The rise of Mac McClung: The viral star's game beyond the dunks

Photo: James Sneed, Mars Reel

The rise of Mac McClung: The viral star's game beyond the dunks


The rise of Mac McClung: The viral star's game beyond the dunks

The first time Mac McClung dunked, he says, was the summer after ninth grade. Or it was during ninth grade. He can’t really remember. He does recall, however, that he couldn’t get his feet right and had trouble — as most people do — getting the ball over the rim.

That’s no longer an issue. The 6-foot-2 McClung, a senior at Gate City (Va.) High School, is now a viral sensation, regularly appearing on SportsCenter while racking up millions of views of his in-game dunks.

So how did it all begin?

“It was kind of random,” McClung said sheepishly. “I was always decently athletic and I could jump higher than everyone. Just one day it snapped and I was windmillin’ and all that. I guess it just clicked.”

In the process, the Georgetown signee has ignited a community and made Gate City games appointment viewing for even the most casual basketball fans.

“He’s the game,” Gate City coach Scott Vermillion said. “He may look like everyone else, and if you watched him walking through the gym you wouldn’t pick him out, but it doesn’t take long once the ball is tipped.”

McClung’s dominance is not only evident in his athleticism, but his innate scoring ability. Last week, he broke Allen Iverson’s single-season state scoring record.

Iverson, a schoolboy legend in Virginia, tallied 982 points his senior season. McClung is over 1,000 — and counting. Gate City begins play in the state tournament Friday night.

“That’s not something I ever really thought about,” McClung said. “Allen Iverson is such an icon. If you’re a point guard and you don’t respect and look up to Allen Iverson, then you don’t really love the game.

“It was nice and I think my community enjoyed it, but it was never something I set out to do.”

Vermillion sees the accomplishment two ways. On the one hand, he has been surprised McClung has been able to sustain a consistency that has allowed him to average 38 points per game despite being the focus of opposing defenses.

On the other, nothing McClung does surprises him too much.

“A kid that can do what he can do with the basketball in his hands is very rare,” Vermillion said. “You see them on TV in college and in the NBA, but a kid from a small school in a rural community is rare.”

McClung’s skill-set, rare as it may be, has limitations. Despite garnering a social media following typically reserved for top prospects — he has nearly 500,000 Instagram followers and millions upon millions of video views — McClung is viewed as a mid-level prospect who struggles against top competition.

But McClung doesn’t shy away from the criticism. He played last summer on the adidas circuit and has competed against top players at Georgetown and elsewhere. He readily admits he needs to improve.

“I love playing against the guys that are considered the best,” McClung said. “I realized some faults in my game where I need to get better — and I still need to get better. But I’ve never gone into a game thinking, ‘I can’t play with these guys.’

“I still have a lot of confidence, but I’ve realized a lot of things I need to get better at.”

ESPN basketball recruiting director and former college coach Paul Biancardi said confidence will help McClung on the next level, as well as his obvious superior athleticism.

“He’s a creative finisher,” Biancardi said. “If it’s an open path, he’ll finish with one of his YouTube-sensation dunks. But even if there are defenders between him and the rim, he has good body control and he can find a good angle to get the ball on the glass, and that’s a skill.”

Another one of McClung’s strengths that goes unnoticed? Shooting.

“He’s a very good long-range shooter,” Biancardi said. “The athleticism and the dunks are what we see, but the shooting is what is going to allow him play at the (college) level.”

For all the positive attention McClung has gotten this season, there has been plenty of negativity and naysayers.

In a December game against a team from Louisville, McClung heard the opposing coach yell that he was going to Georgetown to sit. McClung responded by saying that he was going to start, then he dropped 44 in a Gate City win.

Vermillion, too, has heard the talk, more frequently from opposing fans.

“Mac gets ‘overrated’ chants, he gets ‘selfish’ chants, or people get upset because their son gets dunked on in an Overtime video,” he said. “That’s tough, but in my opinion, if you don’t want to get dunked on, play defense better.”

For his part, McClung turns any negativity to fuel, even if most of it sails off into the ether without him noticing.

“You’ve got to ignore most of it,” he said. “You can’t look at every comment, and I try to stay off social media. But at the same time, I love when people put up walls for me. So, of course I try to ignore it, but it definitely motivates me, too.”

McClung said he always envisioned himself playing major college basketball, even when others didn’t. And while his highlights certainly helped him gain notoriety on a national scale, that’s not what led Patrick Ewing to offer him a scholarship at Georgetown.

“I know that with Coach Ewing, nothing will be handed to me,” McClung said. “It’s not like I’ll get any spot just because of highlight videos or anything like that. I know everything I want to do is gonna be earned, but I want to be a key part and help the team win.”

Before that, though, McClung has business to take care of in Gate City. As is often the case with small community high schools, the Blue Devils will have the weight of an entire town on their shoulders. And that’s not lost on McClung, who recalls being a child looking up to Gate City players as heroes. Now he’s in that role.

“It has been really humbling,” McClung said. “I’m trying to impact little kids like the guys before did with me.”

And though McClung has been seen flying for dunks across the globe — Vermillion says people all over the world are asking if his games will be streamed online — he has been careful to stay grounded, and remember where he’s from.

“He’s our kid,” Vermillion said. “One day when he’s 50 years old, he’s going to call this place home.”


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