by Sheri Boggs

One by one The Apprentice's 16 contestants were introduced. As I expected, half seemed to have memorized every toothy philosophy from their expensive business school pedigrees. Others, especially some of the women, looked to be relying solely on intimidation and Prada. Only one contestant really stood out.

"Ph.D., MBA, B.A., to me it's all B.S. Street smarts are where it's at," said a man with a wide grin and a slight drawl. Troy McClain, a 32-year-old contestant from Boise, went on to explain how he eschewed college in order to take care of his mother and sister. Open and friendly, McClain exuded easy confidence without a hint of arrogance or privilege.

"Wow," I thought, taking an impressed draught off my Corona and settling in for a good hour of reality TV, "this guy is like a real person."

McClain's roots are in fact lodged in local soil. While much of his childhood was spent moving between Alaska and Montana, he graduated from Mead High School in 1989 before starting his own gym at the corner of Division and Indiana called the Athlete's Arena. I caught up with him earlier this week, but he said he couldn't talk about the show until it concludes later this spring. Friends who knew him in high school, however, recall that even then, McClain had a mind for business.

"He would bring Trump's The Art of the Deal to school and we watched Wall Street over and over again," recalls Garth Selden, owner of Country Homes Power Equipment. "In fact, in our high school yearbook, the quote next to his picture says, 'Trump, I'm coming after you.' "

McClain figured prominently in the show's very first episode. After the competitors were divided into teams of the men vs. the women, McClain volunteered to lead the men as Donald Trump issued the show's first challenge, selling lemonade on the streets of Manhattan. The men lost and McClain found himself called onto the carpet along with two other team members. Still, he escaped The Donald's wrath through a combination of being able to take his lumps and still exude confident leadership.

"I thought he came off like a genius in that first episode," says Doug Cannon, a branch manager for Wells Fargo and another friend from high school. "That's just his personality. He's aggressive, but he's also got integrity. You could tell that Donald liked him."

If each of the contestants has a secret weapon, it's clear that McClain's is the force of his personality. Selden remembers taking a trip to Las Vegas with McClain to check out an international karate tournament.

"McClain was untrained, outclassed but most importantly, unstoppable," Selden recalls. "It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen. Troy just got into this zone and ended up sweeping the whole division. He walked away with a 10-foot trophy."

You'd think McClain's Spokane friends might feel a little envy or want to deflate his image of "aw, shucks" charm, but all of them expressed their belief that nobody deserves The Apprentice's shot at a six-figure salary more than Troy. Many talked about his hearing-impaired sister, his fluency in sign language and his work with troubled kids at the Morning Star Boys Ranch and at his gym. While neither McClain nor his friends can answer any questions about the show until all the episodes have aired, there's a palpable sense of excitement that every now and then, the American Dream happens for those who deserve it.

"I really got into that first episode, not just because of Troy but because it was fun to watch the strategy and everything," says Bill Kalivas, VP of Intech and a longtime friend of McClain's. "This could be really big for him."

While plenty of The Apprentice is cheesy, silly entertainment -- from The Donald's mock-angry glowering and bad hair to the way Trump's girlfriend is introduced as little more than a bit of extra window dressing in his luxury-packed penthouse -- it's still fascinating TV. Like many of The Apprentice's viewers, contestants must use their heads, work well with others and figure out just what the hell it is the boss really wants. The show was so successful in its first week that NBC is keeping it on Thursday night after Friends instead of moving it to Wednesdays as originally planned. And while the over-the-top luxuries and accoutrements of Donald Trump and his ilk aren't for everyone, it's fun to watch how someone like Troy McClain might go about carving out his own markers of success. We'll be watching.

The Apprentice airs Thursday nights at 8:30 pm on NBC.

Publication date: 1/15/04

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