The internet sensation breathes life into the NBA dunk competition

SALT LAKE CITY — Mac McClung wasn’t exactly a stranger.

He was a YouTube phenomenon long before he won the dunk contest at NBA All-Star Saturday. It’s impossible to add up all the views that videos of McClung — everything from dunks to documentaries — received, but they numbered in the hundreds of millions.

But things seem different now after this 6ft 2 tall, boyish looking security guard from a small town in Virginia with trampolines for his legs and only two NBA games on his resume became the league’s dunk champion and finally caused a stir again an event that had been criticized more than celebrated in recent years.

“He saved the dunk contest,” said Shaquille O’Neal, and countless others shared the same sentiment.

Time will tell if they are right. But an event destined to create unforgettable moments – Michael Jordan lifting off the foul line, Vince Carter saying “it’s over” after a dunk, Aaron Gordon jumping over Orlando Magic mascot, Dwight Howard, donning the Superman cape – was massively shot in the arm by a man who now has more dunks in competition (four) than in actual NBA games (one). “It’s cliche, but you can really do whatever you want,” said McClung, who has a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers and plays in the G League. “I’ve had so many people, even at the highest level … when you’re a little kid and someone who inspires you, someone you respect so much, tells you you can’t do it, it doesn’t matter.” Literally, if you manifest and focus on it, you can literally create your life and reinvent yourself every day.”

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The response from NBA players watching the show, both in Salt Lake City and elsewhere, has been overwhelming.

“Tough,” shouted Cleveland guard Donovan Mitchell as he watched the court while several other All-Stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo — gaping in disbelief — filmed the action on their phones.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry said on Twitter: “The man was a viral (House of Highlights) high school dunk phenomenon who’s still working his way up the league, but let me grab this dunk contest trophy quick and bring them back to life!!! Unreal.”

McClung knows he’s an outsider story. He grew up watching football and baseball in Gate City, Virginia before deciding sometime in sixth or seventh grade – barely 5 feet tall at the time – that basketball would be his priority.

He started going viral in high school for his line of dunks, and he’s handled all of the attention that comes with internet fame as best he can for years.

“One thing about this game is you have to learn to adapt,” McClung told The Associated Press last year. “I want to be known as someone who can help a team, can help a championship team, is a good energy guy and a good culture guy and a good locker room guy.”

If he was an unknown to NBA fans, maybe that’s understandable. He had the final basket of the 2021-22 NBA season when he broke free for an undisputed reverse dunk to cap the Los Angeles Lakers’ overtime win over the Denver Nuggets last April. That was his third and youngest field goal in the NBA.

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But while he has yet to establish himself at the NBA level, there’s no question he can play. He broke records set by Allen Iverson and JJ Redick in high school. He had big numbers at Texas Tech and Georgetown College.

And now he’s a dunk champion. He’s viral again. Maybe this time the NBA door will open.

“I don’t worry about what other people think, good or bad,” McClung said. “I just stay the course. My goal is to make a difference in the NBA and I’ll just keep working until that happens.”

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