Gary Neal enjoyed his greatest achievement as a professional when he lit up the Miami Heat for 24 points in the San Antonio Spurs' 113-77 blowout win in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. And considering where he's come from, you can bet he appreciated the moment more than most.
Absent from the rotation for a good chunk of the Spurs' postseason run, Neal has become a major factor in San Antonio's floor-spreading offense. In three Finals contests, he has averaged 13.7 points per game on 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Granted, those numbers are inflated by his massive Game 3 effort, but his usefulness as a defense-stretcher throughout the series can't be overstated.
Incredibly, Neal has been tearing up the Heat alongside another long shot in Danny Green. Green had been cut three times in his brief NBA career before sticking with the Spurs. Still, even his pedigree makes Neal's look awfully humble by comparison.
At some point, we'll stop being surprised by San Antonio's unique talent for digging up hidden gems. Neal is just the most recent example of that ability.
Anyway, Neal has always been a terrific shooter. But for a long time, it didn't look like he'd have a chance to prove it at the highest level.
After a potentially great college career at La Salle was derailed by a rape accusation that didn't hold up in court, Neal spent another two years at Towson. The stroke never left him, but perhaps because of the stigma of his legal troubles, Neal went undrafted.
After seasons in Turkey, Spain and Italy, Neal got a call to work out with the Spurs in advance of the 2010 Las Vegas Summer League. Before that invite, Neal hadn't heard a peep out of any other NBA teams. Though he toiled in obscurity overseas, some rough footage shows he had the same deadly jumper and unflappable confidence all along.
If it's unclear where Neal is in that last clip, here's a hint: He's the guy driving the crowd wild with nasty step-back jumpers and high-arcing fadeaways.
Neal shone in his workout with the Spurs, impressing general manager R.C. Buford enough to earn a spot on the Spurs summer league squad. In this clip, it's amazing to note that Buford concedes that had Neal not been on fire in his initial workout, we probably never would have heard from him again.
But Neal was on fire.
And he stayed that way throughout the Spurs' summer league season, this time impressing coach Gregg Popovich enough to earn a somewhat unusual guaranteed three-year deal.
The contract didn't make Neal rich by NBA standards, a fact that has become a topic of conversation after his Game 3 explosion.
But after going through so much to make it onto an NBA payroll at all, it's hard to imagine that Neal is taking his "modest" salary for granted.
Neal's story is an incredible one—unbelievable, really. Guys like him aren't supposed to toil overseas for years and then blow up on the big stage. The rarity of his narrative has many folks trying to come up with explanations for how it all happened.
Some are more creative than others.
The truth is that Neal is a remarkable success story who has never been afraid of the moment. Had he not shot the ball brilliantly when the Spurs had him in for a tryout, he wouldn't have played in Vegas that summer. And if he hadn't been scorching in the desert that July, he'd probably be back in Europe.
Neal has been to some dark places in his life and career. He has stared failure (not to mention the potential loss of his liberty) in the face.
Big shots in the finals probably don't seem like much to him.