As he soared through the air, Shelby McEwen separated both of his legs and extended his right arm. The crowd at The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas for the 2014 Jordan Brand “First to Fly” Dunk Contest knew exactly what the high school student was trying to mimic.
On his descent from the jump, McEwen slammed the ball through the basket, bringing celebrity judges Victor Oladipo, Bow Wow and Teyana Taylor to their feet. An unknown player from Abbeville, Mississippi, had just completed Michael Jordan’s signature free-throw line dunk from the 1988 NBA Dunk Contest, and he did it while still in high school.
The young player never could have imagined his leaping ability would turn him into an SEC champion high jumper, and his contributions would help Alabama claim its first SEC Indoor championship since 1972. After all, the Crimson Tide’s centerpiece for the upcoming NCAA Indoor Championships in College Station, Texas, thought he was destined to play basketball.
McEwen received a few college offers after the dunk contest, but Northwest Mississippi Community College had been eyeing his athletic ability since day one. He envisioned the Rangers as a quick stop on the way to a historic college basketball program.
But once he started playing, he felt something was missing. In high school McEwen won the 2015 Mississippi state high jump championship, and had always participated in track and field during the basketball offseason. Track practice was always prioritized last, but he was uncomfortable dropping what may be his best sport.
There was just one problem, Northwest Mississippi Community College didn’t have a track and field team.
“(An agreement) was made between Shelby, his mom and I before he came to our place,” said Bubba Skelton, the Northwest Mississippi basketball coach. “I knew that his future very well could be in track. As far as trying to set his goals nationally, we definitely thought that his route to go would be the high jump.”
Every day during the basketball offseason McEwen drove 30 miles back to his hometown to practice high jump at Oxford High School.
When it came time to compete, he drove across the southeast to jump unattached in front of college coaches.
“I saw that everything didn’t go the way I wanted it to in basketball,” McEwen said. “Duke was always my dream school, and I felt like I didn’t get that exposure. I had to push myself to make sure I got to where I am today.”
Fittingly, his personal record for high jump as an unattached athlete came at a meet in Tuscaloosa. It was enough to draw the attention of Alabama track coach Dan Waters. Like many of his athletes, Waters saw serious potential in McEwen’s athleticism.
“I think I was the only one that saw (the SEC championship results) coming,” Waters said. “… Shelby is the perfect example. He was ranked second going in, but he had basically not lost all season long. I knew that once he got in the competition that he was only going to get better and better. That’s exactly what he proved.”
McEwen is one of nine individuals (six men, three women) that will compete for the Crimson Tide March 9-10 at the NCAA Indoor championships.
“They have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder now, too,” Waters said. “Everybody is going to be looking at them like, ‘This is a team that just won the toughest track and field conference in the country.’”