- Todd Needle/Daily
By Steven Braid, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 25, 2013
The images of Mitch McGary sliding along the floor or diving into the stands are entrenched in the minds of many who have watched the Michigan men’s basketball team this year. McGary’s big body tangled in the crowd, his massive arms waving in encouragement for the crowd to cheer louder, his legs flailing every which way — perhaps more than anyone else, he embodies hustle.
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But that all-out energy and somewhat out-of-control play is steeped in something much deeper: a desire to be the best teammate possible.
It’s plenty cliché for coaches to praise their team and to call attention to how good their players can be, but McGary is truly a team player. All those dives and bumps and bruises and burns are for the team. McGary realizes that he’s become a fan favorite, that he can create an atmospheric buzz in Crisler Center with his antics, but he also realizes, more than anything, that his frenzied play has a bigger impact on his teammates.
“I always like to say, ‘Be a giver and not a drainer,’ ” he says.
In the age of high-profile recruits being groomed from their middle-school or early high-school days, McGary differs in that he has always had interests away from the court.
Wayne Brumm, McGary’s AAU coach, said he’s heard stories about the Chesterton, Ind. native throwing a baseball in the mid-to-high 80s, and Brumm once or twice talked McGary out of playing the sport beyond high school by asking, “How many 6-(foot)-10 outfielders are there in the majors?”
His high school football coach wanted to put his name out on the recruiting trail after his freshman season playing at the junior-varsity level at Chesterton High School because he just had a sense that McGary would get recruited to play football in college.
McGary is also an avid skateboarder. His dad built him ramps in the driveway behind his house, a place where he and his friends could hone their skills. But nothing stands out to his family more than what he could do on one wheel, on a unicycle.
“He was so good at whatever he did, it was incredible,” McGary’s older brother Ryan said. “So I bought him a unicycle for his 12th birthday, and he mastered it in like a week.”
When he’s at home, McGary will periodically tell his dad to toss him footballs while he’s riding around on his unicycle. He’s got so much control on one wheel that Brumm thinks he should lead the team out of the tunnel before each game on the unicycle.
McGary wasn’t the only kid in the community with a unicycle. His friend Spencer had one too. McGary always wanted his own paper route, but his parents wouldn’t allow him to pick up the job because of his many other responsibilities.
He always liked working as a team, helping others, so he offered to help Spencer with his paper route. Side by side, the two would deliver newspapers to doorsteps together, each riding their own unicycle.
“You should have seen them wobble down the street together,” said his father, Tim. “It was such a funny sight.”
To Tom Peller, McGary’s former coach at Chesterton High School, nothing epitomizes McGary’s competitive spirit more than the big man’s last game during his sophomore year. He recounts the game in a mix of awe and amazement.
In a game against Valparaiso High School in the 4A regional quarterfinal, McGary was injured early in the second quarter. He had stolen a pass, sped down the court and gone up for a layup. He made the layup but was undercut and fell down violently. He crashed hard on his left wrist and banged his head. McGary headed to the bench to remain there for the rest of the first half.
“I don’t really remember much from the game, but I do remember a funny story,” McGary said. “Two of my good friends, Juan and Adam, they were sitting on the bench next to me, and I kept asking them if I made the basket, literally around 15 times. They kept answering me, but I didn’t really comprehend them until afterwards.”
At halftime, McGary wanted to go back into the game. It was a playoff game, and playing while injured was instinctive to him, a no-brainer. If he was able to contribute, then he would play. The team’s trainer made him do jumping jacks and assessed that he was healthy enough to go back into the game. McGary’s left wrist hurt, but that didn’t matter.