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Basketball star's goal: '3 Points'

September 16, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Basketball all-star Tracy McGrady certainly enjoys a good life. "Am I spoiled?" he asks. "Yes, I'm spoiled."

McGrady's first paycheck came from Adidas in a $500,000 endorsement deal, and his first job was playing in the NBA. The Houston Rockets guard/forward lives in a mansion, has no shortage of jewelry and clothes, and flies on private planes.

Unlike so many professional athletes, though, McGrady chose to leave all such luxuries behind and see firsthand how the world's least fortunate survive. His riches-to-rags journey is chronicled in the new documentary, "3 Points," an account of McGrady's visit last year to three African refugee camps.

Africa's genocidal crisis, sparked by a civil war between Sudan's Arab leaders and the country's ethnic Africans in its Darfur region, has triggered any number of documentary films, including George Clooney's "Sand and Sorrow," Don Cheadle's "Darfur Now" and former Marine Brian Steidle's "The Devil Came on Horseback."

But few of those films have at their center as compelling a chronicler as McGrady, who travels to Africa openly admitting he knows next to nothing about what's going on in Darfur.

His honest reactions

"I had no clue what genocide was, and I'm still learning about it," he says in the film before he travels to refugee camps in eastern Chad. "I really don't know what I am going to see."

Teammate Dikembe Mutombo helped spark McGrady's concern for Africa's dispossessed. McGrady contributed to a Congolese hospital Mutombo opened last summer, and soon thereafter McGrady saw Luol Deng (a Chicago Bulls player whose family is Sudanese) talking about the steep cost of the civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Sudanese.

McGrady organized a visit, working with documentary filmmaker and photographer Josh Rothstein and humanitarian John Prendergast of the Enough Project. Yet it's not simply what McGrady observes during his trip that anchors "3 Points," which was just completed and is now in search of a broadcast or theatrical distributor. Rather, it's how he reacts to the tragedy that he witnesses: He doesn't really know what to do.

After encountering children playing soccer without a field, McGrady says he'll pay $1,000 for a new pitch only to be told that green grass isn't really the refugees' greatest need.

"A lot of the film has to deal with his being out of his element," says Rothstein. "And he realized that was maybe the most important part of the trip for him."

McGrady's journey was both personal and emotional. To visit the barren camps, he had to forsake any number of usual niceties. That included McGrady's having to sleep in a tent for the first time. His trying to get along without air conditioning. Eating food that wasn't prepared in a four-star restaurant. As McGrady's wife, CleRenda Harris, notes in the film, "Tracy is definitely stepping out of his comfort zone."

But it wasn't all such trivial concerns. He had to worry about land mines. Listen to stories of rape, murder, torture. And his eyes were quickly opened.

Precisely because he is not an expert in Sudanese politics, the 29-year-old McGrady can serve as a conduit for the audience. He may be supreme on the court, but he's like almost everyone else when it comes to the outside world: He's unsure of what's going on.

"People are really hesitant about expressing that they don't know something -- but what's the big deal?" McGrady says in an interview to discuss the film. "I'm not ashamed about that at all. And my going out and saying, 'I don't know a lot about this' will make people feel OK that they don't know about it, either."

Adds his longtime manager and assistant, Elissa Grabow, who accompanied McGrady on his Africa trip: "This is not to market his brand. It's not about that, but about what I don't know, and that I am not afraid to say that I don't know."

"By the end of my trip," McGrady says, "I started to realize what they really needed -- and that's schools." When he returned to the United States, McGrady decided to try to help build them.

Others in the game

So this week, McGrady is taking his film to -- and asking for more donations from -- players in the National Basketball Assn., which is helping to show "3 Points" to teams. (In addition to the long-range field goal, the movie's title refers to three strategies to fight genocide: peace, protection and punishment.) The goal is to raise awareness and money; players who, like McGrady, contribute $75,000 can build a new school in a camp, train teachers and purchase educational supplies.

McGrady has enlisted his Florida high school as a sister school to a new school in Chad, the first of which is to be built later this year. So far, Grabow says, six NBA players have made donations, including Derek Fisher and Jermaine O'Neal.

"Some of the players need to be educated," McGrady says. "But some of them are caring guys, know that something has to be done and are willing to help."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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