Reflections On A Dream Season
(D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JUNE 1, 2011
Gary Neal began his first NBA season as a newlywed. He ended it as an expectant father. In between Neal forged a special relationship with Spurs fans. He became a rookie surprise, a clutch three-point shooter, an undrafted 26-year-old who made the shot of the season against Memphis at the buzzer.
Luck? Neal uses the word to describe his good fortune. The Spurs found him in the Las Vegas Summer League. The discovery wasn’t the equivalent of hitting the lottery. It was more like pulling the lever on a slot machine -- just once, for the heck of it -- and hearing ding! ding! ding! ding! ding!
Neal was an unexpected find, all right. Only one undrafted rookie in history had made the All-Rookie first-team. Who knew Neal would become the second? Or that he would win the confidence of the veterans in early October? Trailing the Clippers in the final seconds of the third preseason game, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich asked Manu Ginobili to draw up the last play. Ginobili designed it for Neal. The shot fell through, and the Spurs escaped with a one-point victory.
“That was a great feeling,” Neal says.”After the shot, I said, ‘Thanks Manu, that kept me around for another week.’”
It is late morning on Memorial Day. Just back from a short vacation, Neal is reflecting on a season of wonders. That he made it past his first workout with coaches is a wonder itself. When he arrived, Neal recalls, nobody knew who he was. He remembers someone asking, “What’s your name?”
He looked around at all the guards present. The coaches seemed to know their names. But here he was: undrafted and unknown. Could there be two bigger strikes against him? Neal wondered about his chances, then others began wondering about him. Who shoots 50 percent from behind the arc, even in the Las Vegas Summer League?
Almost one year later, Neal’s father marvels. “He had the kind of season,” Gordon Neal says, “I don’t think anyone could have dreamed would turn out the way it did.”
It was a season of special relationships and trust. Gary and Leah Neal married on July 10. Two days later, with Leah trusting, he chose to skip his honeymoon and play for the Spurs Summer League team. “My wife,” says Gary, who averaged 9.8 points off the bench, “thinks everything worked out for the best.”
Did they ever go on a honeymoon?
“Nope, we never did.”
Gary signed a contract with the Spurs at the end of July. His father and two brothers back in Aberdeen, Md. cheered. His mother? Janet Neal succumbed to lung cancer in 2003. As a tribute to her, Gordon says, Gary wears No.14, the same jersey his mother wore in high school. “She was a small forward,” Gordon says. “She never got a chance to go to college but she was a shooter. We met on the basketball court in high school. I played the point.”
Gary got some game from Janet, some from Gordon. Gary’s flair for the dramatic, well, let’s just say he’s been knocking down big shots for a decade. As a high school junior in 2001, in the waning seconds of the Class A Maryland state championship contest, Gary sank the game-winner. “There was pandemonium,” Gordon recalls. “The stands emptied. We went crazy. It was the first state championship Aberdeen High had won in 28 years.”
Fast forward 10 years. The Spurs trail the Grizzlies by three with 1.7 seconds left in Game 5 of the first round. Gordon is watching at home in Maryland with his family. He wonders if Pop will draw up a play for Matt Bonner, Manu Ginobili or possibly Gary. The ball goes to No. 14.
“I saw him curl around with the ball,” Gordon says.”I didn’t know if he was going to pass or not. But when I saw him take that dribble, that one dribble, I knew he was going to take the shot.”
Disbelief in Memphis. Unspeakable joy in Aberdeen. “We were jumping up and down,” Gordon says. “We were hollering and screaming. We couldn’t believe it.”
The Spurs won Game 5 in overtime. Gordon’s son won league wide respect. How many undrafted rookies get the ball with 1.7 and three All-Stars on the floor? How many deliver?
Gary Neal led all NBA rookies in three-point shooting percentage (41.9 percent). He also led in calm demeanor. Did anyone ever see him sweat? Flinch? The last time Gary Neal showed anxiety on a court was in Istanbul, Turkey. Fans in a small arena were throwing cigarette lighters and other objects at players. A hot coin smacked Neal in the lower right calf. “I was sore for maybe a week,” he says.
The only things thrown at Neal in the NBA are big bodies and pressure. The bodies he can handle. The pressure, no sweat. Cue the video. In slow motion, Gary goes right. Dribbles once, stops, pulls up to shoot. O.J. Mayo leaps for the block. Three ball, good. Gary turns, eyes cool, face stoic, fans erupting with joy in the background. The NBA commercial ends with soft music and three words of text: “Where amazing happens.”
That’s one picture of Gary’s season. Here’s another: Husband and wife are seated for dinner after a home game in January. A waiter approaches the table. “She didn’t order an alcoholic beverage,” Gary says, “so I knew something was up.” Leah had news. Their baby is due in September.
The expectant father showed more emotion than he did at the buzzer against Memphis. He smiled. Put one end of that grin in Las Vegas, the other end in San Antonio and you’ve got a defining image of one rookie’s season. Go ahead and call it a wrap.