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Former Gonzaga men's basketball player Eric McClellan currently plays overseas in Lithuania.

The road to pro basketball requires wholehearted commitment to the journey—one that fully immerses the mind, body and soul. For former Gonzaga Men’s Basketball star Eric McClellan, the pro basketball odyssey has taken him from his backyard of Austin, Texas, to some of the farthest reaches of the globe.

Back in Texas, McClellan was a high school star, leading Austin High School to a 29-4 record his senior year. His first destination on his journey was Tulsa University, where he averaged 8.5 points as a freshman. He transferred to Vanderbilt University, where he continued to perfect his craft, but his dismissal from school forced his third transfer in four years.

As a junior transfer to GU in 2014-15, the odds were stacked against him. He played behind three senior guards and was unable to play first semester due to the transfer from Vanderbilt. On top of that, he broke his foot right before he became eligible to play.

“I was kinda down for not contributing as much,” McClellan said. “I wanted to earn those guy’s respect. I had to prove to those guys that they could trust me.”

Another college basketball player might’ve folded under the pressure. McClellan, on the other hand, welcomed his role and took the adversity in stride. The GU team led by players such as Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Przemek Karnowski welcomed Eric with open arms.

“They embraced me, man,” McClellan said. “Like family. I only knew those guys for two years, and those guys are my best friends.” 

Regarding McClellan’s ability to overcome his obstacles, Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson had no doubt he would do as such.

“It gets back to his personality, energy and encouragement never wavered,” Michaelson said.

The commitment and resolve McClellan showed throughout his junior year set him up for a memorable senior season. With the departure of Pangos and Bell, McClellan became one of the veteran leaders of the Zag’s backcourt.

Saint Mary’s and GU were tied at the end of regular season play in the WCC, but Saint Mary’s held the tiebreaker and earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. This left the Zags on the outside looking in, needing to win the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas to keep the 18-year-long March Madness streak alive for the Zags.

McClellan took the opportunity to ball out. In the first tournament game against  the University of Portland, he led the team with 26 points, 4 boards and 4 assists. He put up 15 on 3-5 shooting from downtown to help the Zags sneak pack BYU and into the championship game. In the WCC championship, against a Saint Mary’s team who had beaten the Zags twice that season, McClellan led the team with 20 points and helped secure the Zags a bid in the NCAA tournament.

That GU team would end up making a surprise run to the Sweet 16, where they lost a close game to Syracuse to end their run. Once the run ended, his time at GU was up.

His experience in Spokane, however, has etched a permanent mark on McClellan’s soul. He’s returned to Spokane every summer to train during the offseason and to spend time with the community he’s grown to love.

“It’s like a family there, man,” McClellan said.

This summer McClellan played pickup games against former teammates such as Bell and Silas Melson to current Zags like the ‘Tricky Trio,’ Dominick Harris, Julian Strawther and Jalen Suggs.

Spending time with the coaching staff is a gift for McClellan, too.

“Coach Few, Donnie [Daniels], B-Mike [Brian Michaelson]. All those guys are my mentors,” McClellan said.

For now, though, McClellan remains committed to the basketball journey that has taken him from Austin to Spokane and now to Europe.

With the dramatic change in scenery, McClellan had his struggles adjusting to pro basketball life abroad. His rookie year, he tried to cook a pizza in his apartment, but when he pulled it out the pizza had been burnt to a crisp. But with no other options for dinner, he ate his crunchy pizza.

McClellan’s basketball odyssey has taken from the states to countries like Belgium, Germany and Greece. It had also led him to have chance encounters with onetime GU teammates on the same basketball journey.

Jeremy Jones recalled how he crossed paths with McClellan when his team, the Kapfenberg Bulls, needed to fill a roster spot once a guard was injured. Jones was about to text his coach McClellan’s name when he got a message from his coach asking if Jones could tell him anything about a guy named Eric McClellan. Three weeks later, McClellan signed with the team.

This season, McClellan is back with Kapfenberg in the Austrian Basketball Superliga. COVID-19 has changed lives across the globe, but McClellan is grounded to the hoop life. He’s living in Kapfenberg with his girlfriend (whom he met at GU) and continues to study the art of basketball.

“I go to sleep thinking about basketball, wake up thinking about it,” McClellan said. “Even on those days when my body is dead tired, or I’m frustrated, or in pain. “I’m doing what I love to do.”

Matthew Dobner is a staff writer.

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