Gary Neal's resume reads like one of a man who owes a lot to second chances. He played college basketball at two schools and bounced around Europe before catching on as a 26-year-old rookie for the San Antonio Spurs. But Neal doesn't see it that way.
"I don't like to say 'second chance' because second chance means something went wrong," Neal said recently. "For a second chance, you have to be eliminated. I wasn't eliminated from anything."
He certainly came close. But now, in his first NBA season, the former Aberdeen High, Calvert Hall and Towson University star has come off the bench and helped the Spurs to the league's best record, 51-12. Neal had a team-high 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists in Sunday's 99-83 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
His play this season earned him a spot in the Rookie-Sophomore Game during the NBA's All-Star Weekend.
Neal scored 20 points as the Rookie squad beat the Sophomores, 148-140, though John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins took the headlines. But those players were groomed as stars in their one season at Kentucky. Neal isn't that kind of rookie.
"He plays more like a seasoned vet," Spurs teammate Matt Bonner said after Neal scored 16 points in a 118-94 rout of the Washington Wizards last month.
That seasoning came on a path to the NBA that was neither traditional nor ideal. Neal enjoyed his time overseas, playing on four teams in three countries, but always strove for the NBA.
"I wish I just never had to go over there," Neal said. "I wish I could have just gone right to the NBA, but everything happens for a reason. I tried to make the best of it."
Neal was realistic about his chances to play in the NBA right out of Towson, despite finishing fourth in the nation in scoring his senior year with 25 points per game.
He shot the ball poorly at the 2007 Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament, a four-day pre-draft tournament involving the nation's top 64 seniors that represented Neal's best chance to catch on with an NBA team. He had private workouts with a few teams, including the Wizards and Boston Celtics, but went undrafted.
At one workout, Celtics executive Leo Papile told Neal's agent, David Bauman, that Neal would be an instant-offense type player off the bench in the NBA.
"That's what he's been for the Spurs," Bauman said.
The long road back
But before Papile's prophecy could come true, Neal had to shed the stigma of his past to catch on in Europe. Bauman was surprised how difficult it was to get Neal that first job overseas.
European coaches who didn't know Neal took to the Internet. A search of his name called up reports of the scandal that chased Neal from La Salle University, where he was the leading scorer for two seasons and the 2003 Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year.
In summer 2004, Neal was accused of sexually assaulting a female counselor after a night of drinking at a summer basketball camp in Philadelphia. He was acquitted, but the label that comes with such a trial was hard to shed.
Ultimately, he took a humbling deal worth about $55,000 with small Turkish club Pinar Karsiyaka. Neal averaged 23.6 points in 19 games in Turkey, enough to warrant a big-money transfer to European giant Barcelona.
Neal played well in a limited role for Barcelona and the following summer signed a two-year deal with Italian powerhouse Benetton Treviso that increased his initial European salary tenfold. He averaged 16.8 points in two seasons in Italy.
European basketball paid the bills, but Neal said he always wanted to play in America. He got that chance in July when the Spurs invited him to play for their Summer League team in Las Vegas.
Most players of Neal's European pedigree would turn down such an offer, which was essentially a tryout. According to his agent, Neal already had an offer for this season from Israeli power Maccabi Tel Aviv, as well as a team in Moscow and several in Spain. Instead of taking more money in Europe, Neal embraced the chance to prove himself in the United States.
In five games, he averaged 16 points and made 17 of 34 3-point attempts. On July 22, four days after scoring 25 points in the Summer League finale, he signed a three-year deal for just over the league minimum of $472,500, a pay cut from his expected European haul.
General manager R.C. Buford said any discussions about Neal's past would stay internal, but the Spurs were satisfied that Neal would fit in both on and off the court. He immediately began working with the veteran-laden team in San Antonio, and by training camp was already comfortable with the Spurs.
Neal has come off the bench for the Spurs this season, scoring 9.3 points and playing 20.3 minutes per game, utilizing what Towson coach Pat Kennedy believes is his biggest strength.