HOUSTON – At his self-described lowest point, when Eric McClellan was one of those national footnotes of disdain and weighed down by his own remorse, he didn’t so much lean on those close to him as solicit their belief.
He did it with his friends, old coaches, his family – but mostly his mother.
“I’m going to make this right,” he told Kimberly Woody, and he said it often.
Just how right, nobody could quite imagine.
At a time of year when there are no do-overs – the NCAA basketball tournament being the cruel lose-and-cruise vessel that it is – Eric McClellan’s restart with the Gonzaga Bulldogs is one of those happy exceptions to the rule. That the Zags resume their journey in his Texas backyard Friday has given McClellan a chance to reflect, with unreserved gratitude, on the early steps of a personal reclamation – the circle he’s traveled from his dismissal from the basketball team at Vanderbilt barely 14 months ago to his part in the Zags’ Sweet 16 epic.
“A year and a half ago, I lost everything,” he said. “I was at the lowest point in my life. These players, these coaches, these fans – everybody associated with this program and school – they took a chance on me.
“To see everything come full circle and now I’m in the Sweet 16 with these brothers and beautiful teammates, it’s a feeling I really can’t describe – but I’m thankful for it.”
That wasn’t what had him doing the locker-room backflip that turned up online Sunday – the Zags had just routed Iowa, and the joy was irresistible. But it does say something that McClellan was front-and-center in the celebration, seeing as how the baggage the Bulldogs had just shed was not of his making.
He had his own.
And that flip was a reasonable representation of his upside-down-to-right-side-up year, too.
Now, there are Zags fans content in their amateur standing who don’t even know Eric McClellan is on the team. His transfer from Vandy meant he did not become eligible until January, and then a foot injury pushed his debut back two weeks. By then, the Zags had roles set and a rotation established and little room therein, and so he’s made do with cameos.
The leitmotif of this Gonzaga season has been sacrifice and selflessness, established veterans and newcomers alike giving up buckets and bows for a greater goal. McClellan’s reset might be the most pronounced. He averaged 14.2 points a game at Vandy; he’s at 2.0 here, though his role seems to grow each game – relief for Kevin Pangos at the point and Gary Bell Jr. as the defensive chaser, and more.
“What Eric – and Domas Sabonis – give us is that emotional spark and toughness,” said coach Mark Few. “We have some even-keel personalities – and that’s part of what makes them so good. But there’s a time you need that jump start, and Eric’s one of those guys.”
But a year ago January, he was one of those guys.
He had been suspended from the Vandy team for a violation of the school’s academic honor code, and when a previous misdemeanor charge for theft came to light, coach Kevin Stallings decided dismissal was in order.
Kimberly Woody was there. Months before she had booked a plane ticket from Austin, Texas, to Nashville, Tennessee, for the Kentucky game. She used it instead to help her son pick up the pieces.
“I knew his world was falling in,” she said. “But what I always say to Eric is that sometimes when we think things are happening to us, they’re really happening for us.”
She was disappointed, naturally, but she wasn’t there to scold. She was disappointed, too, in how Stallings handled the matter – via voice mail message – even as she accepted what he felt he had to do.
“I never want to shift responsibility for what Eric did,” Woody said. “And he’s owned up to it.”
Woody readily acknowledged that her son could be a “handful, but never out of control” – always magnetic, often mischievous. He was bounced off the freshman team at Austin High School. Classes were missed in multiples.
But there were also enough coaches and mentors in his life to help Woody steer him toward the middle “and goodness in his heart to know what’s right,” she said.
McClellan characterizes it was “trouble finding me when I wasn’t trying to find trouble. But it just takes enough bumps on the head to make you realize you have to smarten up and grow up. And that’s part of my search.”
And a search it is. Few and his staff were obviously comfortable enough with McClellan’s character after considerable vetting, but “reshaping my image,” as he put it, doesn’t just happen with a zip-code change.
“But I can look back now and say that I’m glad that (Stallings) kicked me off the team,” he said. “Without a consequence, I could have gone on to worse. It’s a blessing that it happened, because it’s brought me here.
“And here I have a chance to make it right.”
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