As he was ushered through the back hallways of Vivint Arena, with a gaggle of cameras and celebrities chasing behind him, Mac McClung couldn’t seem to grasp what had just happened.
It wasn’t that he didn’t notice Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union waiting by the tunnel just to get a glimpse of him. And it wasn’t like he was oblivious to the fact that Shaquille O’Neal and Michael B. Jordan were gawking at his dunks courtside. He knew his performance was big.
But it took somebody actually verbalizing it in a news conference, almost confirming the gravity of the entire scene, for it to truly sink in.
How does it feel to have saved the dunk contest?
“I don’t know if that is true,” McClung said while laughing. “... I don’t think I [know what just happened]. I haven’t been around my phone or anything yet. ... I’m sure the internet is going nuts.”
Maybe saving the dunk contest is a reach, but at least for one night, McClung gave a new vibrancy to the NBA’s marquee All-Star Saturday Night event. 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.
It took a player just signed to a two-way contract, a player who has never actually dunked a ball in an NBA game, but who grew up admiring Carter and Lavine, to recapture some of that essence.
“I was like, ‘If I get to be a part of this one day I hopefully get to make an impact like those guys,’” McClung said.
And starting with his first dunk he did. He jumped over his two friends, Chase Skinkis and Bradley Deen, on his way to a dunk off the backboard. From there, the scene escalated.
According to McClung, there were two dunks he attempted that were never seen before in the dunk contest.
“I had my best friends calling me every night trying to get me ideas,” McClung said. “I did a lot of research with my friends. We would just look at professional dunkers as well as past NBA dunk contests. Try to make something up that I haven’t seen before. So hopefully it is not out there.”
In his final dunk he completed a 540-degree spin in the air. It was something McClung couldn’t complete successfully in his practices the day before.
However, on his route to the championship on Saturday, McClung made all of his attempts. He proceeded to beat the field of Houston Rocket KJ Martin, New York Knick Jericho Sims and New Orleans Pelican Trey Murphy III.
Murphy III and McClung advanced to the final round.
“We wanted to bring the Dunk Contest back,” Murphy III said. “I definitely feel like that was our goal as a group. We were, like, let’s make it a show. Let’s give the fans what they want to see. Glad we were able to do that.”
When McClung left the podium, he clutched the championship trophy as he was whisked away into more television interviews. Instant fame and a new buzz around the event lingered. Maybe that buzz will last a while, maybe it won’t. But for one night, McClung made the dunk contest feel big again.