The Real Neal

Originally published in SLAM 148

by Aggrey Sam / @CSNBullsInsider

A phrase like “It’s kind of like a dream come true” sounds less clichéd coming out of Gary Neal’s mouth. After his sophomore year at La Salle, where he’d averaged 18.6 ppg in two seasons, Neal was dismissed from the team following a rape allegation. He was eventually acquitted.

“When you go through a serious matter like that,” says the Baltimore native, who averaged over 25 ppg in two seasons at hometown Towson after leaving La Salle, “your personal safety and your freedom is more important than what school you’re at or what school you’re going to attend.”

After Towson, Neal took the overseas route, first leading Turkey in scoring, then playing key roles for various European powers, piquing San Antonio’s interest. This resulted in the organization bringing him in for off-season workouts and summer league in Las Vegas before offering him a three-year contract last July.

“That experience really transformed me,” explains Neal. “Guys will say, ‘I’ve scored 25 points a game my whole life,’ but a lot of times, to fit in, to be on good teams, you have to be willing to take a back seat. It takes a little bit of maturity for a guy to understand you’re no less of a person because you don’t score 20 points every night.”

Now a 26-year-old rookie guard with the Spurs, Neal has averaged 9.4 ppg and is shooting 41 percent from deep. The 6-4, 210-pound sharpshooter has not only rewarded the team’s faith, but now looks like one of its trademark bargain-basement finds. “[Neal] has helped us. That’s probably a surprise to most people; to some degree, us too,” deadpans Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, just before Neal drops 16 on the Bulls, albeit in a loss. “He can shoot the three, he’s fearless, as far as the offense goes, and he’s willing to stick his nose in defensively.”

“I didn’t think I’d have to go to Europe for three years to get to the NBA, but those were the cards I was dealt,” Neal concludes. “Having the best record in the NBA and being a guy that’s playing 19, 20 minutes a game and contributing to that…I couldn’t really ask for much more.”

Aggrey Sam covers the Chicago Bulls for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.