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Driven For Success
Story first appeared in Flames Illustrated, Jan. 15-29 issue
It is a hot, blistery June afternoon in Lynchburg and there is a constant reverberating noise of metal plates crashing together. The noise can be heard throughout the tunnel of the Vines Center, as the discord echoes onto the floor and into the rafters of Liberty's hallowed edifice.
It is the middle of his summer break and senior forward Alex McLean is persevering through heat and humidity, lifting weights and conditioning in preparation for the men's hoops season, which is still five months away.
The Bay Shore, N.Y., native burst onto the scene a year ago, averaging 14.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game during his first season with the Flames. His rebound average placed him second in the conference, behind only Big South Player of the Year Arizona Reid of High Point.
McLean was such a presence in the post for Liberty that his 8.9 rebound average was the highest by a Flame since Jason Dixon hauled in 9.0 caroms per contest during the 1994-95 campaign. McLean was an efficient scoring option for Liberty as well, ranking second in the conference with a 54.4 field goal percentage.
His successful season for the Flames had almost literally come out of nowhere. Standing only 6-2 as a high school senior, McLean played bass, piano and drums in the Bay Shore High School band. A huge growth spurt late in his senior year started him thinking about pursuing his love of basketball, despite having never competed in an organized setting previously.
So, McLean turned down numerous music scholarships to such schools as California and Hofstra, as well as serious interest from famed Julliard, and enrolled at Nassau Community College in Long Island, N.Y.
McLean played one season at Nassau before heading to Suffolk Community College for his sophomore season. After a scholarship offer fell through at Southeast Missouri State, McLean decided to matriculate at Liberty in January of 2006.
During his first season with the Flames, McLean collected 12 double-doubles, while starting 27 of the Flames' 31 games. McLean was named the Choice Hotels Big South Conference Player of the Week on Feb. 25, 2007, for his play during the previous week, which included career highs of 40 points and 19 rebounds at VMI a few days before. Both marks were national highs for the day.
Following McLean's career night at VMI, Liberty boarded a boat of tumultuous events. The Flames were upset in the first round of the Big South Championship by VMI, inside the Vines Center, followed by the dismissal of the coaching staff a day later.
The topper for the University was the passing of its founder and No. 1 fan, Dr. Jerry Falwell, in May.
But each spring brings new life and rebirth. A new coaching staff was hired, spearheaded by Ritchie McKay. The first-year Liberty coach was able to attract close friend and former Colorado State head coach Dale Layer to Lynchburg as an assistant. Layer, who has a penchant for developing big men, as evidenced by 2007 NBA Draft first-round pick Jason Smith, has been a fire under an already smoldering McLean.
"Everything he says, I take in wholeheartedly," McLean said. "He had an NBA draft pick last year, and that's a dream of mine. I know he knows what he's talking about. He doesn't let me get away with anything and has been an intricate part of my daily improvement."
McLean wasted no time getting ready for his senior season through heavy conditioning, skill work and diet control. "I tried to improve on my weaknesses and be in the best shape I could be," said McLean. "I worked really hard to improve my jump shot and my flexibility and strength on the court."
Whether in Lynchburg on a hot summer day, or at home in New York, McLean was on a constant schedule. "During the off-season I have a basketball trainer I go to," reflected McLean. "I would lift in the morning and train my basketball skills during mid-day, play summer league games at night and finish with more conditioning on a track after that."
McLean was disciplined with his diet as well. "I feel my diet is one aspect that has helped me the most," added McLean. The offseason dedication helped put the senior in midseason form during the middle of the summer.
"Not to deprecate any other players I have coached, but Alex might be the hardest-working player who has ever played for me," stated McKay. Coming from a coach who has sent 11 of his players into the NBA ranks, such a statement shows the impressive nature of McLean's work ethic.
"My training has made me stronger of mind because I know I can push my body to greater limits," added McLean. And pushing his body he is.
Through the season's first 13 games, McLean has increased his scoring average by 2.3 points per game from last season. He is accounting for 26 percent of the Flames' scoring this season, while last year he was responsible for only 19 percent.
Playing only his fourth year of organized basketball, the learning curve has been great for McLean. "My first year of junior college was rough, and I struggled a lot my first two years just learning the game and being a student of the game," commented McLean. "My biggest leap has been from last season to this season."
The leap is in large part due to the tutelage of McKay and Layer, as well as playing the rigors of a Division I schedule. Last season, night in and night out, McLean was matched up with the likes of Florida's NBA Draft first-round picks, Al Horford and Joakim Noah. He posted a double-double against the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, Trent Plaisted of BYU, while three-time Mid-Continent Player of the Year Caleb Green of Oral Roberts and Winthrop's Craig Bradshaw where among others McLean faced off against.
"Having a year under my belt and playing against some of the best competition in the nation has really helped my advancement this season," said McLean. "I have been through the battle and I know what I need to do every day."
With experience in hand, a new coaching staff to learn from and over half a season remaining, McLean is excited about the future, but senses the emptiness which has been felt courtside in the Vines Center so far this season.
"Anyone who was graced with Dr. Falwell's presence was blessed," said McLean. "It hurts seeing his seat empty at our home games, but the whole arena is filled with his spirit. It's a tough loss, but we can definitely feel his spirit."
McLean's favorite memory of Liberty's No. 1 fan occurred prior to the Flames' clash with Winthrop at home last season. McLean's grandma was seeing her grandson play for the first time and was having a hard time walking down the steep Vines Center steps. Dr. Falwell and crew picked up McLean's grandma and brought her right down to their front-row seats to sit with them.
"It meant a lot to her, and a lot to me," said McLean. "That was the type of guy Dr. Falwell was. He made her feel right at home, and he made her feel like a part of the Liberty family."
Trudging ahead from the loss of a visionary, McLean looks to brighter days. It is why the senior from Bay Shore, N.Y., was unwavering in pushing his body to the edge on those hot and sticky summer days. It is also why McLean desires to be a part of a sensational ride, toward capturing a Big South Championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, both of which would be sure to bring a smile to the former Chancellor's face.
Vincent Briedis is an assistant athletics media relations director for Liberty University who covers men's basketball.