For some of the more casual fans of the NBA, Aberdeen native Gary Neal had a coming out of obscurity party Tuesday night when he led the San Antonio Spurs to their Game 3 championship series victory over the defending champion Miami Heat.
Neal's performance Tuesday, in which he scored 24 points in a 113-77 Spurs win, was perhaps his highest high on the court, in a career on and off court that has had many highs and some dismal lows.
In Thursday night's 109-93 loss, which tied the series at 2-2, Neal scored 13 points for the Spurs off the bench.
Though mostly a role player during his two years with the Spurs, Neal has quietly blossomed into a dependable shooter at basketball's highest level and has arguably become the most successful of the three Harford County natives, who have played in the NBA, the others being the Edgewood brothers, Dudley and Charles Bradley, who were in the league late 1970s. Dudley Bradley, at 11 years, had the longer and more successful career of the two.
Neal took a circuitous route to get where he is.
In 2000, Neal, then a high school sophomore, helped the Aberdeen Eagles to a Class 2A state boys basketball title. The 2A crown won in 2000 remains the last of Aberdeen's three state championship wins. In the final, which saw Aberdeen edge Gwynn Park, 50-48, Neal was responsible for the winning shot, as he hit a floater with 5.5 seconds left to give the Eagles a two-point edge. The future NBA player led the Eagles in scoring that night with 15 points, but it would be his final game with Aberdeen as he transferred to the private Calvert Hall College High School in Towson for his final two prep seasons.
Neal, a guard listed at 6'3" during his sophomore year, was named to The Aegis All-Harford First-Team after the Eagles brought home their state title. Also on the All-Harford First-Team that year was Neal's teammate, 6'4" center Jai Lewis, who later was a member of the "Cinderella" George Mason University team that went to the NCAA Tournament's Final Four in 2006.
After graduating from Calvert Hall, Neal went to LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he started on a high note, leading the Explorers in scoring as a freshman. In his sophomore year, Neal led LaSalle in scoring again, averaging 18.5 points per game over the season, and was named an Atlantic 10 Second-Team selection.
Neal's time at LaSalle ended in controversy, as he and a teammate were accused of sexually assaulting a female counselor at a basketball camp during the summer between Neal's sophomore and junior years. In November 2004, after Neal transferred to Towson, he and the teammate were acquitted following a two-week rape trial.
Towson did not offer Neal a basketball scholarship, and, after sitting out the 2004-05 season, he was added to the team as a walk-on on Dec. 21, 2005. In the following season, Neal, by then a senior, eclipsed the 2,000 career point barrier, burying 36 in Towson's 85-63 win over Delaware. Neal remains one of just four NCAA basketball players to score 1,000 points each for two teams. At the end of Towson's 2006-07 campaign, Neal was the fourth-leading scorer among NCAA Division I players with 25.6 points per game.
Despite his glowing college statistics, Neal went unpicked in the 2007 NBA Draft, and decided on the route many players in his position take, moving to Europe in order to play professionally. The Turkish League is where Neal wound up, and he spent a season with the Pinar Karsiyaka squad.
Neal's journey through the European professional leagues continued over the next three years, as he played on teams in Spain and Italy with varying levels of success.
Where the ride for many once promising players ends overseas, Neal found a way out, earning a deal with the San Antonio Spurs after playing the 2009-10 season in the Spanish League. He has remained in the NBA since signing a three-year contract with the Spurs on July, 2010.
In the 2010-11 2011-12 seasons, Neal produced similar stat lines, averaging 9.8 and 9.9 points per game, respectively, and producing a three-point average of .419 both years.
The 2012-13 season saw Neal produce an NBA career high 29 points in a Dec. 10 game.
On Tuesday, when he scored 24 points in game three of the NBA Finals, the kid from Aberdeen who took a long, hard road to get to the highest level, showed everyone that he belongs.