Jerel McNeal couldn’t sleep on Thursday night.
He wasn’t troubled by his modest stat line: three minutes, two points, two fouls. Those numbers had, in fact, inspired a near-riot of excitement from his family and friends.
“By the time I turned my phone on after the game, it was about 40 text messages, a million notifications on Facebook and Instagram and all that type of stuff,” McNeal laughed.
Such was the buildup to the 6-3 guard’s NBA debut, built on a lifetime of work and hope going all the way back to the beat-up hoop in his Chicago home’s backyard.
Yet on what was still the best night of McNeal’s 27-year-old life, there was no text message, phone call or social media shout-out from the man who helped him every step of the way.
Edward McNeal’s passing was sudden. Heart failure took him in August, 2014. Jerel was intending to play overseas, but returned to the States to mourn the sudden loss of the man who never stopped believing his son would make it.
“One day, you’re going to get your opportunity and get your break,” McNeal would tell his son.
But would he? Since a stand-out four-year career at Marquette – Second-team All-American, Big East Defensive Player of the Year – Jerel McNeal’s journey had always twisted around but never into an NBA career. Stops in Belgium, the D-League, Italy, the D-League again, China and, yes, the D-League again had yielded a few summer league invites, a couple 10-day contracts with NBA teams, but zero NBA minutes played.
The setting was hardly typical for the debut of a player on a 10-day contract. The Suns were playing at Golden State, a setting that had seen just two visitors leave victorious all season. The game was being broadcast nationally.
It wasn’t garbage time, either. It was early in the third quarter, and the Suns were still very much in the game.
Phoenix Head Coach Jeff Hornacek, sensing his team needed a jolt of speed and ball-handling, motioned for McNeal to check in. He had already removed his warmups when Hornacek grabbed his arm.
“Hold on a second,” he told McNeal.
The Suns unit on the floor appeared to be making a run. Hornacek, ever mindful of in-game momentum, told McNeal to “go back for a second.”
McNeal didn’t have to bite back his eagerness for long. Hornacek called timeout after back-to-back Golden State scores halted a 6-0 Suns run. Then he motioned for McNeal to check in, this time for real.
To say he was excited would be a gross understatement.
“I almost ran in there with my warmups and everything on after he called me,” McNeal laughed.
Forty-three seconds later, McNeal took a pass from Markieff Morris and hit a 12-foot jump shot. His first NBA basket, nationally televised, against the best team in the league. Then he fouled Stephen Curry, a leading MVP candidate, twice. Maybe that wasn’t part of his dream debut, but he was on the same floor, competing with an MVP candidate. How many times had he envisioned this moment as a kid back in Chicago?
Two minutes later, he sat back down.
The significance of his NBA debut didn’t hit McNeal until well after the game. After watching from the bench as Phoenix lost on another buzzer-beating shot. After changing out of his first-ever game-used uniform. After scrolling through a seemingly endless list of phone notifications. After he sat down and had time to think, miss, smile and mourn.
“It was more so the aftermath when I really thought about it, all the stuff that I had been through, all the different places I’d been, different training camps and different teams I’ve actually been with,” McNeal said. “To finally have it all culminate and have the opportunity to actually get a couple minutes and try to show what I could do at this level and this stage, it was something I thought about.”
McNeal recalled one specific set of messages he received after his long-awaited debut. They came from his brother, a collection of screen shots accumulated from his precious three minutes playing in an NBA uniform on national television. They were accompanied by a message.
“He was taking pictures with the TV screen and sent it to me and told me how proud my father would have been,” McNeal said.
“It was just a little bit emotional for me because I wish he was able to be here to see it, but at the same [time] I feel like I’m carrying it on with him in spirit a little bit.”
— Jerel McNeal
There is no telling where McNeal’s next basketball stop will be. The Suns’ season is less than two weeks from concluding. The NBA Summer League will commence in July, where McNeal could be seen auditioning for another sliver of his dream. His play there, with Phoenix, even overseas might catch a team’s interest when he least expects it, much as it did with the Suns.
For now, McNeal is grateful to simply get a shot on the court, a gesture from Hornacek that, he says, “showed that coach may have a little bit more confidence in me than most people probably would.”
Except Edward McNeal. The father of the kid with the dream. The man who “stayed on me about not giving up.” The non-coach, non-teammate, non-agent who “was probably the biggest part of my entire career.”
In that career, McNeal says, his father will still live.
“I thought it all culminated [Thursday] night,” McNeal said. “It was just a little bit emotional for me because I wish he was able to be here to see it, but at the same [time] I feel like I’m carrying it on with him in spirit a little bit.”