RADNOR, Pa. (AP) Gary McLain reached the basketball summit, making his name as the cool, cocky catalyst who led Villanova to the most farfetched national championship in NCAA tournament history.
He was Most Outstanding Player in the title game. He was an NBA draft pick.
And he was trying to hide a shameful secret – he conquered the Big East while in the clutches of cocaine abuse.
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”I made the wrong choices,” McLain said.
Once Villanova’s wildest `Cat, McLain has curved his notorious past into a redemptive path, now dishing out life advice at the rapid rate he once passed the basketball.
His mistakes and misfortune have left him at times unemployed, briefly homeless and dissolved any shot at a professional basketball career.
”I forgot about all the people that loved me just because I was Gary McLain, not because I was,” he said, now mimicking a baritone announcer’s voice, ”MVP of the one of the most exciting games in college history.”
”I lost my humility, man.”
McLain used his low points as the starting point for a career as a motivational speaker. In town for a 30th anniversary celebration of Villanova’s national championship, McLain spoke Wednesday at Radnor High School to about 600 students from the 11th and 12th grades.
Wearing a Villanova jumpsuit, the 51-year old McLain delivered a rollicking hour-long testimonial that mixed comedy, hip-hop and tales from his collegiate heyday with a somber message about the dangers of straying from the righteous path and falling prey to the wicked temptations that threw his life into turmoil.
”You don’t have to win the national championship to imagine what it’s like to have all that attention,” he said.
Long shunned by Villanova for tainting the fabled championship with his cocaine confession, McLain is back in the program’s good graces.
McLain chronicled his rise from leaving his single mother in New York to live with his high school coach in Massachusetts to rooming with Michael Jordan at a teenage prospect basketball camp to eventually picking Villanova over Holy Cross.
At Villanova, he dined with Wildcats football star Howie Long. McLain and teammates Dwayne McClain and Ed Pinckney made a pact in their dormitory their freshman year that they would take Villanova to the Final Four.
But once the final whistle blew at practices and games, the party never stopped raging.
”I wasn’t managing my time well,” McLain said. ”And we’re not talking about when I went at Villanova. We’re talking about way before Villanova. I was hanging around people that didn’t really care about discipline or rules. I was hanging around a crew that was doing things like drinking. I was hanging around a crew that was doing a bunch of other things.
”So I kept that life on the low.”
And that seeped so much into his life at Villanova, that McLain says, ”I kind of lost my way.”
The parties, drinking and drug use were masked by McLain’s marvelous talent that erupted on the court under coach Rollie Massimino. He had a freshman record 13 assists against St. John’s in 1981 and ranks ninth on the program’s career list with 456.
With two trips to the NCAA tournament regional final on their resume on McLain’s watch, the Wildcats pulled off one of sports’ greatest upsets in 1985. The eighth-seeded Wildcats won games against Dayton, top-seeded Michigan, No. 5 Maryland, No. 2 North Carolina, and No. 2 Memphis State before defeating Georgetown 66-64 in the title game to become the lowest-seeded team to win a national championship.
McLain sealed the 52-45 semifinal win over Memphis State with four free throws in the final minute. He played all 40 minutes and had eight points and two assists in the April 1, 1985 championship game.
”This is what happens when you work hard,” McLain said on CBS’ postgame interview. ”You win. No. 1! You’re No. 1!”
McLain raised his left index finger in the air, flanked by Massimino and his rowdy teammates. The New Jersey Nets drafted him months later and fun times seemed ahead for the player friends nicknamed ”Giz” after the adorable Gizmo character in ”Gremlins.”
They never came, at least, not right away.
Two years after the Wildcats won the championship, McLain wrote a nearly 10,000-word, first-person account for Sports Illustrated about his cocaine addiction at Villanova that put a nearly 20-year freeze on his relationship with Massimino and the program.
The chilling first paragraph – which began on the magazine’s cover with the headline ”A Bad Trip” – told of McLain on a coke high when the Wildcats were honored at the White House.
McLain said then and maintains now that he didn’t take drugs before the Georgetown game. He also wrote that he snorted coke with teammates, although none has ever acknowledged using drugs.
”It hurts that I hurt people,” he said.
What should have been McLain’s forever shining moment would later become scarred by the powerful punch he threw at the Catholic university.
”It put a black eye on everything,” former Villanova center, and McLain friend, Chuck Everson said.
Everson, who still stands out in a crowd with his 7-foot-1 frame and flattop haircut, remained tight with McLain and said he never judged him through years of troubles. Everson got Massimino and McLain to hold a tearful reconciliation at a summer basketball around the time the Wildcats celebrated the 20th anniversary of the improbable upset.
Everson never told either man the other one was attending the camp. Once they arrived, Everson told McLain, ”It’s over today.”
”They went in another room. There was yelling, there was tears, there was laughter, there was hugs,” Everson said at Radnor. ”At the end, we had a thing with the kids in my camp. Then we went out and had pasta and threw out the first pitch at a Long Island Ducks baseball game.”
McLain’s battle with addiction – which included a stint in an Allenwood, Pennsylvania treatment center – haunted deep him into adulthood. He was still abusing as recently as 2005, and was out partying when he learned his mother had died.
”I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye,” he said. ”Even though I laugh and joke a little bit, I don’t think I’ll get over that.”
McLain said he’s been clean since 2005, proud he’s survived his darkest days to see his daughter enroll in medical school. He has the itch to get into broadcasting and was a hit behind the microphone during the Fox Sports 1 telecast of Tuesday’s Villanova game.
McLain and the rest of his `85 teammates attended a reunion dinner Monday night. Massimino was there too, still coaching NAIA Norwood in a preseason game against Villanova on Tuesday. McLain looked fly in sunglasses and a tux as he strutted his way down the bleachers for a pregame tribute.
When his sermon ended Wednesday, a Radnor junior named Anna approached McLain and shared her story that she also was in recovery from substance abuse.
”I didn’t want to come to school today but my sponsor made me, so I guess it was worth it,” she said.
The former black sheep of basketball has found happiness in life and made peace with his past. He is no longer defined by mistakes of the past, but how he uses the lessons learned to promote a constructive message for addicts and others willing to listen.
”I’m totally cool with everything that’s transpired,” McLain said. ”That’s the beauty.”