How Mac McClung, an undrafted player who was dropped by G League teams, became ‘saviour’ of NBA’s Dunk Contest

Just before the Dunk Contest at the 2023 NBA All-Star Weekend started, basketball legend-turned-analyst Shaquille O’Neal filmed himself telling Mac McClung: “This is where you steal the show. Nobody knows your name. Make them remember your name. And don’t miss a dunk!”

Over the course of four dunks, McClung did all of that at Salt Lake City. He did so well, in fact, that Shaq and Magic Johnson later said that McClung had ‘saved the dunk contest’. LeBron James went even further in his praise, putting McClung’s defiance of gravity on par with the iconic performances in the past by Michael Jordan and Vince Carter. With their praise, the three NBA superstars had put on a lofty pedestal a man who, until a week before the All-Star Weekend, none of the 30 NBA teams had deemed worthy of even a spot on their rosters.

Who is Mac McClung?

McClung is a 6-foot-2-inch guard from a small town in Virginia called Gate City. He has played in just two NBA games in his career. After going undrafted in the NBA Draft in 2021, he was playing for the Delaware Blue Coats in the NBA’s developmental league, the G League, when he was offered a spot in the Dunk Contest. Soon after he agreed, he was handed a two-way contract by the Philadelphia 76ers, which allows the team to use him in either the NBA or the G League. He also signed a deal with Puma before the dunk contest.

Before going undrafted, he was a YouTube sensation, with thousands of clips highlighting his moves. He’s not just about the dunks either. Clips on social media show him attempting audacious behind-the-back spin moves and jaw-dropping hook floaters from inside the paint as part of his highlight reel.

At this year’s All-Star Weekend, he shattered a glass ceiling of sorts — one immortalised by the 1992 Hollywood sports comedy called White Men Can’t Jump — by becoming only the second white player to win the dunk contest. Thanks to that win, he pocketed a cool $1,00,000 cheque. As US media noted, that cheque nearly matched his career earnings while playing in the NBA’s G League.

What was the big deal about McClung’s dunks?

McClung had four dunk attempts in the contest.

In his first attempt in Round 1, he leapt over a person sitting on the shoulder of another person, snatched the ball, touched the glass behind the rim while in mid-air, and then dunked the ball over his head while not being able to see the rim.

In his second attempt of Round 1, he did a double-pump, 180-degree, two-handed windmill. That means he leapt into the air with the rim behind his head and pirouetted 180 degrees before dunking the ball — all in one smooth fluid motion.

In his first attempt in the dunk contest final, he did a double-pump ‘hesi’ two-handed reverse dunk. In essence, he leapt over a man who was holding the ball at face height. While airborne, McClung snatched the ball, rotated mid-air till his back was turned to the rim, did a fake pump and then dunked the ball over his shoulders with both hands.

In his second attempt in the dunk contest final, which he did while sporting his high school jersey, he did a 540-degree windmill two-handed reverse dunk. That means he leapt in the air, pirouetted 540 degrees, and then did a double-handed dunk with the rim behind him.

The five judges, which included Jamal Crawford, Karl Malone and Dominique Wilkins, gave him perfect scores of 50 for three of the four dunks.

What is special about the dunk contest?

The ability to leap and dunk the ball into the rim that is suspended at 10 feet above the floor is something that has always been lionised in basketball. In the past, the dunk contest has seen some spectacular efforts, like Michael Jordan taking off from the foul line and Aaron Gordon jumping over the Orlando Magic mascot. Players like Vince Carter and Dwight Howard have also become synonymous with the dunk contest.

But off late, the dunk contest had become a tepid affair, just like the rest of the All-Star weekend.

What’s the NBA All-Star Weekend?

The NBA All-Star Weekend is a spectacle-filled weekend that is essentially a three-day commercial for the NBA. Across multiple events, some of the biggest names in the league turn up and try their best to make jaws drop. The centrepiece of the weekend is the All-Star Game (ASG) where the biggest names of the league play in an exhibition match on Sunday. The allure of the ASG comes from the fact that you’re unlikely to find five superstars playing next to each other in the same team due to the league’s budget caps. The ASG, however, is unhindered by such constraints and teams are as stacked as Team USA at the Olympics.

Points scored in the ASG don’t count, of course. But what it offers the players is bragging rights and a much-needed chance to let their hair down. This year’s ASG featured Team LeBron facing Team Giannis. Besides the ASG game itself, there are other events throughout the week like the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game (where actors like Ranveer Singh and Simu Liu played alongside comedian Hasan Minhaj and tennis ace Frances Tiafoe); the Skills Challenge (where players representing teams compete over various skills), the 3-Point Contest and the Dunk Contest.

The problem with the All-Star Game…

In theory, the ASG seems like an unmissable encounter. Like watching the Avengers assemble at the climax of a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, that too with Batman and Superman from the DC Universe joining in for added emphasis. But in reality, the game’s viewership has been sagging in recent years. According to reports in the US, the 2023 ASG was the least-watched All-Star Game in history, beating the previous best that was set last season. A report by Sports Media Watch said Sunday’s ASG racked up 4.59 million viewers. In 2022, that number was 6.28 million viewers. Ratings dropped by 29% in 2023, while viewership dropped 27%. Saturday’s action too saw its lowest numbers in over 20 years: 3.42 million viewers.

Michael Malone, who was the Team LeBron coach this year, called this year’s ASG “the worst basketball game ever played”. Team Giannis beat Team LeBron 184-175, the inflated scoreline an indicator of non-existent defending. The reason why no one defends at the ASG seriously is that most superstars don’t want to pick up injuries at a crucial juncture of the season with the Playoffs just 20-odd games away.

This season, future Hall Of Famers like Kevin Durant, LeBron, Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo either sat out due to an injury or played limited minutes to conserve their bodies.

Another criticism of the All-Star weekend is that with social media making viral content from the league accessible at all times, the allure of the weekend has reduced greatly. For example, almost on a monthly basis, there are clips on social media where Steph Curry is seen throwing a three-pointer from the bleachers as part of his warm-up routine. In that case, what is the big deal about watching a few NBA players compete in the three-point contest where they’re given positions just beyond the arc?

So even though the ASG may have been the “worst basketball game ever played” and the weekend was a tepid affair, it was an undrafted, 6’2″, white man who was the biggest star of the All-Star weekend.

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