Neal's quiet arrival should be boom for Towson program

December 22, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Everything surrounding Gary Neal's debut in a Towson basketball uniform was quiet -- and considering the circumstances of his arrival, it was for the best.

Nothing Neal did in that uniform last night, however, was quiet. He was like nothing anyone has seen at this school in years. Within two minutes of his entrance into the game against Virginia Military Institute at Towson Center, he was not only the best player on his team, or the best player on the court, he also was the best college player in the city. He's a couple of big games -- repeats of last night's performance, basically -- from being the best in the area, including College Park and D.C.

It was a wondrous performance -- 28 points, eight assists, a school-record-tying six three-pointers, 5-for-5 from the floor to start his Tigers career -- that was tainted by a dispiriting loss. It also was a relief for Neal, who admitting to having sweaty palms in the locker room beforehand, and to being "really excited" to finally get back onto the court for a real game. More than that, though, he was appreciative.

"I'm really grateful and thankful to Towson for the opportunity to play here," he said afterward.

The specific reasons for these swirling emotions, for Neal and for his coach, Pat Kennedy, are almost too well-known -- but few, if any, in attendance last night dwelled on those reasons. It was an intimate, friendly, very supportive gathering, including several of Neal's friends and family members from Aberdeen, where he grew up, and Baltimore, where he finished high school, played AAU ball and became the player he was to be at La Salle.

The way his career at La Salle ended demanded a low-key homecoming. Neal is less than two months removed from his acquittal on rape charges from an incident on the Philadelphia campus in July 2004, after his sophomore year. He left the team and school the next semester and all but tiptoed onto Towson's campus 10 months ago.

His approval to play again by a university review board last month sneaked up on everybody, as did his appearance at practice earlier this month. Kennedy, in his second year at Towson, admitted that he had never even seen him play in person before then. He is still a walk-on; he came back, by all appearances, to return to comfortable surroundings and get back into classes. As he is not taking up a scholarship and was, in fact, found not guilty in court, the review board's decision made sense.

"After a while, it wasn't whether we could find a reason to let him play, it was whether we could find a reason not to let him play," said athletic director Wayne Edwards, who kept his own presence fairly low-key last night.

Now Neal is an official member of the team, and his debut came during semester break. Even the campus paper has stopped publishing for the holidays, but there are hardly any students around to read it anyway.

It's likely that there were some attending or associating with Towson who are bothered by the addition to campus and the team of a player embroiled in such a scandalous and unseemly incident -- one in which even the attorney for his co-defendant said after the acquittal that the two players "are going to have a stigma attached to them for quite a while."

But none of them made themselves known in the vicinity of the arena or among the announced crowd of 1,406.

The only real noise about Neal's appearance there was made by Neal himself, on the court. In his first game in 21 months, playing at what he said was 85 percent because of his layoff, he transformed the team when he was on the court. The air he pumped into it when he played was always drained out when he sat. With him, they're barely recognizable; without him, they look too much like the 5-24 team of last year, and the one that's already lost key players to injury and legal missteps.

Neal has the power to transform a downtrodden program by the time he's done. He's the kind of player Kennedy has had at previous stops at Iona, Florida State and DePaul, the type that elevates everybody and turns things around in a big hurry.

And he practically came out of nowhere, an amazing feat for someone whose name was not just famous, but infamous. No one saw it coming, least of all Kennedy. "It's probably one of the strangest all-time situations I've ever been involved in," he said.

"When he came here, it really was to get himself back in the classroom and continue his education," he continued. "He's a true walk-on. I'd say we're definitely getting a little lucky."

Neal might be pretty lucky, too. But as he said, he's thankful. He had a big night, and a quiet night, too.

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