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I was wrong for saying Mac McClung was in the dunk contest because he’s white

The 2023 champ’s story has lessons that are bigger than basketball

Yo, Mac McClung: I was wrong, kid. You belonged in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. You rose to the moment and elevated the event from irrelevant to entertaining, and I apologize for saying that you were chosen to compete because you’re white.

Don’t get me wrong: Skin color did play a role in McClung’s opportunity. But based on his talent and performance, McClung deserved his spot – and his presence sends a message to people who question whether Black people deserve what we have earned.

For those of you who didn’t watch Saturday night’s show, here’s what happened:

McClung, the first G League player selected for the event, went all the way off with an array of 360s and double pumps that left actual NBA stars amazed and culminated in a 540-degree backward banger. The outpouring of respect McClung received from NBA players proved that my comments before the contest were the same type of mistake as bringing Russell Westbrook to the Lakers or Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn.

Like any hoop head, I have followed McClung since his serial slams as a Virginia schoolboy went viral. I watched him bang out at Georgetown and then Texas Tech. I respected his game and how he chased the improbable dream of playing in the NBA as an undrafted, 6-foot-2 guard who scores first and passes later.

But when the NBA announced that McClung would participate in the dunk contest, I saw a desperate move to bring eyeballs to an event that is being strangled by instant highlights, stars declining to compete and professional dunkers from around the world. “What are we doing?” Kevin Durant commented on inviting a minor leaguer into elite airspace.

Why McClung? Since going undrafted in 2021, he has played in just two NBA games. If Philadelphia hadn’t belatedly signed him to a two-way contract a few days before the contest, he would have been out there in a Delaware Blue Coats uniform. Exciting Black G League dunkers, such as Quenton Jackson of the Capital City Go-Go, had zero chance of being chosen. But a white high-riser like McClung, with a baby face and a track record of viral highlights – that was a cynical but undeniably smart choice for the NBA.

Mac McClung dunks the ball during the AT&T Slam Dunk Contest as part of 2023 NBA All Star Weekend on Feb. 18 at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Many white hoopers have it tough. Back in 2008, my Bounce magazine crew created The White Issue, featuring nothing but white ballplayers with certified reps. They all told stories of being overlooked, stereotyped, and having to constantly prove themselves in a game defined by Black culture. On the flip side, hoop is one of those melanated spaces where, if a white person demonstrates some ability, other white people elevate them beyond where a Black person might reach. These are some of the dynamics at play with McClung.

When all is said and dunked, I still believe whiteness is a major reason McClung got picked for the contest – but there shouldn’t be a problem with that. And this is where I think McClung’s story has implications that are bigger than basketball.

Hoop is one of the few spaces in America where Black people are presumed to be competent. In many other environments – executive suites, scientific conventions, walking along a suburban sidewalk – Black people are the anomaly and the exception. In these spaces, some white people see us and question why we’re there. The answer is right in front of them – we are qualified. We earned our spot and deserve our place. We got game.

When I looked at McClung’s name in the dunk contest, I didn’t see his rocket launcher vert or his determination to prove himself on the world’s biggest stage. I saw him as out of place. I saw his white privilege (which extends to the Puma endorsement deal he just signed), even though being a talented white hooper comes with its own set of challenges. For that, Mac – (taps chest) – my bad, young fella.

I’ve gone through life hearing that I got into Yale University because I’m Black. While I was highly qualified to be there, I also know that one reason I was chosen is that I was an anomaly: a Black kid from the projects who skipped a grade and still crushed high school. In a sea of wealthy white applicants, I stood out. I offered something different and appealing to a monochromatic environment – like McClung did Saturday night.

And just like lots of non-NBA hoopers besides McClung could have won that dunk contest, lots of students could have graduated in my spot. Why did I receive the opportunity? Because of the totality of me, including but not limited to my Blackness. So I never should have dismissed McClung’s whiteness when he earned, through hard work and persistence, the same kind of life-changing opportunity that I did.

These realities are at the heart of a pending Supreme Court case, where conservative judges are expected to prohibit any consideration of race in college admissions. I hope those white judges watched McClung win the dunk contest.

I’m one of them old heads who gets salty over the gentrification of Black culture, and how so many things that white people once mocked, feared or avoided – rap music, big butts, sneakers with suits, the whole Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn – they now celebrate. I reacted to the thought of this white boy in the dunk contest with the type of defensive thinking that comes from the validity of my world and my self being questioned for so long.

I should have recognized what Mac McClung and I have in common.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.