Ever since he was a grade-school basketball player, a little pudgy, a little slow, Charlotte Christian sophomore B.J. Mack knew he wanted to play in the ACC, arguably college basketball’s best league.
So even though classmates and opponents would sometimes poke fun of his appearance, or how long it took him to run from one free-throw line to the other, Mack focused on his goals - and kept working.
“I guess I knew where I wanted to go,” said Mack, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound centerpiece of a Knights team that is ranked No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 and plays host to No. 3 Providence Day Friday night. “I think I knew if I kept working my time would come.”
Mack, 16, was always bigger than his classmates. By middle school at Holy Trinity, he began finding success. As a freshman last season at Charlotte Catholic, Mack started at center on a team that went 32-1 and won a 4A state championship. He averaged 11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and made 54 percent of his shots.
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But desiring a chance to play a national schedule and possibly play in the DICKS’ National Championship in New York, Mack transferred to Charlotte Christian for his sophomore season and has enjoyed success.
“I was very excited and very glad to have B.J.,” Charlotte Christian coach Shonn Brown said. “But it’s more than just basketball. BJ as a person, I’ve seen him develop over the few months we’ve had him so far. It’s just been fun to watch.”
Mack averages 15.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists for the Cougars. He committed to Virginia Tech in September, after receiving a scholarship offer from N.C. State and interest from schools such as Arizona, Davidson and Notre Dame. Among sophomores, Mack is ranked No. 4 statewide by Phenom Hoop Report, which tracks players regionally.
So he’s closer to reaching his ACC dream, and he’s dropped 10 pounds since starting a workout regime in the fall with coaches at Christian. He’s led his team to No. 1 in the Sweet 16 and atop the N.C. Preps state private-school rankings. And his game is flourishing.
It appears B.J. Mack is having the last laugh.
“He’s never been a guy to run with the front-runners,” said Mack’s father, Brian, who played on the Garinger High team that won a 4A state championship in 1989. “He’s always been the underdog. People talked about him some growing up, but I always told him, ‘We’re building you for the long term, to be a big man later on.’
“We weren’t worried about weight and speed at 10 or 11 years old because his body wasn’t mature. But that footwork we implemented back then? It’s starting to show now.”
For such a large player, Mack handles and shoots a basketball as well as many high school guards. Coaches compare his reliable hands to those of North Carolina big man Kennedy Meeks, when Meeks was in high school at crosstown West Charlotte High.
“Man, he’s big. He’s athletic,” Christian football coach Jason Estep said of Mack. “He’s got such soft hands for such a big guy. I wish he played football. I joke with him that he’s welcome to come over (to the football team) and pick any number he wants, but I know his path is different.”
For Mack, the path was always to the ACC.
Virginia Tech was the first ACC school to offer him a scholarship. That was during his freshman season at Charlotte Catholic, and he almost committed to the Hokies on his first campus visit back then.
“We were walking through the cafeteria, just starting to tour the campus, and he said, ‘Daddy, I’m ready. I love it here,’ ” Brian Mack recalled. “He said, ‘Dad, they have lobster here.’ I told him, ‘B.J., dude, you can’t even eat seafood (because of allergic reactions).’ He said, ‘If they have lobster, I know they have what I do eat.’ ”
Brian Mack took his son to Virginia Tech several times afterward, and each time B.J. wanted to commit. But the father was unsure his freshman son was good enough for the ACC. But after the offer from N.C. State, a program that has won two national championships, followed by one from Georgia of the SEC, Brian Mack said he became convinced BJ could play at the highest level.
In September, as the family drove home from Blacksburg after the Hokies’ football game against Boston College, B.J. again told his dad: “I’m ready.”
This time, Brian Mack didn’t discourage him.
“If it was up to me, I would’ve taken every phone call and every visit we could,” Brian Mack said. “But B.J. does not like this kind of attention. I just didn’t want him to go up there and not pan out. But when he got the N.C. State offer, that confirmed to me he was an ACC-type player.”
So with college out of the way, B.J. Mack is focused on helping Christian win its first state championship since 2001. He also wants to become a household name at the high school that produced NBA star Stephen Curry.
“I believe we are going to be part of history,” Mack said of the Knights. “I want to be one of the best to play here. I really do. I know I have to keep working, but believe me, I’m more than ready to do that.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr