Gary Neal Eager To Play In San Antonio


Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.


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Gary Neal
Gary Neal shot 50% from three during Summer League.
(Shep McAllister/Spurs.com)

It’s a long way from Towson University in Maryland to San Antonio. Just ask new Spurs guard Gary Neal. It took him three years to make the journey. And what a ride it’s been.

He scorched the nets in smoke-filled arenas in Turkey. Ran the point in Italy. Played for a championship against Tiago Splitter in Spain. Then took his sure, three-point shot to Las Vegas and hit the Summer League jackpot. He signed a three-year contract with the Spurs.

Sweet.

Undrafted in 2007, Neal showed an out-of-this-world stroke in Vegas. He not only led the team in scoring (16.0 points per game) and made 50 percent (17-34) of his three-point attempts, he tore up Memphis in the final game. Neal started with a four-point play and gave the Spurs a 13-0 lead by himself. He finished with 25 points – including six of 10 from behind the arc – two assists and two steals.

His play made a two-word statement: "I belong." The Spurs agreed and fans can hardly wait for him to suit up.

"I’m ecstatic," says 42-year-old Gordon Neal, so you can imagine how his younger brother feels.

Gordon is the brother who put a ball in small hands when Gary was eight. The brother who spent hours developing Gary’s stroke on Baltimore playgrounds. The brother who shouted encouragement when Gary and Carmelo Anthony led their Baltimore Select team to the AAU Final Four. The brother who cheered when Gary sank the winning shot in the state championship game for Aberdeen High. The brother who helped him achieve a dream.

If there’s one guiding hand in the long shadows of Gary’s climb, it belongs to Gordon, a former Division III player who serves as a volunteer assistant high school basketball coach in Virginia. When Gordon worked for the U.S. Postal Service, he’d spend most of his free time helping a brother 17 years his junior.

"He used to tell me how to shoot and show me the correct form," says Gary, 25.

Another older brother, 6-foot-7 Gabriel Neal, also helped. But Gordon did most of the training. "We shot hundreds and hundreds of jump shots daily," Gordon says, "until Gary was pretty proficient."

You could say Gary came from good shooting stock. Both his brothers played high school and college ball. But Gary showed the most promise and determination. "I remember when he was third-string junior varsity as a freshman," Gordon says. “He worked diligently until he became a starter on the varsity in 10th grade."

Young Gary wanted to play in the NBA, and Gordon wanted to help him get there. "I put everything I had into him so he could have the opportunity to be special," Gordon says.

He looked special at LaSalle, where he averaged 18.3 points in two seasons. He looked extra special after transferring to Towson, where he averaged 25.3 points as a senior and set 14 records. He first shot at Towson was a three-pointer. His last shot was a three-pointer. Talk about a career arc. Neal finished with a rainbow of threes and a degree in history.

Family cheers rose, then hearts sank. The NBA shunned Gary. Gordon and Gabriel’s younger brother went overseas and found success faster than he could have imagined. That shooting stroke he learned in Baltimore? It ripped through net after net in Europe. "I don’t think I could have had a better first team experience," Gary says.

The season with Pinar Karsiyaka in Turkey was a blur of excitement, cigarette smoke-filled arenas notwithstanding. As a rookie, Gary became the go-to guy and dropped in 23.6 points a game. He couldn’t read the papers, didn’t know the language to give interviews and had no cable TV. So he didn’t know what the media were saying about his game.

"The closest I got to the news," he says, "was when somebody would run up to me and say, in broken English, that they loved the way I played and ‘please don’t leave the city.’"

Naturally, Gary left before the end of the season. A Spanish League team – FC Barcelona – bought out his contract and Gary began playing in smoke-free arenas. He just didn’t play much.

"About eight minutes a game," he says. "It was a psychological and mental adjustment."

In Barcelona, Gary got his first look at young Tiago Splitter. "He basically beat us by himself," Gary says.

Gary found more good players in Italy. He also found more opportunities and seized them in his next European stop. “I played a little point guard,” he says. “The offense ran through me on every possession.”

He made one more stopover in Spain -- which meant he faced Splitter again -- and impressed. Then the Spurs invited him to a mini-camp. The same shot that fell in Europe began falling here, and next thing you know, Gary became the Summer Sensation.

That detour through Turkey, Italy and Spain -- it wasn’t so bad. Especially since it gave Gary an up-close look at a future teammate, Splitter.

“I’m really excited,” Gary says of Splitter. “I hope he can draw double teams and triple teams and allow me to be in the corner, That would be my dream.”

Gary Neal, alone, beyond the arc with the ball in his hands. Gordon always knew his brother could make that shot. After a breakout summer in Vegas, the Spurs are betting he can, too.