Gerald McClease Sr. usually takes his normal spot in the first seat on the Wilbur Cross bench. The longtime assistant coach’s booming voice is familiar to every boys basketball player who has come through the program for over a decade.
McClease is also in a unique spot. He only needs to look to his left to see his son Gerald, Jr. also barking out instructions. He only needs to look out on the court to see his grandson Christian play in the same uniform he donned nearly a quarter century ago.
“It’s letting me know I’m getting older,” said McClease, who recently turned 52. “To have that front row seat, it’s very special to watch my son coach and my grandson play. I’m a very, very happy man. To see this all up close, I’m a very lucky man. This is rare. I’m enjoying the ride.”
So, if you are keeping score at home, that’s three generations of McCleases who have not only played for the Cross program, but who are also a part of the storied program at the same time. As head coach Kevin Walton puts it, it’s a family affair.
“It is (unique). It’s something to be celebrated. It’s truly a family affair. I call them, ‘The First Family of Basketball,’” Walton said.
Gerald Sr., starred for Wilbur Cross under legendary coach Bob Saulsbury, earning Register all-state laurels as a senior in 1987. He went on to play at Iona College.
Gerald Sr, had volunteered his time coaching some of Gerald Jr.’s AAU teams and at The Farnham House in New Haven. He knew Jim Reynolds from there as well. Reynolds was the coach of Wilbur Cross at the time.
With Gerald Jr. about to become a freshman at the school, his dad asked Reynolds if he could be a volunteer on the staff.
Gerald Sr. has been there ever since, becoming a paid assistant the following year when Anthony Hill became the Governors’ coach. And he had a front-row seat to watch his son elevate into a Register all-state selection as a senior (2010-11) — just like he did.
“Since I was in high school (his dad) was a big motivator. I couldn’t ask for anything better in a coach,” Gerald Jr. said. “Yes, he could give you a mean, stern side, then at times, he would come back and follow up with love. He is a nice, genuine man.”
Gerald Jr. went on to play at the Trinity-Pawling School (2012) then Sullivan County Community College (2012-14), then two seasons at Division II Mercy (2014-16). When he would come home on a break from school, Gerald Jr. would volunteer his time helping out some of the Wilbur Cross players with drills, skills, whatever was needed.
So it became a natural fit when Gerald Jr. came back to live in New Haven to join the staff at his alma mater when a spot opened up.
“I have good communication with the kids, a good relationship with them. Why not do it if I’m able to give back to my high school?” Gerald Jr. said.
Said Walton: “It was organic, a natural. It was really important to have a young person to connect with the young kids.”
Gerad Jr. is now in his fourth season as an assistant. Normally, the other coaches call him Junior to differentiate from dad.
It’s not easy when you have your dad and another Cross legend on staff – Maurice Williamson, a former teammate of Gerald Sr. and like the McCleases, a Register all-stater as a senior (1987-88) — but Gerald Jr. has managed to do just fine.
“He sees things we don’t see and in doing that, young players tend to attract to him a little more,” Gerald Sr. said. “They can relate to him better because he is a young man (28).”
There were two games last season when Gerald Sr. had to step in for Walton. Gerald Jr. would handle the substituting among other things. Gerald Sr. is undefeated.
The McClease athletic family tree extends much further. Deborah Daniels McClease, Gerald Sr.’s wife, was a former track and field standout and is currently the girls basketball JV coach at Cross. She addresses her husband as Gerald and her son as G to differentiate the two.
Nikki McClease is Christian’s mother. She played basketball for Cross, as did Ebony, Christian’s aunt. Walton isn’t kidding when he said the McCleases can form a starting five and probably all still hold their own on the court.
But the one actually playing on the court now — carrying on the family legacy — is Christian McClease. He is Nikki’s son, Gerald and Deborah’s grandson, and Ebony and Gerald Jr.’s nephew.
“Not really (whether Christian feels pressure). I’ve been around it for so long. They all have been coaching me through my whole life. They have all been there the entire time, so there is not a lot of pressure,” Christian said. “I’ve got to fill some big shoes. It’s hard. Certainly, things are not easy.”
McClease is among the team’s leading scorers as a sophomore for the Governors. Gerald Jr. sees Christian as the brother he never had.
“I look at it a lot differently. I’ve seen him grow up and now I’m coaching him,” Gerald Jr. said.
“We go, ‘Family’ on three (in the huddle). We treat everyone the same.”
Said Walton: “Here’s a kid who plays in front of his uncle, who had really good success at Cross, who plays in front of his grandfather, who had really good success, his mother, who had really good success and his aunt, who had really good success. … The pressure is there.”
Walton also noted Christian’s “younger brothers who look up to him.” He has five of them.
Gerald Sr. agrees that the pressure is there. He also thinks Christian can become a really special player before he lays down the Cross jersey for the final time.
“Right now, Chris can shoot the ball and his handle has gotten much better. Years down the road, I think he can be a tremendous player at Cross,” McClease Sr. said. “I got after Junior really hard. As Chrsitian is maturing, we can get after him a little more. … He understands that his uncle and I played at Cross. He has shoes to fill, but Chris is up for the challenge. He will do Ok for himself. The expectations are there.”
Yes, it’s certainly a family legacy for the McCleases at Cross with decades of basketball memories to reflect upon.