Conversation with Ray McCallum: 'I was born into the game of basketball'

Mar 20, 2018 by Print
Conversation with Ray McCallum: 'I was born into the game of basketball'

Ray McCallum Jr.'s life is basketball. It's as simple as that. Born in Detroit in 1991, the Unicaja Malaga point guard is the son of Ray McCallum Sr., a former professional player who had since turned to the bench as a college coach. That might give you some clues about the abilities of the Unicaja rookie, who has averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists in 26 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague appearances, including 22 as a starter for Coach Joan Plaza.

Those numbers should come as no surprise given that, as a baby, he was already watching his dad on the sidelines. "I was born into the game of basketball." McCallum said. "As a young child, a baby, I remember going to all the games, and when I was probably around four I started playing. I mean, he practically put a ball in my hands."

Little McCallum showed interest and talent for the game, and as he started growing up, things started to happen. Of course, being the son of the local coach made everything a bit easier, even if he could not go unnoticed.

"When I was six years old, with my playing clothes not even fitting me, my dad was coaching at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana," McCallum Jr. said. "They used to have a halftime show called 'The Little Dribblers' and I'd go out there at halftime, dribbling between my legs, behind my back in front of everyone in the arena."

But he was still a long way from becoming the professional player he is today. "I used to be extremely nervous, but go out there with other kids and do it. Of course, everyone knew me because my dad was the coach and I was the smallest one so, that was me getting put on a big stage at six years old. I have been playing basketball ever since."

Being surrounded by basketball not only had an impact on him on the court. With his father an active head coach, watching games at home also became something of an exercise in addition to the ones in practice. McCallum noted: "When we were sitting at home watching games on TV... he would always point things out and watching an NBA game was like watching a film. He would always teach me things, he's basically been my coach my whole life."

An unexpected turn of events surprised many when McCallum arrived at the end of his high school years. In his senior season, he averaged 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, culminating a strong four years. He received several accolades, was considered one of the top players in the country and courted by some big name colleges, but he decided to stay at home in Detroit so he could play under his father.

"Everybody was surprised I stayed home for college because in high school I was a McDonald's All American. I had big schools like UCLA, Arizona... trying to get me to go there." McCallum recalled. "For me, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to stay home, play in front of your family and play for your father... I felt like he knew my game more than anybody and he knew my goal was to be in the NBA. I don't regret anything about it."

The McCallum duo had a major impact for the University of Detroit Mercy Titans.

"My second year there, we won the conference championship, and that let us go to the NCAA tournament. It happened on my dad's birthday, so it was a special moment. The school had not been in the NCAA tournament in 13 years prior to that, so it was one of the main reasons I wanted to be there: to play for him and try to bring the school back."

On a personal level, it was also a resounding success: "We had a lot of fun and I think it made the relationship between my father and me stronger to this day."

The big change came when young McCallum made his professional debut. His first destination: Sacramento. The strong link that had kept the family close together was about to go through some changes. As Jr. explained, "He was still in Detroit and I was playing in Sacramento during that time. He would stay up late, because there was a big time difference from where I was and my family."

That tradition went on for a few years as McCallum played for Sacramento, San Antonio and Memphis in the NBA. Then last summer, he welcomed a new challenge and signed with Unicaja Malaga to play in the EuroLeague. McCallum didn't initially know a whole lot about his new destination, but he did his homework.

"Before coming here I had definitely heard of the EuroLeague," he explained. "It's a great competition, I have a lot of friends that had played here before me. When the summer came and I saw my options, I felt at this point that coming to Malaga would be the best decision for me to make. When I talked to Coach Plaza on the phone before coming, he knew my game really well and I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to grow. I was surprised that Coach knew all about my strengths and my weaknesses. Him and the club did a lot of research about me, so him knowing all that made me feel more comfortable."

As the season has gone by, McCallum has adapted to the new style of game and has become a major contributor on an Unicaja team that is still aiming for a playoff berth. "When I got here the first week, it was a different style for me for sure. At the end of the day, it's just about getting out there and playing basketball, but there are a few differences here and there as compared to how I had played. But when we get to the games it's fun, the crowds are there and Coach Plaza and my teammates help me play with confidence."

McCallum has faced many changes during his career, and now he's experiencing what is probably one of the biggest challenge since he turned professional. However, distance is no obstacle for Ray McCallum Sr. to keep monitoring his son's games.

"Now, with FaceTime, we talk every day. Every time, as soon as the game is over, he calls my phone and talks to me about what I did wrong, or what I did right, or what do I need to work on. He still watches!"