GATE CITY, Va.
The bleachers had been full for hours and nine cameramen lined the baseline by the time the main event began on a recent rainy Tuesday evening at a basketball gym in southwestern Virginia. Then, finally, the starting point guard for the Gate City Blue Devils throttled his 6-foot-2 frame up the court.
He jumped as if spring-loaded, gained enough air to pass the ball between his legs before finishing with a one-handed tomahawk. After the dunk — one of many on the way to a 43-point performance — Mac McClung simply held up his hands, palms up, shrugged and shook his head as those in the crowd stomped and roared.
McClung is a star in this mountain town of nearly 2,000. He averages 41.6 points for 23-2 Gate City, which will play Friday night against Radford in the Virginia High School League Class 2 quarterfinals. He broke Allen Iverson’s state high school record of 948 points in a season in a regional playoff game Feb. 21. It took Iverson 30 games to set that record; McClung passed him in 25.
But it’s not McClung’s victories or his statistics against small-town competition that have made him a sensation far beyond Scott County — it’s his dunks.
Two highlight videos of McClung’s dunks, posted in January by the basketball website BallIsLife, have more than 1.2 million YouTube views apiece. His Instagram page has more than 400,000 followers. The rapper Drake has messaged him asking for a jersey. The dunks helped spread his name six hours up Interstate 81 all the way to Georgetown basketball Coach Patrick Ewing. In the fall, McClung will enroll at Georgetown as the Hoyas’ most hyped recruit in at least a decade, not necessarily for his talent, as he’s rated by all major recruiting websites as a three-star point guard, but for his acclaim.
“The first thing I noticed was the confidence,” said McClung’s AAU coach, Trey Mines. “He was this white kid doing crazy things with the basketball, then you watch him jump, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. This isn’t real. No! This kid isn’t doing that.’ I used to tell Mac all the time: He’s the swaggiest white kid I knew.”
Hoops in a football area
Gate City is one of three public high schools in Scott County, population 21,930, and it’s such a tightknit community that some of its graduates who grow up and move across the state line a mile away to Tennessee send their children to be Blue Devils anyway. High schoolers hunt and fish on the weekends.
The last player from the high school to play Division I basketball was Josh Shoemaker, who started as a freshman at Wake Forest in 1997 — two years before McClung was born.
Football dominates in Scott County. Boys start playing it around age 5. For its dearth of basketball stars, the region sends plenty of football players to schools such as Tennessee, where McClung’s maternal grandfather played, and Virginia Tech, where his father, Marcus, played for Frank Beamer in the 1990s. Just this year the Hokies signed tight end James Mitchell, a four-star tight end who went to high school 30 minutes from McClung in Big Stone Gap, Va.
“You don’t make dinner reservations for the night,” said McClung’s mother Lenoir, a fourth-generation Gate City native who teaches physical education and driver’s education at the high school. “You go watch a Gate City football game, you know?”
McClung told his parents he wanted to be different. He switched from football to basketball between sixth and seventh grade after falling in love with what he calls the “swagger” of the game.
“I just loved everything about it,” McClung said. “The shoes, the crossover, getting buckets.”
He also loved to dunk and, blessed with innate leaping ability, has been doing it almost as long as he has played basketball. He began to experiment with the art form early.
Once McClung started getting serious about the sport in high school, his parents knew exposure would be important. Marcus and Lenoir know their son’s path is rare in their corner of the country — traveling to AAU tournaments is costly, and the median household income in Gate City is $36,090, about $30,000 less than the statewide figure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many in McClung’s home town work at the chemical plant just down the highway in Kingsport, Tenn.
“Mac really kind of fit this narrow thing,” Marcus said. “If you don’t have that kind of support system around you and you’re a kid from southwest Virginia or east Tennessee or some other rural part of the country, you’re much better off moving to play elsewhere.”
McClung had that support. His father had the athletic background from playing major college football, and acted as a personal trainer for his son to make sure McClung was physically ready for college hoops. Marcus is the commonwealth’s attorney for Scott County; McClung’s parents could afford to follow him along on his AAU career with the well-known Richmond-based club Team Loaded.
And as tough as it is to get a Gate City kid to a Division I college program for something other than football, Lenoir and Marcus had done it once already: Their oldest child, Anna, graduated from Gate City in 2013 as the No. 3 girls’ soccer recruit in the nation. She went to the NCAA title game with Florida State as a freshman before transferring to Tennessee.
“There’s so many people on these message boards who say, ‘Well, he did it the right way, he didn’t have to leave his home town in order to do it,’ ” Marcus said. “But I think that’s kind of farce, because if you’re not prepared to get your kid there, then you probably do need to rely on other people to help them reach their dreams.”
Let the hype begin
McClung’s dreams — and the hype — began to take off last summer with Team Loaded. On a deep roster with two other point guards, McClung led the team’s second unit. Still, greater exposure was a given. The team goes to the biggest tournaments on the AAU circuit, which put McClung at the same events as Zion Williamson, the No. 3 recruit in the Class of 2018, and LaMelo Ball and his famous father.
A pair of videographers named Bryan LaRussa, who now works at Slam, and Andrew Canavos, with BallIsLife, first discovered McClung while filming Team Loaded at an AAU tournament in Richmond in May.
Canavos, then a junior at Virginia Commonwealth, remembers putting a clip of McClung doing a one-handed windmill dunk online for the first time. His phone didn’t stop buzzing for hours afterward as people liked and shared the video on Twitter.
By the summer, McClung was getting recognized far from home. At the Adidas Summer Championships in Las Vegas, an AAU tournament Team Loaded won this year, grown women stopped him on the street and asked him for pictures.
“I was like, ‘I’m from Gate City, how do you even know who I am?’ ” McClung said. “That’s the moment I was like, ‘Oh man. This has really escalated.’ ”
But while McClung’s social media following grew exponentially, one question dogged him: Was he actually any good?
“ ‘He’s not this, he’s not that, he’s not going to pan out in college,’ I feel like I’ve heard it so many times, and to my doubters I just say thank you, thank you for putting this little chip on my shoulder,” McClung said.
Mines, the Team Loaded coach who also coached current Georgetown freshman Antwan Walker, was impressed with the small-town kid’s game. McClung reminded Mines of Jason Williams, the former NBA point guard from West Virginia.
“The first time I saw him, I saw he had skill, he wasn’t this kid who walked in and started jumping and dunking,” Mines said.
“Most kids, they can jump or whatever, but they can’t do both,” Mines continued. “He can do both, and it was fascinating to me to watch him play. He reminds me of Jason Williams — they called him ‘White Chocolate’ — just to watch the flair on the passes, the behind-the-back passes, the no-look passes, just his swag.”
McClung’s natural talent — and his confidence — is on display in Gate City games, where his defenders foul him rather than risk getting dunked on.
Ewing saw that firsthand when he came to watch a game on a recruiting visit this season. He liked McClung’s form, his speed and how his muscular, football players’ legs allowed him to jump so high. Georgetown’s first-year coach is confident that McClung’s natural athleticism can translate to the college game, with a little polishing.
McClung had initially committed sight unseen to Rutgers, one of the first Division I schools that showed serious interest, but decommitted after taking an official visit and having a “gut feeling” that it wasn’t the place for him. The day he announced his decision, programs including Virginia Tech, Seton Hall, Clemson and Maryland showed interest. But Ewing, who had recruited McClung from the beginning alongside Rutgers, was in Gate City the next day.
The point guard signed with Ewing, who told him he appreciated what McClung could do — the dunks showed Ewing that McClung had toughness in addition to athleticism.
But Ewing also told McClung he couldn’t be a one-trick pony in Washington. He wants the whole package.
“I told him, he can’t just do that,” Ewing said. “He’s going to have to defend, going to have to rebound. But he has the ability to be great.
“I look forward to playing him, and he’s going to be a great fit on my team. I like his athleticism, I like his toughness, great family, and yes — I like his ability to get to the hole.”