Over the past week, I have been trading tweets with San Antonio Spurs combo guard Gary Neal. I told Neal I was interested in writing an article on his amazing trek through the world of basketball, to which he happily replied, "Yea no Problem!"
Neal, almost immediately, and seemingly without hesitation, agreed to do an interview with a nameless and unidentifiable writer. Understandably, I was ecstatic and eager to get started.
The man in the No. 14 Spurs' jersey is most notably a winner with an extraordinary work ethic, but he’s also humble, a family man, and, above all, he’s real.
Neal's consent to take time out of his busy life, complicated by the recent arrival of his first son, Neslie Nathaniel Neal, was remarkable and a testament to his character and authenticity. Not very many high-profile athletes, regardless of being in the midst of a lockout, would be willing to do an interview that is of absolutely no benefit to them, but Neal is not the typical athlete.
He was born and raised in Baltimore, Md., and attended Aberdeen High School and Calvert Hall College High School. From there, he went off to La Salle, where he was the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year. Neal led the Explorers in scoring with over 18 points per game.
Neal then took his talents to Towson University, where he averaged over 25 points, four rebounds and three assists a game with the Tigers. Neal is one of only a handful of Division I basketball players to score 1,000 points with two different schools.
Despite flourishing on the college stage, Neal went undrafted in 2007. I asked Neal if going undrafted disappointed him, to which he responded: “I wasn't disappointed that I wasn't drafted. I did the math and could tell I wasn't gonna get drafted three months before the draft. I just used that as motivation to continue to grow and develop as a player and person.”
Grow and develop he did.
Neal decided to take his talents to Europe. His first stop was in Turkey, where he played for Pinar Karsiyaka of the Turkish Basketball League. Neal proceeded to lead his team in scoring with over 23 points a game.
He then moved on to Spain for a short stint with F.C. Barcelona before signing with Benetton Treviso of the Italian Serie A League, where he was named to the All-Eurocup Second Team for his stellar play. Neal’s last stop in Europe before heading back to the States was with the Unicaja Malaga club of the Spanish League.
Following a workout with the San Antonio Spurs in June of 2010, the Spurs offered Neal a contract. He went on to average 10 points and three rebounds a game and lead all NBA rookies in three-point field goal percentage at 42 percent.
Neal’s numbers earned him a spot on the All-Rookie first team, as well as the Rookie squad for the annual Rookie-Sophomore game during All-Star Weekend.
Neal said, “making the rookie team was great…It was a great experience to be apart of an All-Star weekend.
Neal’s step into the limelight did not end there though.
Neal on the shot: “Looking back at the season, Coach (Gregg Popovich) had organized plays for me at the end of the game to take the game-winning or tying shot. So for all the Spurs players and coaches, it was no surprise that I had an opportunity to take the last shot. To make the shot felt great. To give your team a chance to win a key game like that is a great feeling and I'm just happy the ball went in the basket.”
Neal’s heroic shot might have come as a surprise to some, but not to those who know his past.
In 2000, while at Aberdeen High School, he averaged a triple-double, led his team to the state championship game and hit the game-winning shot. It was only fitting that Neal hit the biggest shot of the season for the Spurs.
So, with all of Neal’s success clearly making a few NBA GM’s re-think their draft choices, I asked Neal what it felt like to prove all the doubters wrong.
“I don't feel like I proved anybody wrong, nor do I care about proving anybody wrong or care what other people may think. The people that know me on a personal level know that I'm a hard-working, humble guy, and the rookie team was a reward for my work ethic.”
Despite all the struggles he went through and the long, laborious journey on which he embarked to finally reach the NBA, he did not harbor an ounce of ill will or spite toward anyone.
Neal is not like that. He's more concerned with learning from his mistakes and experiences. He’s about making a positive impact on his team in order to put them in the best possible position to win. He’s focused on staying humble.
It’s evident that Gary Neal’s actions definitely reflect his words.