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With Mac McClung, Goodbye’s Going To Be The Hardest Word

John E. Moore III/Getty Images

I watched a bunch of dreamers in Los Angeles Lakers uniforms beat a squad of Sacramento Kings wannabes late Wednesday night. I’m hardly an NBA obsessive: Before this week, I’d never even heard of the California Classic Summer League, a confederation for pro prospects that I was told is in its third year as a warm-up act for the more prestigious Las Vegas Summer League. But I stayed up past my bedtime and sat through all four 10-minute quarters of this second-tier offseason meaninglessness, all because Mac McClung is still playing basketball. 

McClung, the internet sensation turned vagabond college star, is with the Lakers for now. He was an undrafted free agent until being signed by L.A. late last week, and this was his second game as a pro. He seemed like a competent and confident hardwood general while directing teammates to where he wanted them to be with shouts and arm gestures when he was on the court, and jumped up from his seat on the bench to cheer them on when he wasn’t. On the whole he looked a lot more like he belonged in an NBA uniform than he did a night earlier against the Miami Heat. McClung’s only play of note in that debut was a second-quarter breakaway after a steal during which he lost his balance on the way to the hoop. So instead of throwing down a big dunk of the sort that made him famous and which the announcers expected, McClung tossed up an out of control dipsy-doo layup that somehow went in. The play provided athletic thrills and made for a good YouTube highlight, but seemed a bit gimmicky for the NBA—which is a fine way to nutshell McClung’s whole basketball career to this point. 

McClung’s been on my radar since his junior year of high school, when my kids made me watch highlight reels of this high school junior they’d heard about from the middle of nowhere who could score from anywhere, and score spectacularly. McClung’s legend grew as a senior by breaking the decades-old Virginia state high school scoring records held by another almost mythical high flyer from the Old Dominion, Allen Iverson. And before graduation from Gate City High, McClung wowed Iverson in the flesh while winning a dunk contest in Philadelphia. USA Today reported in 2018 that McClung's renown was such that Drake had reached out to the schoolboy phenom and asked, “Can I get a McClung jersey to rock???”

Gate City, Va. (population about 2,000) is located on the Tennessee border, 400 miles give or take from our Washington, D.C., home. But as luck would have it, the hooper folk hero brought his act to out town. After first telling his huge social media audience (he’s got 788,000 Instagram followers) that he would be playing for Rutgers, McClung decommitted and decided to go to Georgetown University, Iverson’s alma mater. Georgetown’s basketball rosters had been overwhelmingly black since John Thompson II showed up on campus a half century ago and began building the program into a national powerhouse. So a lot of the attention given McClung’s school choice focused on his whiteness. In July 2018, before he’d attended a class at Georgetown or played a minute of college hoops, The Undefeated called McClung “the most significant white player in school history,” noting that “Georgetown is the only Power 5 school that hasn’t had a white player average double figures in the past 40 years.” McClung never spoke about the novelty of his skin color, or really anything other than basketball and his love of the game, but never came off as insincere.

McClung spent his time before enrolling in college just as Iverson had 25 years earlier: playing in the Kenner League, a historic pro-am summer hoops tournament run out of McDonough Arena on the Georgetown campus. McClung, also like Iverson, played for the Tombs, a Kenner League squad sponsored by the mainstay Georgetown pub that famously (at least to townies) inspired the 1985 Brat Pack feature film, St. Elmo’s Fire. (Iverson’s debut with The Tombs produced some goosebumpy highlights. I'm old enough to remember the buzz caused by his arrival in town.) My kids wanted to see the internet dunker in the flesh, so we were among a few thousand fans who went on a Saturday when the new kid and The Tombs were scheduled to play. McClung left us all disappointed by not showing up that day.   

My elder son did eventually get an audience with his hoops idol a year later when he went to Patrick Ewing’s sleepover camp on the Georgetown campus. He was far more starstruck by McClung, who worked as a counselor, than he was by his dealings with Ewing, the NBA Hall of Famer and Georgetown alum running the camp. 

McClung's highlights at Georgetown included carrying the Hoyas to a big upset of conference rival and nationally ranked Villanova as a freshman, and leading his team in scoring on the season as a sophomore. But he never attained the heights either Ewing or Iverson had in their time on the Hilltop.  After two years and no NCAA tournament appearances in a Georgetown uniform, McClung announced he was making himself eligible for the NBA draft. Presumably lots of scouts told him he wasn’t near ready to make such a jump, because less than two weeks after saying he’d go pro, McClung declared he’d be going back to college. But he and his camp soured on Ewing because of statements the Georgetown coach made to the press while McClung flirted with going pro. So he transferred out.

But, the fandom gods apparently took my family’s wants and needs into account once more, and McClung’s leaving town didn’t mean the end of our romance with him. Quite the opposite. He left Georgetown for Texas Tech. That’s my alma mater. And, more because all kids are frontrunners than because of my connection, my sons had already been cheering on the Red Raiders since Tech’s 2019 run to the NCAA men's championship game. With McClung added to the mix, and a lack of other entertainment options as the pandemic raged, broadcasts of Texas Tech games became must-see TV for us. We watched every Tech tilt during the 2020-21 season, and even finagled a stream for an early-season, in-state matchup with a team from Incarnate Word, a school none of us had ever heard of.

And familiarity bred the opposite of contempt. During his time in Lubbock, McClung was fun to watch even when he wasn’t dunking. For all the highlight reels indicating he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, he was never obviously the best basketball player on the court in college. But through some combination of pained facial expressions, perpetually swinging arms, and somehow only guarding people who seemed bigger, stronger and faster than him, the allegedly 6-foot-2 McClung always looked like he was playing harder than everybody else. 

Plus he took lots of big shots and hit some of them. His decision to bail on a network TV post-game interview after his buzzer-beating three-pointer against Texas, and instead sprint to the locker room to celebrate the win, made for great sports television and sent his approval rating in the McKenna household spiking to its highest level. This has sacrilegious overtones even to me, but: I really don’t remember pulling so hard for any college player since Len Bias at the University of Maryland. (Yes, I'm old enough to remember Bias, too.)

Alas, Tech’s 2020-21 season ended with a two-point loss to Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA men's tournament. McClung didn’t really show up. He scored just nine points and killed a late Red Raiders comeback by missing what would have been a game-tying free throw on the front end of a one-and-one with a minute left. We were all bummed by how the season ended, but there’s always next year...

Except when there isn’t. Tech’s head coach and the guy who brought McClung to Lubbock, Chris Beard, got an offer he couldn’t refuse to take over the University of Texas-Austin program right after the tournament. McClung didn’t want to go through a rebuild. He took to social media again and, using language almost identical to what he’d posted a year earlier while fleeing Georgetown, McClung thanked God, his parents and fans and announced he was leaving Lubbock and again entering the NBA Draft. And this time, he stuck to that plan.  

For all my McClung fandom, I didn’t think him giving up his NCAA eligibility was wise. The decision seemed even worse when the NCAA announced in June that players could at last make money off their name, image and likeness. McClung, who’d achieved folk-hero status in just one year in Lubbock, seemed as prepared to cash in under the new rules as any college athlete in the country. I felt only sorry for McClung in mid-July when he posted a video on Instagram of him putting the ball between his legs while soaring toward the hoop for a monster dunk. It’s a cool dunk for almost any other human being. But by now McClung fans have been watching clips of him doing stupid human tricks of the same sort since he was at Gate City High. The post seemed like a desperate grab for attention just before the NBA draft. 

He didn’t get drafted, as we now know. I was almost at peace with the idea that the post-McClung era of my basketball fandom had commenced. Then came last week’s surprise signing by the Lakers. And then I watched a summer league game. I can’t quit him just yet.

In the closing seconds of the Lakers-Kings tilt, McClung got fouled and sent to the line. Just like he was in the denouement of Texas Tech against Arkansas. This time around, however, McClung nailed both free throws. Any real NBA fan would regard the two free throws as meaningless. But damn if those pointless points and his team’s win didn’t make me happy. And leave me hoping against hope that the days of watching this guy play games that count aren’t over just yet.

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