Posted Nov 11 2010 8:51PM
SAN ANTONIO -- For years now, everyone at every level has known that Gary Neal the player could shoot straight. His exploits putting the ball into the basket are already legendary in some circles.
What the Spurs needed to know was whether Neal the person is a straight shooter. His scouting report contained more than just the usual questions about field goal percentage or wingspan.
He had previously been charged with rape.
That's the kind of line on a resume that would stop a lot of would-be employers cold. Especially, one might think, an organization like the Spurs that preaches family and has David Robinson and Tim Duncan as iconic figures.
By June 23, 2004, Neal had already blossomed into a star at La Salle University, averaging more than 18 points over his first two seasons and staking out a reputation as one of the greatest shooters in the storied history of Philadelphia basketball.
During the summer break following his sophomore year, Neal worked as a coach at a youth basketball camp. After lights out among the campers, some of the counselors began drinking. One woman, another college basketball player at the school, reportedly drank a half-dozen shots of liquor. According to police records and the victim's testimony, she and Neal went into the kitchen.
"I was going to throw up," the 19-year-old woman testified in court, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. "So the closest thing to me was the sink. So, I leaned over the sink and started throwing up, like, profusely. In the meantime, as this is transpiring, Gary came behind me and started undoing my pants while I'm throwing up. I'm barely, like, standing."
The woman testified that Neal and another La Salle player raped her. She vomited again before passing out, she told the court.
After two days of jury deliberations, Neal and his teammate Michael Cleaves were acquitted. But their reputations were hardly cleared. Not with all of the lurid details that had come out during the trial.
Officials at La Salle, a private, Catholic college, discovered during the Neal investigation that a member of the La Salle women's team had a year earlier accused a third male basketball player of rape and men's and women's head coaches Billy Hahn and John Miller of a cover-up. The two coaches were eventually forced to resign as a result of that case. Then in the wake of the ensuing Kobe-esque scandal, with a basketball program in shambles, Neal was not permitted to return.
"I didn't fall apart because my support system was good," Neal said. "My brothers and my father were there. They wouldn't let me get down. We kept the situation in our prayers and we made a plan to find my way back."
Neal took out student loans to enroll at Towson University near his hometown of Baltimore. He had to pass interviews and clear hurdles with the administration before being allowed to play basketball. He averaged 25.3 points (fourth in the nation) as a senior, yet he wasn't taken in the NBA Draft and no team showed real interest in a kid with a dark corner of his past.
Thus, Neal had to go overseas, playing one season splitting time between Turkey and Spain, then two in Italy to shine a light back on himself.
The Spurs, perhaps among the unlikeliest of suitors, were drawn to that sweet jump shot by their Italian scouts. First they dug into his background and then talked to former coaches and administrators. They poured over the court case and brought him in for multiple interviews, eventually delivering him to a face-to-face sit-down with coach Gregg Popovich.
"Coach Pop is tough; he's direct, but he's fair," Neal said. "He tells you what he expects and what he doesn't want. I couldn't ask for more than that."
The Spurs could hardly ask for more than what they saw from the 26-year-old rookie when he showed up at their training facility for workouts prior to the summer league. It wasn't long before assistant coach Chip Engelland was telling people that the 6-foot-3 guard had put on one of the greatest shooting displays by anyone who has every stepped onto the floor.
"I really don't know what to say when I hear stuff like that," Neal said. "Truth is, I went to college as a point guard. Then in my freshman year, our shooting guard tore his meniscus, they moved me over and I began working on the shot. Now as long as they keep the doors of the gym open, I'll be shooting. But the main thing is this team gave me a chance."
While the Spurs wait for their big-name rookie Tiago Splitter to recover from a training camp calf injury and play his way fully into shape, it is Neal who has impressed and found his way into the rotation early. Neal is playing 13 minutes a game, shooting 50 percent from behind the 3-point line and was a difference-maker hitting 5-for-7 from long range in Monday night's win at Charlotte.
"He's a stone-cold shooter," Duncan said. "We get him open looks and he's going to knock them down for us. That's what he brought him here for."
"He's smart, not forcing shots and we're looking forward to seeing him play like this more often," Manu Ginobili said.
His teammates say Neal is determined, hard-working, reserved, maybe aware that because of his past, he'll be watched carefully.
"You go through something like that and it's a life-altering situation," he said. "It makes you appreciate everything that you might otherwise have overlooked or taken for granted. You get an opportunity to play basketball at the highest level in the NBA, with a first-class organization and great veterans.
"If things had gone different, I might not be here. It makes you appreciate your family, people who always believed in you, and now other people who are willing to believe in you and expect you to live up to their standards."
The Spurs shot straight with Gary Neal. Now he's doing the same thing for them.
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