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.
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. He got his wrist taped, and he re-entered the game after halftime, finishing out the rest of the double-overtime contest.
Only later was it figured out that McGary’s injuries were a little more severe than previously thought.
“We found out afterwards that he had a concussion and a broken wrist,” Peller said. “He wound up playing the rest of the game, and he played great. That was one of his better games, he had like 18 points and 12 boards. That was kind of amazing.”
Brewster Academy basketball coach Jason Smith has had many players come through his program during his 13 years at the New Hampshire prep school. He has coached five NBA players, and out of the seven players who graduated in 2012 to go on to play Division I basketball, five have collected Rookie of the Week honors in their respective conferences.
But, according to Smith, in his two years coaching him, McGary was a little bit different than all the other highly touted players that passed through. He made time for everyone, whether it was students in the hallways, workers in the dining hall, members of the maintenance staff, something Smith considers rare for a basketball player — and a teenager in general.
What former Brewster teammate and current UCLA guard Khalid McCaskill remembers most about McGary was the pride he took in being the hustle player, in doing whatever little thing he could to help the team.
But maybe Smith’s favorite story about McGary is one that he never witnessed firsthand. During the 2011 summer, right before his final year at Brewster and about the time his stock was starting to spike, McGary attended the NBA Top-100 Camp at the University of Virginia.
It’s an accepted standard at these camps that players are just trying to improve their stock and will try to make themselves look as good as possible on the court. Smith expected there to be some buzz about McGary’s play, as this would be an opportunity for him to showcase his talents for an audience that included dozens of college coaches. One day during the camp, Smith had gone for a run, and when he came back his phone was blowing up. But it wasn’t about what he had expected.
“I had about 15 text messages from coaches and they were all talking about how shocked they were because they had never seen anyone with a reputation like Mitch’s be such a great teammate at a camp setting,” Smith said. “The text messages were saying that he was giving his teammates water during timeouts, he was the first guy clapping on the bench and that he was cheering his teammates on — and this was all happening at a competitive camp.”
It came as no surprise to Smith. That selflessness was something he saw from McGary on a daily basis, whether it was during a game or a practice.
“The one thing you can say about Mitch is that he always has been, and he always will be, a tremendous teammate,” Smith said. “With him, it’s not about personal accolades. It’s all about what he can do to help the team win. He’s definitely the best teammate of anyone that we have had.”
McGary has a competitive spirit, and there’s no question that he’s wanted to start every game this season. He came in as a blue-chip recruit, one of the nation’s best big men, and there was a lot of pressure on him. Even if he won’t say it, there were expectations that he wanted to meet.
Early in the season, McGary accepted the sixth-man role. He was a difference maker off the bench, providing energy and pumping up the crowd with his hustle.
So when redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan went down with a sprained ankle in late January, McGary had his opportunity to start. It was something he had been waiting for all season, and now all he had to do was accept the promotion while Morgan was unable to compete on a bum ankle.
But McGary didn’t do what was expected. On Jan. 29, the night before the Wolverines matched up against Northwestern, McGary suggested to Michigan coach John Beilein that he look elsewhere to fill the void in the starting lineup that Morgan left.
“I said to Mitch McGary, ‘Mitch, what do you feel about tomorrow? I don’t know what to do yet, you (and redshirt sophomore Jon Horford) both practiced well,’ ” Beilein said. “He said, ‘Coach, I’ve been coming off the bench for two years, I’m cool with coming off the bench.’ That really helped us make the decision. Talk about sacrifice.”
For McGary, there’s no worrying about his future, no concern over his stats or his minutes. He started the season coming off the bench and only recently has made his way into the starting lineup. He provides what the team needs — no questions asked. He once almost kicked Gov. Rick Snyder in the face when diving for a ball in the stands.
McGary’s unselfish style of play doesn’t really stand out until you realize that he was the second-highest-rated high-school recruit in the country when he committed to Michigan in the fall of 2011.
“I started at the bottom of the totem pole, and I’m trying to make my way up,” McGary said. “I never wanted to diss anybody, I’ve always wanted to be a giver. I keep saying that because it’s important in life to give to people.”
And as the season winds down and the Wolverines make a push in the postseason, McGary is giving more than ever. He’s averaging 17 points and 11.5 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament so far and tallied career highs in points, rebounds and minutes in Michigan’s third-round victory against Virginia Commonwealth.
But for McGary, he’s trying to save his best for last, working hard to accomplish what he set out to do when he signed his letter of intent to play college basketball in Ann Arbor: give Michigan a national championship.