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Welcome to a new NPR series where we spotlight the people and things making headlines — and the stories behind them.
At a certain point on Saturday night, you couldn't help feel bad for Trey Murphy III.
The New Orleans small forward had some seriously impressive moves up his sleeve for NBA All-Star Saturday — but Mac McClung was too tough an act to follow.
The 76ers' fresh-faced point guard (who was just called up from the G League this week) was the undisputed star of the night. In every round of the dunk contest in Salt Lake City, McClung bungeed his 6'2" frame up to the net with flourish.
Now there's talk he has rescued the competition that was starting to fall out of favor.
Who is he? A crowd of basketball celebrities quickly became his hype crew on the sidelines, filming him with sponsored phones and almost dropping their own kids a few times. For his already-established fanbase, the dunk contest just told the world what they've known for years.
McClung is a YouTube sensation, going all the way back to high school highlight reels. His "senior year mixtape" has more than three million views.
To pay tribute to his hometown of Gate City, Virginia (and the fans who have loved him since), he pulled on his high school jersey for the final dunk.
In college, he played for Georgetown for two years before transferring to Texas Tech.
He went undrafted in 2021 and joined the Lakers' summer league, signing with the team after that.
He moved to the Chicago Bulls for a short contract the next year, eventually ending up in the NBA G League with the Bulls' affiliate, Windy City. When invited to the dunk contest this year, he was part of the Delaware Blue Coats for the 2022-23 season, making him the first G League player to participate.
What's the big deal? This is a much-needed boost for McClung, who has only played two NBA games in two years — one for the Bulls and one for the Lakers — and scored three baskets overall.
It's also a big moment for the contest itself, which many fans say was going out of fashion because the NBA's biggest stars no longer participated in it.
Benchwarmer status aside, McClung's actual feats he accomplished on Saturday were big deals.
He stacked two friends high, soared over both of them to grab the ball, tapped the backboard and THEN sank a reverse. Then a clean leap over a grown man's head with a full clutch. And finished with the near-impossible 540-degree dunk, which is one-and-a-half rotations in the air.
No one can convince me this man didn't take ballet lessons. If it weren't Monday, I'd attempt a pun.
OK, I'm going for it: McClung really raised the barre.
19 out of 20 judge scores were perfect 50s.
What are people saying?
"Man was a viral HOH high school dunk phenom, still working his way to the League, but lemme go get that dunk contest trophy right quick and bring it back to life!!! Unreal #macmclung." — Steph Curry
"He captured the attention of a basketball community that was beginning to lose faith that the dunk contests of old — like the Vince Carter years and Zach Lavine displays — would ever come back. It got to the point where even NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the declining quality of the dunk contest, with people wondering if the NBA would start requiring top stars to participate." — Kevin Reynolds, The Salt Lake Tribune
"He definitely saved the dunk contest." — Shaquille O'Neal
So, what now? One night took the 24-year-old from a YouTube star to a household name. The internet is still recovering from the spectacle and the "Who is Mac McClung?" write-ups will continue for at least a few days.
Winning the dunk contest has long served as an introductory party for lesser-known and up-and-coming talent. Everyone from Kobe Bryant to Vince Carter, Blake Griffin, Josh Smith and Andre Iguodala has claimed the prize.
Spud Webb, a former dunk champ himself and now president of basketball operations for the NBA G League team the Texas Legends, told NPR that the hype is really exciting for G League players overall and he sees a future for McClung. "I'm glad he won. I work in the G League, it sheds a lot on us," Webb told NPR. "But I'm telling you, man, the guy can play. His energy level — I think there's a place for him."
Time will tell if this has opened the door for more actual playtime. But for now, an invite to the 2024 dunk contest looks like a sure thing.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Corrected: February 20, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Kevin Reynolds' last name as Reynold and misstated Andre Iguodala's first name as Andrew. Also, a reference to "Who is Mac McClung?" media write-ups misstated Mac McClung's last name as McClure, and a reference to Spud Webb misspelled his nickname as Spudd.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.