BHC Player of the Year Mac McClung

With his nationally renowned dunking ability, as depicted in this multiexposure image, and all of his other standout skills on the basketball court, Mac McClung was sensational every step of the way in leading Gate City to its first-ever boys basketball state championship.

It was Mac McClung’s finest moment.

An exclamation point that was anything but anticlimactic.

A flurry of acrobatic layups, dynamic dunks, crossover dribbles, silky-smooth jumpshots and even an emphatic block of the opposition’s 6-foot-8 standout.

McClung’s season-long highlight reel was encapsulated in those 32 minutes of unbridled energy on the night of March 9.

When all was said and done the Gate City Blue Devils, paced by their superstar, had played nearly perfect in taking an 80-65 victory over Robert E. Lee of Staunton in the VHSL Class 2 boys basketball championship game on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

McClung’s final stat line: 47 points, five assists, three blocks, three rebounds, two steals. He was 15-for-21 from the field and 16-for-19 from the free throw line.

Sitting in the Siegel Center’s swanky club seats high above the court was McClung’s soon-to-be college coach, who made the trip from the nation’s capital to Virginia’s capital to see his prized recruit put on a show.

“I thought he played a great game,” Georgetown University boss Patrick Ewing said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “He scored the basketball, he attacked the rim in different ways, he shot his pull-up jumpers, assisted on some baskets. I just thought he played a tremendous game that was befitting of a champion.”

It was also befitting of the Bristol Herald Courier’s 2017-18 boys basketball player of the year, a repeat honor for McClung that was pretty much a no-brainer since November.

The final statistics read: 38.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game.

The ultimate goal was realized: a state championship for his hometown.

“This season was definitely a great experience,” McClung said. “It was something I will never forget.”

Folks around here will not soon forget the excitement McClung provided, a case of hoops fever that hasn’t been seen in far Southwest Virginia before and may never be seen in these parts again.

Just call it Mac Mania.

***

Mac Mania brought out the crowds.

If you wanted to see Gate City play, you better have arrived early.

Even then you might not be able to find a seat.

“Every game was a capacity crowd,” said Gate City athletic director Brent Roberts. “We played Cleveland [from Tennessee] on a Saturday and I thought, they wouldn’t bring anybody and it wouldn’t be that bad. It was a 6:30 ballgame and we opened the gates at 5 o’clock. At 2 o’clock we had people standing outside and it was kind of cold and I said, ‘We don’t open the doors for three more hours’ and they all said, ‘We know.’ ”

The Arby’s Classic in Bristol, Tennessee, has been one of the nation’s preeminent prep basketball tournaments since debuting in 1983. Recent Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Ray Allen is among the players who have showcased their skills at Viking Hall.

Gate City’s first-round matchup with North Mecklenburg (Huntersville, North Carolina) in the 2017 Arby’s Classic was scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. It was announced over the public address system at 4:46 p.m. that the doors were being shut under fire marshal’s orders and nobody else would be allowed inside the venue.

A few days later, the sixth-place game between Gate City and Lakota East (Ohio) outdrew the championship game, the only time that has happened in the event’s history.

The reason was the 6-foot-2 dynamo whose picture was on the cover of the tournament’s program.

“Mac was by far the biggest draw in the history of the Arby’s,” said Richard Ensor, the tourney director. “The crowd we had for every game he played was unbelievable. No one else that played here was that big of a draw.”

A Region D championship quadrupleheader a few months later at the David J. Prior Convocation Center on the campus of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise – featuring Gate City’s clash with Graham as the main event – sold out as more than 4,000 people were on hand.

“For the first-time ever,” said Chris Davis, director of the Prior Center. “I looked around the building and basically every seat was taken.”

A state quarterfinal game at Radford University’s Dedmon Center? No seats to be had.

A state semifinal game at Tazewell High School? They were packed in like sardines.

“I remember making a tweet at Tazewell 30 minutes before the game started and we were getting ready to hit the court,” said Gate City assistant coach Shannon Boy. “I wrote there is more electricity being generated in here tonight than what AEP generated during Christmas. I’m not sure if that wasn’t a true statement now.”

McClung didn’t disappoint.

The bigger the game, the better he played.

The rowdier the crowd, the more jaw-dropping the jams.

The more trash talked by opposing student sections, the bigger thrashing McClung put on helpless defenders.

“There wasn’t a single game you didn’t get your money’s worth,” Roberts said. “Either through the competition, through Mac or through both.”

Pal’s, a popular fast food restaurant located just down the road from Gate City, contacted Roberts to get a hoops schedule soon after the season began. The manager wanted to have more people working on nights when the Blue Devils were playing at home.

Just call him Mac the money-maker.

And memory-maker.

It became a postgame tradition to see large throngs gather around McClung hoping for a piece of his time following games.

Wish granted.

“I was always fascinated by the number of people that would stick around to get a shirt, program or basketball signed by McClung,” Davis said. “I really think the most fascinating thing though was McClung would stick around. When I say stick around, I mean he stuck around until every last fan had an opportunity to get that one picture, that one autograph or that one handshake.”

For most of the youngsters, the kid wearing No. 0 was their hero.

The Mac McClung fan club just kept growing and growing.

“Let’s just say that I would love to have a dollar for every autograph and every photo he took this year with people,” Boy said. “I will take it a step further and say that I would like to have a dollar, heck, I will take a dime, for every time he was viewed on social media for the year. I’d still make a cool million after taxes I think.”

***

Mac Mania reached a national audience.

To call him an internet sensation would be an understatement.

“The first time I noticed the public really liked him was when he was playing [in an AAU tournament] at the Boo Williams Sports Complex at the Hoop Group Southern Jam Fest and he pulled off an impressive windmill and it went viral quick,” said Andrew Canavos, a Virginia Commonwealth University senior who filmed McClung several times this year for BallisLife.com. “Over one thousand retweets that day. So after that I made two tournament recap videos for Mac showing all of his top plays for our YouTube page and that did extremely well as well. … Comparing Mac to other players I have covered over the years, I would easily say Mac’s fan base is the biggest I have ever seen in a while for a high school player.”

A legion of videographers were at every one of McClung’s games putting together highlight packages that generated web traffic.

He has more than 29,000 followers on Twitter.

More than 496,000 people follow him on Instagram.

His highlights have appeared on ESPN and Fox Sports 1.

Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Sporting News featured his exploits numerous times on their websites. The Washington Post wrote a lengthy profile on McClung.

NBA superstars Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal have commented on his dunks, as has rapper Drake.

Not bad for a kid attending a high school with less than 700 students.

“It was something new to experience things like that, especially in Gate City,” said Grayson Jenkins, a senior guard for the Blue Devils. “To get national attention was something I’d never thought would happen in my life. I feel like we got used to it and it made us play better with the crowds and how we could perform.”

McClung just took it all in stride.

“I was never a person to be starstruck,” McClung said. “I wasn’t really taught that way. I just kind of judge people on the way they treat other people and how they act.”

Need more proof about McClung’s popularity?

Licking Valley High School from Newark, Ohio, played in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes baseball tournament in Bristol recently. When some of the team’s players got off the bus and noticed some of their Gate City opponents standing nearby, they had one question.

“Do you guys know Mac McClung?” they asked.

***

It took a lot of work for Mac Mania to come into existence.

While it’s true that two years ago most outside of Southwest Virginia didn’t know who McClung was, his rise to prominence was years in the making.

His work ethic is unmatched and if you are looking for him you can usually find him in the gym, fine-tuning his skills.

While many folks were watching Villanova beat Michigan in the NCAA title game Monday, McClung was in the gym working out.

He has a desire to get better and that was prevalent on the AAU circuit where he played for Team Loaded.

“The first time I saw Mac he was playing on our 16-under Team Loaded team,” said Michael Blackwell, his AAU coach. “I was just amazed. He was an ultra-competitive guard and he was just all over the place, competing from end to end.

“He had a pretty strong junior year and he earned a spot on our 17-under elite squad. As soon as he came in for our first practice, it was no surprise as he continued to do what I saw him do in 16-under. He’s big-time.”

It wasn’t long after Ewing took the job at Georgetown that he first noticed McClung.

“He got on my radar on one of my first trips out,” Ewing said. “I don’t remember what tournament it was, but I was out on the recruiting trail and there were a couple of guys on that AAU team I was looking at and he just caught my eye; his athleticism, the chip on his shoulder. Every time I would watch that team, my eye was just naturally drawn to him. I thought he would be a great fit on my team.”

Team Loaded won the Adidas Summer Classic in Las Vegas as McClung showed he belonged on a squad that included Kansas-bound David McCormack and Penn State signee Rasir Bolton.

“We played a team called the Atlanta Celtics, a nationally strong AAU program,” Blackwell said. “Mac had 16 points in that game and it was one of those games he came off the bench. The 16 points were like in a five-minute span late in the game. He was just really special in that moment.”

***

Mac Mania coincided with history being made.

McClung’s 2,801 career points are the most in Virginia High School League history as he surpassed Caleb Tanner’s mark of 2,770 established in 2014.

“I knew it was going to come sooner or later and somebody was going to break it,” said Tanner, who now plays at Radford University. “I’m extremely happy for Mac.”

McClung’s 1,153 points during the 2017-18 campaign shattered Allen Iverson's previous single-season record of 948 points, which had stood for 25 years.

His 47 points in the win over R.E. Lee were the most in a VHSL state title game, eclipsing the old record of 43 points established in 2002 by J.J. Redick.

Nobody in Southwest Virginia had played above the rim like McClung since Calvin Talford did so at Castlewood in the pre-internet era. Talford, who graduated from Castlewood in 1988, later won the NCAA dunk contest while at East Tennessee State University and played professionally overseas.

The two Southwest Virginia sky-walkers might be the only two members of the area’s flight club. If you need proof, check out both of them on YouTube.

“I’ve heard a lot about him and I got to watch him at the Arby’s Classic,” Talford said. “He’s got some serious talent and has some real get-up. I’d like to see him do well at Georgetown.”

***

Will Mac Mania grip the Big East Conference?

Can he make spectacular plays against Villanova, Marquette and Xavier the way he did against Graham, Wise County Central and Abingdon?

That’s to be seen, but Ewing – a Hall of Fame player – thinks so.

“I don’t care if he’s from a small school or a big school,” the coach said. “I just think he believes in himself so much and has such a strong work ethic; all of that is going to play a role in his success. He believes in himself and we believe in him.”

Georgetown went 15-15 this past season in Ewing’s first year on the job.

McClung could be a key component for the Hoyas.

“As of now, Mac is going to play immediately and play a lot,” said Andrew Geiger, the maestro of a popular blog known as Casual Hoya. “While Georgetown should return an impressive frontcourt in Jessie Govan, Marcus Derrickson and Jamorko Pickett, the disbursement of minutes in the backcourt is going to be one of Ewing’s greatest challenges.

“The departures of Jonathan Mulmore and Trey Dickerson leave Georgetown with a whopping zero point guards on the roster, so if McClung can make the transition from being the alpha scoring dog in high school to an effective scoring distributor in college, he’s going to have every chance to be given the keys to the Hoyas car [during the 2018-19] season.”

McClung has heard many of the potshots delivered by critics sitting behind a keyboard.

He reports to Georgetown’s campus on June 4 and is ready to begin proving them wrong.

“Wherever you play there are going to be doubts,” McClung said. “They said the competition wasn’t great, but I feel like I have a bunch to prove and I’ll always feel that way. People will say what they have to say, but just watch.”

***

Whatever McClung does at the next level, Gate City will always be home.

Wherever this journey takes him, it will be hard to replicate what transpired between November 2017 and March 2018.

As he stood in the empty gym on Tuesday afternoon, he reflected on the place that houses so many special memories.

“It was so hard walking off here [in a regional tournament win over Lebanon] knowing that I wouldn’t play here again,” McClung said. “I’m really speechless of how grateful I am for all our fans.”

Mac Mania was a blast for the guy responsible for all of it.

The ending was absolutely perfect.

“It was like all the pressure was off us,” McClung said. “Because we were playing for something bigger than us. We were focused on the game and nothing else.”

Sign up for breaking news alerts

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

thayes@bristolnews.com | Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports | (276) 645-2570

Recommended for you

Welcome to the Conversation

No name-calling, personal insults or threats. No attacks based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. No writing with your caps lock on – it's screaming. Keep on topic and under 1,500 characters. No profanity or vulgarity. Stay G- or PG-rated.
Load comments