CHICAGO — On NBA draft day in late July of last year, former Gate City Blue Devil and Texas Tech Red Raider Mac McClung’s name was not called. Five months later, while sitting on the bench of the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls during a home game against the Atlanta Hawks, he was summoned by then-interim coach Chris Fleming. It could only be for one reason, thought McClung. He was about to play in his first NBA game.
Thrilled? Absolutely. Overwhelmed? Hardly.
“When I saw him come down and say my name, I was excited,” said McClung, whose debut came in his third NBA game. “But I had been staying the course, staying ready for that moment by listening closely to the coaches and trying to get things right the first time. I didn’t want to make too many mistakes with the opportunities that I got; and with the COVID-19 protocols, you don’t know if you’re going to get 20 minutes or two.”
McClung got a little more than two. But it took only about 40 seconds for him to enter the scoring column when he connected on his lone field goal attempt: a contested 15-foot jump shot from just beyond the foul line. When the ball swished through the net, the roar of the partisan crowd got his attention.
“The Chicago fans were really loud. (The reception) they gave me was nice and really cool,” McClung said. “I felt like a lot of people there knew about my journey and all of the ups and downs I’ve had along the way.”
Since the NBA draft, McClung has experienced: going undrafted, signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers, being waived by the Lakers and assigned to their G League team (South Bay), signing with the Bulls and being assigned to their G League team (Windy City), and being recalled to the parent club on Thursday.
“There will always be ups and downs if you let them be ups and downs. Going down to the G League was an opportunity for me to get more exposure and show how I can play,” said McClung, who averaged 19.5 points per game with South Bay and scored 19 in his Windy City appearance on Wednesday. “It wasn’t anything that I took personally.”
For now, McClung is enjoying the NBA experience. He is building relationships with new players and, in his words, “realizing how much fun it is to be around people who love the game as much as I do.” He called it “being around greatness.”
“I got to be around (Lakers forward) LeBron James and (former Lakers guard) Rajon Rondo. That was my favorite thing, getting to watch them every day. Now I’m around (Bulls guards) Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, who are great people and humble guys. They have been so welcoming to me and are tremendous teammates.”
The recent surge in coronavirus cases has impacted the day-to-day operations of virtually every NBA team; the Bulls are no exception. They signed McClung to back-to-back 10-day contracts to help fill in for those Bulls players who were in the NBA health and safety protocols.
When he stepped onto the court of the United Center last month as a replacement player, he made it to the NBA. But McClung wants to make it in the NBA. A distinction without a difference? Not to McClung.
In his way of thinking, playing 2 minutes, 33 seconds in an NBA game doesn’t necessarily mean his NBA dream has been fully realized.
“It was exciting and cool to be in an NBA game, but that was just a steppingstone. This is just the beginning for me,” he said. “Whatever happens, I’m going to put my best foot forward and work to get where I think I deserve to be and where I belong.
“I’m confident that with continued hard work and a strong belief, I will get to the NBA (and stay). It’s just a matter of time.”
McClung’s current contract with the Bulls ends Monday. They cannot sign him to another 10-day contract but could keep him if they sign him to a full NBA deal.
If that doesn’t happen, he will return to South Bay, which still holds his G League player rights. Once there, he could still be “called up” again by any NBA team offering a 10-day contract.