For Gary Neal, at the end of his amateur career in basketball, he was determined to make it to the NBA.
So much so, that he said to himself that being in the NBA’s Developmental League, essentially the minor leagues of the NBA, was not an option.
He took his skills overseas, playing in Turkey, Spain, and Italy in an attempt to garner attention from NBA scouts as they kept an eye on guys to invite to their Summer League teams.
And that is exactly what happened. The San Antonio Spurs saw what Neal, a former standout at Aberdeen and Calvert Hall, and signed Neal to a 3-year guaranteed contract.
“It for me was a dream come true,” Neal told Thyrl Nelson Monday. “It was definitely something that I was grateful for…to be able to play in the NBA.
“This is a dream that you think about when you’re 5 years old, and you’re running around with your brothers and your cousins playing basketball. Everybody just dreams of being in the NBA or the NFL and playing professional sports, and I’m extremely thankful and grateful that I got the opportunity and now I’m trying to just make the most of it.”
This is quite the honor for Neal, who last played his college ball right here in Towson, playing for the Tigers in 2007. That year, Neal, a shooting guard, averaged 25.3 PPG, 3.5 assists, and 4.3 rebounds as he helped Towson reach the second round of the CAA Tournament.
Neal came to Towson after being kicked off the La Salle basketball team for allegedly raping a female basketball player from the University of New Haven, but the charges were dropped after a lack of evidence could not prove that the victim was drunk as she so claimed and that it was not consensual sex.
Neal was very productive in Summer League play, averaging a team-high 16 PPG, 2.6 rebounds, and shot 50% from the field and from beyond the arc, a statistic in particular that Neal felt made it a done deal.
“I’ve always been known as a 3-point shooter, but that raised a lot of eyebrows in Vegas. For a guy to come in and shoot in five games 50% from the the 3-point line, that really put the nail in the coffin for me as far as being an NBA shooter.”
When Neal left Towson after his senior year, he got a taste of what the NBA had to offer, but his name was not called in the First-Year Draft that year.
“I had a couple NBA workouts, but I didn’t get any serious interests,” Neal said.
After that occurred, Neal decided that he wasn’t going to give up on his dream. But he also had to support himself financially, so the D-league was not an option.
Neal then signed with the Pinar Karsiyaka of the Turkish of the Turkish Basketball League, and in just four months of action, he was leading the league in scoring (26.5 PPG).
Neal learned a lot from playing in Turkey, which he said was a huge culture shock, but yet a confidence-builder on its own.
“My father was in the military, so I had been in Europe before. But Turkey was a different and new experience…definitely a different culture. It was totally different. It helped me get mentally stronger, from being away from my family and being in a social environment like Turkey… it’s so far way from anything you encounter in America.”
But Neal said it was something he knew he had to do to return to America and play in the NBA.
“When I started in Turkey for my European career, I said I want to play in the NBA, so I just have to play my best and produce at a high level so that the NBA will eventually give me a chance.”
FC Barcelona then purchased his contract from Pinar, a team that has had big time NBA players on it such as Pau Gasol. It got even better when the Italian Lega A team, the Benetton Treviso, wanted his services. Widely regarded as one of the top teams in not only Italy, but Europe as a whole, Neal’s name started to be mentioned back in the states, most notably with the San Antonio Spurs.
Neal said that the European experience really was a huge asset for him.
“Ive been doing the overseas thing for the past few years. Ive had a pretty good career over here which allowed me the opportunity and the exposure to have a chance play in the NBA for a team like San Antonio.”
Neal said the Spurs were ecstatic about bringing him into the fold.
“They were following me, they called me this summer to a couple of their mini-camps, and then they invited me on their summer league team, and after that, they offered me a contract.”
And already, Neal said he knows the differences between playing in Europe and America. It’s simple. The game steps up when you hit the hardwood in the NBA.
“As far as the difference between the NBA and the European game, it has to be the athleticism. In the NBA, you have guys who are longer, quicker, and more athletic than you would in Europe. That’s a big difference.”
And already, Neal is building new relationships and maintaining old ones that he had several years ago when he was a promising prospect in this league. One player in particular, and one of his current teammates, is none other than a former Maryland prep star and former Terp in James Gist, who the Spurs drafted in the second round in 2008 and like Neal decided to play overseas to build his NBA resume.
“He’s a guy that as soon as we both saw that we were going to San Antonio in the airport when we were going down to the mini-camp, a guy I connected with, and linked up, and a guy that I got along with great.”
And despite Gist breaking his wrist in Summer League action, he heard some good news from the higher-ups in the organization that the Spurs intend to keep him around or at least keep him in mind when he is on the mend.
“San Antonio is a first class organization. He’s still going to be down there, and they’re still going to give him an opportunity to make the team and to get signed. I wish James the best, and hopefully he can sign that contract, and become great friends as San Antonio Spurs together.”
Also during Summer League play, one of his games was against the Memphis Grizzlies, who have Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez on the team. Neal liked what he saw out of Greivis and said he has the stuff to be great in the NBA.
He’s a very good player,” Neal told Nelson. “He has great size for the point-guard position, especially in the NBA. And I just think a guy like that, who plays with a lot of enthusiasm, he has a great future.”
And Neal already has an idea of how his future with the Spurs panned out.
“Its definitely a situation where I’ll have to earn the spot because San Antonio drafted another shooting guard from Oklahoma State in James Anderson. It’s realistic I could be coming off the bench getting between 12-18 minutes behind Manu Ginobli at the shooting guard spot if I play well in training camp and the exhibition games.”
“There’s definitely a lot of opportunities in San Antonio for me, and that was one of the major reasons why I decided to sign with San Antonio because there is opportunity for me.”
And even though he is ready to hit it big time in the NBA, he still keeps in contact with the Towson staff and still considers himself part of the Tigers community. And Towson has embraced him right back.
“Ive been talking, working out, and playing with Kurk Lee[former Towson and Western Kentucky Standout] for the last five years. I’m down there all the time. He’s a great guy and he’s a very positive guy. As far as with the Towson program, they’ve been very open to me when I come home in the summertime. I can always get in the gym and work out.”
“The Towson University athletic staff and the program and the basketball community has always been open with me and great with me. I’m going to continue and try and stay involved and active in the Towson basketball program.”
So much so that when he’s done with his NBA career, he wants to be a part of the Tigers coaching staff. And I’m sure Pat Kennedy or whoever is the coach at the time will surely save Neal a seat on the bench.
“When I’m done running up and down the court, I would love to be a coach with Towson, an assistant or something like that.”
Tune into WNST and WNST.net as we continue to track Gary Neal’s career in the NBA. WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!