Checking in with Gary Neal
It was a long journey for Gary Neal to reach the NBA. For three years, he played in professional leagues in three different countries, fine-tuning his skills to standards NBA teams expect. But while he was away, he always felt that returning to the states was achievable.
“I felt like an opportunity would come for me as long as I did what I was capable of doing in Europe. And that’s scoring the ball and shooting the ball as an opportunist,” said Neal, Towson’s single-season scoring record holder. “The Spanish league, the Italian league and the Turkish league, they’re well respected. So I just figured if I do my best and do what I’m capable of doing, then somebody in the NBA would have to notice what I’m doing and give me a shot.”
The San Antonio Spurs realized Neal’s ability and signed him to a 3-year contract in late July after his performance in the team’s Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 16 points per game while leading the team in scoring in every contest.
Joining the Spurs, who have won three championships since 2003, will put Neal on the floor with the likes of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Playing with seasoned veterans has been a learning experience.
“They have the cool and the calmness about them,” Neal said. “When you’re a guy like me coming into my situation- a new environment, a new city, a new community, a new team, a new system – it always helps to have older, veteran guys who are good guys, good players that have good social skills and can relate things that you may be doing wrong. They can relay it to you in a positive manner that way you can pick it up better.”
At Towson, Neal played for the Tigers during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons. He left school holding 14 team records while scoring 1,254 points. He came to Towson after being dismissed from La Salle because of a rape accusation, a charge he was acquitted of.
During his time with the Tigers, Neal’s work ethic left an impression on head coach Pat Kennedy.
“While he was playing overseas, he would come to the gym, he’d lift for an hour, he’d do cardio for 45 minutes, then he’d shoot for two hours. He’d come in and do a three or four hour workout every week on his own,” Kennedy said. “I told him, now that you’ve got your first contract, you’ve got to play for your second contract. So you got to work equally as hard to get your second contract as you did to get your first contract.”
Neal, who is the second Towson player to reach the NBA, the first being Kurk Lee, said having a strong work ethic is common amongst professional athletes.
“If you’re a guy that goes as hard as you can go in the weight room and the conditioning and with the basketball skill workout, as far as shooting jump shots or working on your ball handling, it just carries over into a game,” he said. “I don’t know too many guys who don’t have great work ethic and can produce night in and night out at a high level. It just doesn’t work that way. You get out what you put in.”
After his senior season at Towson, Neal entered the NBA Draft, but went undrafted. He still desired to play basketball professionally and made the decision to go to Europe, which was a big commitment for Neal. His seasons started mid-August and ended in June, keeping him away from family and friends the majority of the year. Living in Turkey, he saw the biggest differences in culture and lifestyle.
“Turkey was like a different planet, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “Turkey is not really Americanized when you compare it to Spain or Italy.”
After playing a year in Turkey for Pinar Karsiyaka, where he averaged 26.5 points, Neal’s contract was bought by FC Barcelona, a Spanish League team. From there, he joined Benetton Treviso in the Italian League, where he was selected as an All-Italy and All-Euroleague player. During the 2009-2010 season, he led the Italian League in scoring with 19.4 points, helping him to a spot on the Spurs’ summer league team.While he is excited to be on television screens across the country, he is most looking forward to competing in front of those closest to him.
“This is something that since I was six years old, this was my goal- to play in the NBA,” he said. “I’m excited just to have the experience to play in the NBA and to have the experience to play in front of my family. It’s been about three or four years since my family’s seen me play a live game. So it’s just an experience that I’m really, really excited about and I can’t really wait until the first game that I put on a uniform and run on the court.”