DURHAM, N.C. – David McClure admits that he once was a selfish player – back when he was in the sixth grade.
“I was young and I was just playing to play,” he said. “I hadn’t ever been taught too much. At that age, you just play.”
But during a summer league game, the future Duke forward got his first important basketball lesson.
“One of the coaches pulled me aside,” McClure recalled. “He was a real big, intimidating man. He told me, ‘You could be a helluva player if you learn to play with your team and be a little unselfish.’ Every since then, I’ve never wanted to have that be said to me again. I’ve always had that in the back of my head.”
Certainly nobody who has seen McClure play for the Blue Devils over the last five seasons would ever use the word “selfish” to describe his game. In fact, the 6-6, 215-pound fifth-year senior might be one of the most unselfish players to ever wear a Duke uniform.
“He’s my favorite player on this team to play with,” junior tri-captain Jon Scheyer said of McClure. “That guy is unbelievable. He may not be the tallest guy. He might not be the most athletic guy. But he can rebound with anybody. He can guard anybody and he’s a really underrated passer. I feel like he always finds me. He just does so many things on the court that go unnoticed.”
In a very real sense, McClure is a litmus test for fans and commentators. Those who don’t really watch the games or don’t know basketball will look at McClure’s modest stats – just over two points a game; just under four rebounds; just over one assist per game – and see a marginal player. They might even wonder why he keeps getting so many minutes (an average of 16 a game) from as knowledgeable a coach as Mike Krzyzewski.
“Somebody who doesn’t watch us closely won’t understand how important he is,” senior Greg Paulus said. “He’s so important to our team. He’s a glue guy. He does a little bit of everything. If we were playing against him, you’d notice all the plays he’s making. He’s doing all the little things to make a team win. He just makes plays ... plays that a lot of people don’t understand that don’t show up in the stat sheet.”
McClure established himself as the perfect role player as a senior at Trinity Catholic High School in Ridgefield, Conn. He averaged a modest 15.7 points as a senior, but he led a team that finished 27-0 and won its third straight state title. He was MVP of the finals in his last two seasons and the Connecticut player of the year in 2004.
“I ended up averaging more points for my AAU team than for my high school team,” McClure said. “Because we had such a well-balanced team, I kind of got accustomed to doing the little things. We had a shooter ... we had a point guard ... we had a wing guy. So I always wanted to do things they weren’t necessarily going to do. So I tried to pride myself on defensive, rebounding – the little things.”
That versatility gave McClure a chance for early playing time when he arrived at Duke for the 2004-05 season. Krzyzewski had plenty of firepower with J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing and Shelden Williams on hand. He didn’t need another scorer – but a guy who could defend on the wing, contribute as a rebounder, set screens, move the ball ... all without hunting his shot?
Unfortunately, McClure arrived at Duke with a seriously damaged left knee.
“They caught the defect in my knee early,” he said. “They told me I could either get the surgery going into the season or I could play with the chance that the defect would evolve requiring a larger surgery. I had talked to Coach and found out that I was going to start the first game of the season. I really didn’t want to pass up on that.”
McClure decided to delay the surgery. He made his debut in the 2004-05 opener against Tennessee-Martin, playing 18 minutes and scoring four points. But he also showed why he was in the starting lineup with three assists, three steals and two blocked shots.
His playing time fluctuated until a January game at Maryland, when McClure aggravated his damaged knee. He underwent arthroscopic surgery and missed seven games, but he returned and was able to make a modest contribution as an injury depleted Duke team won the ACC title and reached the NCAA Sweet 16.
But McClure’s knee required major repairs. The operation required 8-to-10 months recovery time, costing the Blue Devils his services for the 2000-06 season. Although McClure’s absence received little attention at the time as Duke won 32 games and finished No. 1 in the nation, Coach K would later cite McClure as the missing piece on a team that stumbled in the Sweet 16.
Outsiders got to see what he was talking about early in the 2006-07 season, when a healthy McClure showed an athleticism that had been absent from his game in 2005. He started 11 games and played a key role as a young Duke team got off to an 18-3 start. Late in January, McClure suddenly found himself in the spotlight when he scored the winning basket at the buzzer to beat Clemson.
But just as McClure was being recognized for his excellence, he suffered another injury in a victory over Boston College.
“It was the same knee,” he recalled. “What happened was that as I landed, [Jared] Dudley’s foot clipped my knee and forced it into a hyperextended position. I ended up being out three practices and when I came back, I was pretty limited. I was very ginger on it and I had to wear a brace that wouldn’t allow it to go to full extension.”
Worse than the physical damage was what the injury did to McClure’s mindset.
“It was such a scare,” he said. “The first injury I had was more wear and tear. That incident did put a little fear in my head. I was always overly conscious of what was around me and how I was landing. That definitely affected the way I played.”
McClure took two weeks off after the season to allow his sore knee to heal.
“Then my first workout back, I felt a sharp pain in my other knee,” McClure said. “Nobody could figure out what it was.”
The crippled player took eight weeks off to rest the knee, but as soon as he returned to the court, so did the knee pain. After surgery to remove calcium buildup in the knee, McClure took another five weeks off, but when he returned to action, the same pain was there.
“Finally, after a bunch of tests, we figured out that it was an imbalance on the arch in my foot,” he said. “I was able get orthotics put in, which made all the difference in the world. The pain went away.”
The long struggle to fix the problem forced McClure to miss four early games last season. He really made no more than token appearances until after Christmas.
“Last year, I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle the whole time – whether it was getting into shape, whether it was having the explosiveness in my legs,” he said.
McClure knew that 2008-09 was his last chance. He was determined to make the most of it.
“This summer, I set a goal for myself to push myself as far as I could possibly go – to test myself and see if my body could hold up for the entire season,” he said. “I went for 10 or 12 straight weeks non-step down in Florida. I got into the best shape of my life. I came back as fit as I’ve ever been. That was a big thing – I wanted to be as strong as I could be, but I didn’t want to carry too much excess weight.”
The offseason work – and the fact that McClure is 100 percent healthy for the first time since the first half of the 2007 season – have combined to make the Blue Devil senior one of the most valuable players on the team. Indeed, he’s probably the most valuable 2.1 point-a-game scorer in college basketball.
“Dave is an outstanding defender, and he’s an easy kid to play with,” Krzyzewski said after watching McClure turn in a typical performance in the victory over N.C. State – four points, three rebounds, three assists (no turnovers), two steals and a blocked shot.
“He’s a good player, but he’s outstanding defensively,” Krzyzewski said. “We went small because [Brandon] Costner was playing like a perimeter player in the second half. Dave was very efficient – no mistakes. He’s so dependable and been a really good player for us – one of our key players.”
McClure’s ability to defend multiple positions is one of his strengths. He’s defended everything from power forwards to point guards. His defense on Deacon point guard Jeff Teague was one of the bright spots in the loss at Wake Forest.
McClure played 25 minutes in that game. He went scoreless, but he contributed 12 rebounds, one assist, one steal and he had a lot to do with limiting the explosive Teague to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
Normally, Duke’s defense does so much switching that it’s hard to judge one-on-one matchups. But Wake Forest offered a different kind of challenge.
“They run a lot of breakdown offense,” McClure said. “Their offense doesn’t call for so much switching. They don’t run a set offense that calls for a lot of switching. They have a lot of good players and let them create for themselves.”
Although Duke’s record going into February is not so very different from a year ago, McClure believes that this is a better Blue Devil team.
“The majority of guys have been here,” he said. “They’ve been through the fire. They’re battle tested.”
“He’s a fighter,” Paulus said. “You know that every time on the court, he’s going to battle and he’s going to do everything possible to win – whether that’s locking somebody defensively, keeping balls alive, making the extra pass, knowing when to drive and kick – plays that might not show up on the stat sheet.”
McClure doesn’t mind it when he’s described as a “Glue Guy.”
“I like it,” he said. “I think it’s a compliment. I think people might sometimes underestimate that I do have other attributes to my game, even though they’re not necessarily highlighted in most games. I’m confident in myself and feel if the opportunity presents itself ...”
.. he can knock down a key shot?
That’s a question many fans have asked as they’ve seen opponents back off McClure on the perimeter. Does the Duke senior have a green light or a red light to launch a jumper?
“Obviously, it’s evolved through the years,” McClure said. “My first two years, playing with J.J. and Shelden, we kind of knew where the ball was going the majority of the time. When I came back, it was more: ‘Don’t force anything. Don’t force a bad shot, but if you have a shot, don’t hesitate to take it.’ I think we get stagnant when the team expects somebody to take a shot and they don’t.”
For the record, McClure has hit 6-of-15 three-pointers in his career. Paulus is the only player on the current Duke roster with a better career percentage beyond the arc.
But don’t look for McClure to suddenly become a three-point gunner. That’s not his role on this team. And ever since that talk with his coach back in the sixth grade, McClure has always been more interested in playing his role than in collecting the public acclaim that goes to big scorers.
“I’ve always been one to do more of what my team and my coach asks of me,” he said. “I pride myself on that.”