Commentary

Rookie challenge

Spurs sub Gary Neal took the long road to the NBA

Updated: April 7, 2011, 3:11 PM ET
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN The Magazine

Gary Neal, the league's second-oldest rookie, is shooting over 40 percent from deep.

This story appears in the April 18, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

ONCE UPON A TIME, Gary Neal thought he'd spend his days as a basketball player toiling in Europe. Or as a teacher. Or, for a moment, a convicted felon. Sharpshooting NBA combo guard? Not likely. The league's second-oldest rookie who's been a consistent contributor to one of its best teams all season? Never.

The question wasn't whether the military brat could ball. He averaged a triple-double his junior year of high school and guided Aberdeen to a Maryland state title. Then, as La Salle's leading scorer his freshman year, he won Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors. This was 2003. The year LeBron was drafted. John Wall, this season's top NBA draft pick, was 12.

Neal led the Explorers in scoring again his sophomore year and stayed on campus over the summer. After a party one night, he and La Salle teammate Mike Cleaves went back to their dorm with a female counselor at a campus basketball camp. She'd later accuse Neal and Cleaves of rape.

"It really didn't register," Neal says. "In my mind it was like, 'That's a little weird, but not anything close to what happened.'" Weeks later Neal was arrested and charged with rape, sexual assault and other crimes.

Neal's family drove to Philadelphia and posted bail. After he got back to Maryland, Neal told his family that a rape had not occurred. Pending the police investigation, La Salle put Neal on probation. He enrolled in Towson and attended classes while the case plodded through the system. Sixteen months later, the nine-day trial ended in an acquittal; DNA evidence proved there had been sexual contact, but the jury believed it had been consensual.

Neal played pickup ball to keep in shape while awaiting trial, until he scored 78 points one night and the regulars kicked him out of the game. In November 2005, the month after his trial ended, he played in his first game for Towson as a junior. By the end of his senior season, he'd used his head for the game and his deft shooting skills to become only the third player to score 1,000 points for two D1 schools. Not a single NBA team called.

His father suggested the 22-year-old Neal obtain his teaching certificate and look for a job. Instead, Neal took an offer with Turkish club Pinar Karsiyaka. After 19 games he was averaging 23.6 points and was transferred to Euro giant Regal FC Barcelona. There he began to hone his skills, improving his shot selection, learning both guard spots and becoming more patient. In 2008, Neal signed with Italian powerhouse Benetton Treviso, where he averaged 15.9 points per game over two seasons.

Spurs scouts noticed, and invited Neal to work out with the team last June -- a tryout that turned into a $525,000 offer. Despite bigger offers on the table from other Euro squads, Neal accepted. General manager R.C. Buford says that San Antonio's emphasis on excellent shooters had suffered since the retirement of Robert Horry and Steve Kerr, and in Neal he saw an opportunity to recapture that. "He took advantage of the opportunity to play overseas and kept building on it," Buford says. "Not many perform like he has."

In 72 games this season, Neal, now 26, has averaged 9.6 points and shot 41.6 percent from behind the arc in 20.8 minutes of action. But he is scoring 12.5 PPG in 24.7 MPG since the break and ranks first among all rookies in made three-pointers with 117. "The coaches and scouts get excited about a shooter from the summer league, but the past couple of ones weren't very good, so I didn't expect anything," says Tony Parker. "But he's been consistent, and he's hit big shots for us."

After all the miles this rookie has traveled, hitting from 24 feet isn't all that hard.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.