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Mac McClung warms up before a game during the Nike Pro-City Jabbo Kenner League at the McDonough Gymnasium in Washington, D.C., on July 7. Ting Shen for The Undefeated
College Basketball

Georgetown freshman Mac McClung is electrifying, dynamic — and white

The Hoyas’ complicated history with race makes it impossible to overlook the significance of Patrick Ewing landing a recruit like McClung

Even as the boy took his first breath, the doctors and nurses scrambled to make sure it wouldn’t be his last. He was still, lifeless. The umbilical cord was wrapped twice around his neck and could be cutting off the oxygen to his brain.

His father stood back, helpless. As a linebacker he was strong and fast, but that wouldn’t do his son any good in the delivery room. “He was as blue as a Smurf,” he remembers.

Finally, doctors were able to free the boy and clear any obstructions to his breathing. Mac McClung was just 3 minutes old, but he’d won his first battle.

McClung slipped Allen Iverson’s Georgetown jersey over his chiseled torso in homage to his favorite player at the Allen Iverson Roundball Classic in Philadelphia on April 22. He stood just outside the 3-point line. His teammates had to be pushed back out of the lane to give him a clear path. The real Iverson stood several feet away, his iPhone held high, trained on the phenom. He wanted to capture the moment too.

McClung took a breath and took off toward the rim. He gathered his dribble then exploded. He put it through his legs East Bay style, reversed and threw it down with two hands.

Mac McClung shoots a free throw during the Nike Pro-City Jabbo Kenner League at the McDonough Gymnasium in Washington, D.C., on July 7.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

Almost before he landed, the best high school basketball players in the country swarmed him. “Shut it down!” They screamed with delight. Ruffled his hair. Two dozen smartphones closed in. The gym shook. Iverson put his fist to his mouth. McClung stared upward. His teammates scattered. The affable kid with a boyish smile, small-town roots and the 44-inch vertical could breathe again.

McClung is arguably the most anticipated freshman at Georgetown in a decade. He is also white.

Given Georgetown’s complicated history with race, it’s impossible to overlook the significance of landing a recruit like McClung.

Like Iverson, McClung plays in a dramatic style and adds the flair too. Over the past year, his jaw-dropping dunks have launched him into rarefied viral air. His videos have racked up millions of views, giving him cult hero status from the Appalachian Mountains to the Tidewater area. Drake even direct-messaged him on Instagram asking for a jersey.

McClung averaged 42 points per game at Gate City High School in Virginia on his way to breaking Iverson’s single-season and career state scoring records. In his final game he poured in 47 points as Gate City captured its first Class 2A state title.

Hoyas coach John Thompson (second from left) takes a moment with his players during the championship game against North Carolina, March 29, 1982.

Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

When John Thompson took over Georgetown in 1972, he quickly began to remake the program in his own image.

During the Hoyas’ brilliant run of three Final Fours in four years in the 1980s, they earned a reputation of hard-nosed defense, a combative attitude and chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that defined early basketball swagger while also spawning frequent brawls. Georgetown was seen through a prism of blackness by the media and fans, more as brutes than student-athletes or the lawyers, civic leaders or coaches they would become. It was also an era ripe with stereotypes about black players. The Hoyas played with extreme patience, discipline and execution, but those qualities were rarely celebrated by the media.

The Hoyas embraced their image and began to use it in their favor, an element of defiance to it all. They appealed greatly to local black fans, particularly young black men who felt labeled, disrespected and disregarded. To wear Georgetown gear in the ’80s was to make a statement — it often meant you identified with the Hoyas.

Hoya Paranoia swept college basketball because they were terrifying to play against. The Hoyas were also unapologetically black.

From 1984, when Georgetown became the first all-black team to win an NCAA men’s Division I national title, to 1994, there were only three white players on the roster. Georgetown is the only Power 5 school that hasn’t had a white player average double figures in the past 40 years. Thompson started just one white player in the last 26 years he coached.

McClung is just the second white guard to accept a scholarship to Georgetown since 1979.

When Thompson abruptly retired in the middle of the 1998-99 season, the reins were handed to longtime lead assistant Craig Esherick, who is white. He did much to keep Thompson’s legacy alive with regard to style of play and recruiting habits. But in 2003, Esherick gave a scholarship to 5-foot-11 Matt Causey, a top-100 prospect from Georgia who chose Georgetown over Stanford.

It did not go unnoticed.

“Over the last few decades, folks with pale skin have gotten to play ball at Georgetown about as often as women have gotten to shower at Augusta,” wrote the Washington City Paper in 2003.

Thompson almost never discussed the racial imbalance of his teams and called cries of racism “ludicrous.” Most people interviewed for this story discussed race only reluctantly.

“I guess not many good white players wanted to play for a black coach,” said Ewing.

Esherick, responding via email, declined to be interviewed.

The signing of Parade All-American Nate Lubick in 2008 again caused something of a stir in college basketball circles. This time with fans of spurned programs flooding blogs to complain that a white player wouldn’t be a good fit at a traditionally black program. Lubick decommitted but eventually accepted a scholarship.

“I don’t think I started something,” Lubick told the New York Post. “I just felt so happy to be at Georgetown, to be under the coaches and with these players with my family here. Maybe on the outside more than the inside, people think about it. I know it’s talked about in some circles, but not on this team. We just want to win.”

So, naturally, Ewing, the man who was the anchor of the birth of the blackness of the modern Georgetown Era, makes a big splash by signing the most significant white player in school history.

“I think they tried to pin a racial tag on Georgetown in the ’80s,” said Gate City head coach Scott Vermillion. “Ewing is not prejudiced. He wants the best players. You need talent to win. But signing Mac makes a statement to the country.”

“At Georgetown we recruit black, brown, green, whatever,” said John Thompson III, who coached the Hoyas from 2004 to 2017. “We recruit winners.”

But few expected Ewing to change the look and style of the program so radically.

Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing during a Big East men’s basketball game between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Providence Friars on Feb. 24 at the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Providence defeated Georgetown 74-69.

Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“When I got this job, they said I wasn’t going to hit the road and go out and recruit,” said Ewing. “But I got up every day, ate my breakfast, beat the bushes and made the calls.”

Recruiting is physically difficult for a coach. There are long hours spent in tiny gyms on uncomfortable bleachers or folding chairs. Sleep is hard to come by, and eating habits tend to be poor. Ewing is 7 feet tall with a history of knee problems. Long trips in cramped rental cars raised doubts about his ability to build a program.

“I’ve been getting negative criticism my whole career,” said Ewing. “When I was in the NBA, I got pigeonholed as just being a big man’s coach. They said I couldn’t coach an entire team.”

On one of his first recruiting trips, Ewing was scouting a wing forward at an AAU tournament when he noticed McClung, who was playing for Richmond, Virginia-based Team Loaded.

“I loved his ability, his effort, tenacity and athleticism,” said Ewing. “I knew right away that he’d be a good fit for us. He was a Georgetown guy.”

“He saw this little white kid going at everybody and caught Ewing’s eye right away,” said Vermillion.

McClung initially committed to Rutgers but never got comfortable with New Jersey. The day McClung decommitted, Ewing, despite a cough and a sore throat, flew down to Gate City with his staff in tow and rented a van for an official home visit.

“All of a sudden we’re thinking, what do you feed Patrick Ewing?” said McClung’s father, Marcus. They settled on bagels, chips and banana pudding.

“I just had a great feeling about Coach,” said the 17-year-old McClung. “He outlined everything I could accomplish if I put in the work, and Georgetown just felt like home.”

The subject of race never came up.

Mac McClung’s parents, Marcus and Lenoir, and brother Cam pose for a portrait at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. on July 7. Marcus McClung is a former football player and county prosecutor in Gate City, Virginia. Lenoir McClung teaches driver’s education at Gate City High School.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

Gate City is a mountain town in Scott County on the southwesternmost tip of Virginia, about a mile from the Tennessee border. With a population just under 2,000 and 95 percent white, 85 percent of its registered voters are Republican.

“We’re a small town with decent folk,” said Frances Perry, Gate City’s mayor. “We believe in values and we believe in family.”

They recently had a screening of the 1984 film The River starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek — some of the scenes were shot in Gate City. “The movie theater currently does not have a roof,” said Perry. “But the good Lord blessed us with no rain.”

Friday nights are reserved for high school football, and residents rarely make other plans when there is a home game. Some nights there’s putt-putt or a movie. Perry mentions that the construction of a new Taco Bell was recently big news. Many people shop just across the border in Kingsport, Tennessee, where the strip malls have better store selections and the pork chops and mashed potatoes at the Campus Drive Inn next to the auto parts store on lonely Kane Street come highly recommended.

There are legends of kids riding horses to school. One even showed up on a tractor. In the summer, people gravitate to the outdoors.

“We got streams, we got rivers, we got mountains, we got the best fishing,” said Vermillion. Cast your rod in the Holston River and catch you a mess of mighty fine trout, they say.

Marcus and Lenoir McClung ended up in Gate City in 1994 after meeting at Virginia Tech, where Marcus played linebacker for Frank Beamer and Lenoir was a cheerleader. After Marcus was waived by the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions, they moved back to Virginia, where she taught driver’s education at Gate City High and he became a county prosecutor.

When Lenoir told Marcus she was pregnant with their second child, they argued for months about the name. It had to begin with an M. Eventually Marcus bowed out.

“I don’t care what you name him,” Marcus told Lenoir. “I’m calling him Mac no matter what.” Lenoir chose Matthew. Mac was Marcus’ nickname in high school. Neither Lenoir nor Marcus has ever called him Matthew.

Soon he was a whirling dervish of energy whose competitive ambition often exceeded his talent. But he did not lack for trying.

“Mac was just born with it,” said Marcus. “If you’re fixing a bowl of cereal, he’s going to make a competition.”

“He would just come at you every day, no matter how small he was,” said his sister Anna, a soccer player who would set the Virginia state girls’ record for career goals with 88 before starring at Tennessee.

They built a basement gym in their four-bedroom house on the side of a hill for Anna because it was always so cold outside. When McClung started little league football in the fifth grade, his competitive spirit was so fierce that Marcus banned him from the gym so Anna could work out in peace. McClung was obsessed with the Vertimax, an apparatus that uses resistance to improve leaping ability.

Sometimes at Christmas they would play games to compete for presents. They invented their own version of Deal or No Deal.

One day before McClung entered seventh grade, Lenoir took him by the gym to sign up for basketball. “He ducked his head inside for a minute and basically never left,” said Coach Vermillion.

After hitting a growth spurt in ninth grade — he sprouted 4 inches to 5 feet, 10 inches — Marcus was relieved when after one year of high school he gave up football. Marcus’ neck and back still ache from a collision with Florida State’s Edgar Bennett. “I didn’t want that for him.”

Despite McClung’s burgeoning folk hero status, the McClungs tried the best they could to keep things normal. There were autographs at restaurants, sold-out games. “He’d turn his phone on and it would sound like a pinball machine with all the notifications,” recalled Lenoir.

Gate City’s Mac McClung drives and scores against the North Mecklenburg defense on Dec. 21, 2017.

Courtesy of Bristol Herald Courier

He got his license and would tool around Gate City in a slick white Ford Mustang. His pals would take good-natured jabs at his Justin Bieber-like haircut. His favorite singers are Drake and Fleetwood Mac. He doubles over to Wedding Crashers and digs peanut butter on waffles. He shared a bathroom with Anna, which caused its share of skirmishes because he took so long with his hair. Occasionally, he would talk back to his parents and have fleeting bouts with defiance when it came to chores. Marcus would make Anna carry the dishes up the hill behind the house if she forgot to do them. McClung would have to take the garbage cans around the neighborhood lest he forget the ones at the end of his driveway.

“It was my dad’s way of humiliating us to make us learn,” said Anna, 22, “but he always had a smile on his face. I only carried the dishes up the hill once. Mac was out in the neighborhood all the time.”

On the weekdays he had to be home by 10, but Marcus extended it to midnight on the weekends, a rule that still stands. But McClung was more into working out than mischief. “His dad was the D.A. and his mom taught at school,” said Marcus. “How much trouble could he get into?

Mac McClung during the Nike Pro-City Jabbo Kenner League at the McDonough Gymnasium in Washington, D.C., on July 7.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

McClung’s challenges and narrative at Georgetown will be less about race when the season begins. Given his No. 234 national ranking and relatively low level of competition, there are legitimate concerns about his ability to create his own shot against bigger defenders, the fact that at 6 feet, 2 inches, he isn’t particularly long and must learn when to choose the simple play over flash. McClung would do well to add a reliable floater and fine-tune his jump shot in tight spaces.

While there is a groundswell of anticipation, not every Georgetown observer is sold.

“Everyone is saying he’s going to be this savior,” says a Hoya lifer who declined to be named. “They think he’s going to be Allen Iverson, or that he’ll just change the culture right away. It’s not going to be that easy. I don’t see it.”

“That’s the kind of thing Mac wants to hear,” said Vermillion. “Be sure and tell him he can’t do it.”

The early returns have fans buzzing and have already ratcheted up the anticipation that McClung will impact the program’s win column sooner rather than later.

After his first two games at the Georgetown-based Kenner League, McClung is averaging 24.4 points on 44.8 percent shooting, 4 assists and 1.5 steals. In just his second game, he scored 39 points and saw several of his trademark dunks ricochet around social media.

Intent to prove he’s not just a highlight-reel dunker, McClung has shown an excellent ability to turn the corner and finish with regularity at the rim while making good decisions in transition and displaying a smoother shooting stroke than in high school.

He’s already developing a symbiotic chemistry with James Akinjo, the Hoyas’ other prized backcourt recruit, giving fans a look at what could prove to be the Big East’s most promising young tandem.

In their second game together, McClung and Akinjo accounted for nearly three-fourths of the team’s scoring and often passed up good looks to get each other better ones. During the Kenner League’s opening weekend, fans used the hashtag #Mackinjo to track the pair’s early on-court success.

That buzz trickled down the stands in McDonough Arena, leaving onlookers wondering if an ambitious guard from a rural mountain town had just delivered the best Georgetown Kenner debut since Iverson’s heroic turn in this very gym 24 years ago.

With the crush of attention, expectation and pressure, it could get tough to breathe. But McClung’s been there before.

Chris Palmer is a long time NBA writer from Prince Georges, County, MD. His tattoos and crossover are a work in progress. He and Kevin Durant almost always agree.