an 18-year-old to learn the many nuances of the NBA game, especially on defense. It's always hard to tell how players will adapt -- even four-year college players -- but McGrady said he's not worried.

"You've got to have the tools, the quickness," he said. "You've got to have everything. If the coach has me out on the court, he must know I can defend and get things done."

The Raptors don't know quite what to expect of McGrady off the court, although everyone associated with the team insists he is mature beyond his years, and unlikely to succumb to the temptations presented by sudden wealth and fame.

"Even if you're an experienced person, that's a very difficult scenario," said Toronto assistant coach John Shumate.

McGrady signed a three-year contract for roughly $2 million a year. He also signed a six-year, $12 million deal with Adidas, which is banking on him being a star in the league some day.

He said he'll spend his money and his time wisely. He intends to take correspondence courses during the season and pursue a college degree. As for playing time, he'll be patient. He spent a lot of time over the summer with the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who made the jump from high school to the pros last year, and got some sound advice from his new pal.

"Kobe and I are like brothers," McGrady said. "He said, 'Go out and have fun, and keep your body in shape, because there's a lot of games. And you're going to have some ups and downs.' "

"I can handle myself," he said. "I've got guys around me who will look after me and be there for me. I love the game of basketball, and I'm playing with the best players in the world. I'm just going to see where I fit in."

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