The most sensational news out of the weekend came out of Salt Lake City, where a young man from Scott County put on a display of talent that set the sports world abuzz.
You need not be a sports fan to appreciate this, just a fan of underdogs, perhaps with some Virginia pride mixed in.
The headline is that Mac McClung of Gate City won the National Basketball Association’s slam dunk contest, part of its All-Star weekend festivities, but the story is much richer than that.
Unlike Major League Baseball’s home run derby, which typically attracts some of the sport’s biggest names, the dunk contest has not in recent years — and McClung this year was the best evidence of that. He’s played in all of two NBA games, neither of them this season. Instead, he’s mostly toiled in the NBA’s minor league, the G League, and just signed a contract with the Philadelphia 76ers last week.
In an interview last week on The Boardroom, McClung was singled out as evidence of what’s wrong with the slam dunk contest by Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant:
Durant: Who else is in there?
Interviewer: Mac McClung.
Durant: That’s crazy they’re doing that. Off the G League.
Interviewer: No shade to Mac McClung but —
Durant: What are we doing? Mac is an outstanding athlete, but what are we doing?
Then McClung came out and earned a perfect 50 score from the judges on all but one of his attempts – and that one non-perfect score was a 49, which brought his average score on that attempt down to 49.8. (The contest is judged not simply on making dunks, but the style points with which they are made.)
As ESPN reported: “For his final flourish, McClung put on his Gate City (Va.) high school uniform over his red Sixers jersey and threw down a 540-degree two-handed dunk — one-and-a-half turns in the air — to run away with the trophy.”
You can see that here — including how he proudly shows off his Gate City jersey to the crowd.
That wasn’t the only Gate City angle. For one of his attempts, McClung took the ball from two friends — with high school teammate Bradley Dean sitting on the shoulders of Chase Skinkis, a trainer from Las Vegas. Dean, of course, was wearing his old Gate City jersey, too.
None of this probably came as much of a surprise to those who have followed McClung’s career since his youth. At Gate City, McClung became something of a YouTube sensation for his dunking skills. Keep in mind he’s only 6-foot-2, not your typical dunking height. “Mac was just born with it,” his father, Marcus, said in an interview with Andscape. “If you’re fixing a bowl of cereal, he’s going to make a competition.” (The elder McClung was elected to four terms as the commonwealth’s attorney in Scott County; he’s now a judge. He’s also been the strength and conditioning coach for basketball teams at Gate City.)
As for Mac, “he would just come at you every day, no matter how small he was,” his sister, Anna, told Andscape. (She was a soccer star who set a Virginia High School League record for goals and went on to star collegiately at Tennessee.) The family built a basement gym for Anna to work out in but her younger brother was so keen on competition that the family had to ban him from the facility so Anna could practice without interruption. “McClung was obsessed with the Vertimax, an apparatus that uses resistance to improve leaping ability,” Andscape reported.
In high school, he gave up football to concentrate on basketball and concentrate he did. In the 2017 VHSL playoffs, McClung scored 64 points in a loss to Dan River. In 2018, he broke Allen Iverson’s single-season scoring record. He led the Blue Devils to the school’s first state championship in basketball; he scored 47 points in the finals against Robert E. Lee High School from Staunton — breaking a championship game scoring record previously held by J.J. Redick of Roanoke County’s Cave Spring High School, who went on to a 17-year NBA career.
The Roanoke roots of the G League
Mac McClung has mostly played in the NBA’s minor league, the G League. This league began in 2001 as the D League, short for the National Basketball Development League, and one of its inaugural franchises was the Roanoke Dazzle.
At the time, the theory behind the league was to concentrate eight teams in the Southeast, from Roanoke to Mobile, Alabama. That didn’t really work, and neither did the Dazzle. The team lasted five seasons, from 2001 through 2006, but never drew well: It was next to last in league attendance.
The NBA persisted, though, and sought out bigger markets. Today the G League — the G comes from Gatorade, its sponsor — has 30 teams, 28 of them affiliated with NBA teams the way minor league baseball teams have affiliations with teams in the majors. And the league spans coast to coast and three countries, with franchises in Mexico City and in the Toronto, Canada, suburb of Mississauga. Most are relatively close to NBA cities, such as the Philadelphia-affiliated Delaware Blue Coats in Wilmington that McClung plays for, to make it easier for players to move back and forth. The closest G League team to us is the Greensboro Swarm, an affiliate of the Charlotte Hornets.
McClung went on to play collegiately at Georgetown and Texas Tech yet somehow wasn’t drafted by the NBA. Since 2021, he’s mostly played in the NBA’s G League, except for two brief stints with the Chicago Bulls, where he played for all of 3 minutes in one game, and another with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played for 22 minutes in another game. He played some pre-season games with the Golden State Warriors but then got cut. He’s been a star in that G League, though, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2021-2022. This season he’s been playing with the Delaware Blue Coats, where he’s averaged 19.1 points per game and attracted enough attention to become the first G League player invited to participate in the dunk contest. Just before the All-Star break, he got called up to the 76ers.
That kind of back-and-forth career is common in sports. What isn’t common is the impact that McClung had in that dunk contest, especially for someone whose participation was being ridiculed just days before.
“McClung stole the show as if he were Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins,” ESPN reported.
Golden State star Steph Curry tweeted: “Unreal.”
Former star Magic Johnson tweeted: “Mac McClung has personally saved the slam dunk contest with his performance tonight!! He put on a show!” — followed by three fire emojis.
I’ve lost count of who tweeted the most about McClung’s performance — other NBA stars or Virginia politicians, who were keen to embrace a hometown hero. (Those officeholders tweeting about McClung include the state’s most famous basketball-playing pol, Gov. Glenn Youngkin.)
“I’m not really worried what other people think, good or bad,” McClung said in interviews afterward. “I’m just staying the course. My goal is to make an impact in the NBA, and I’m just going to keep working until that happens.”
Hollywood is full of stories but this isn’t Hollywood; this is the real thing. We’ve got a lot to worry about as a society for now; here’s a real-life feel-good story. U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, who represents McClung’s hometown, tweeted: “I was thrilled to see his final dunk of the night was in a Gate City basketball jersey.” So were lots of us.
See all of McClung’s dunks in the competition here.
See his post-competition interview here.