SUGAR LAND, Texas (AP) — Baseball was Tracy McGrady’s first love.
His talent as a basketball player pushed baseball aside in high school, but he never gave up his dream to play again.
So at age 34 after a 15-year career in the NBA, the 6-foot-8 McGrady is trying to earn a contract as a pitcher with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League.
"This will be huge," he said Wednesday about the potential to play professional baseball. "This will be so gratifying, even if I just go out there and pitch one inning the whole season this will be a dream that has come true for me."
McGrady starting playing baseball at age 5 and was a two-sport star until he transferred to Mount Zion Christian Academy, which doesn’t have a baseball team, for his senior year in high school.
The seven-time All-Star retired from the NBA in 2013 after playing for several teams including the Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic.
McGrady now has flecks of gray in his beard, but recounted his affinity for baseball with childlike enthusiasm, repeating the words dream and love again and again. He used the gigantic hands and rangy fingers that helped him score more than 18,000 points in the NBA to grip and fidget with a pristine baseball as he spoke delightedly about the sport.
"I’m extremely confident in myself and my ability," he said. "This is a great opportunity for me to fulfill a dream. It’s the independent league. I’m not signing some multi-million dollar contract that I’m used to signing. This is all for the love of the game."
The league isn’t affiliated with major league baseball, but a few of its players end up in the big leagues each year. Scott Kazmir, who recently signed a $22 million, two-year contract with the Athletics, pitched for the Skeeters in 2012.
McGrady is a longtime resident of Sugar Land, the Houston suburb where the Skeeters play. It was when attending some of their games last year that he first thought about trying out. He got serious about the quest about three months ago when he began to work on his pitching.
McGrady, who is right-handed said he has good control, but he’s striving to improve his velocity. He’s currently throwing in the mid-80s and has a slider, changeup and fastball.
"There has been a great deal of progress and improvement," said Tal Smith, a longtime former Astros executive who works as a special advisor to the Skeeters. "Tracy has made great strides … we’re very interested in how it progresses and will continue to be."
Smith noted that McGrady’s height will be an asset to him as a pitcher.
"Tracy has a lot going for him," Smith said. "He’s obviously got great athletic ability. He’s got a good arm and it’s a fresh arm. He hasn’t thrown a lot of pitches. His size is of great advantage … so that really helps. The mound is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate and if you’re 6-8 that shortens the distance a little bit and the ball gets there a little bit quicker and hitters have less time to react."
McGrady’s even picked up some tips from seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, who pitched for the Skeeters a couple of years ago at age 50.
"I’m just being the student and he’s the teacher and I’m just soaking in some of the knowledge that he’s giving out," McGrady said.
McGrady donned a Skeeters hat and T-shirt with basketball shorts despite the chilly 40-degree weather on Wednesday to throw a few pitches off the mound at the team’s ballpark to Clemens’ oldest son, Koby, who plays for the Skeeters.
"You can see how much effort he’s really put into it," Koby said. "It’s not just some goofy thing he wants to try out. He’s really committed to it."
If McGrady makes the team, he would follow a somewhat similar path to that of Michael Jordan, who famously played in the Chicago White Sox organization in 1994 during his first retirement from basketball, reaching the Double-A level. McGrady said he didn’t follow Jordan’s baseball career carefully, but recently watched the ESPN documentary about it and was interested in the struggles he went through as a baseball player.
"Hats off to Mike for fulfilling a dream that he always had and here I am just trying to do the same," McGrady said.