- Series hub: Spurs-Heat
SAN ANTONIO — As he bombarded the Miami Heat with one 3-pointer after another, goose bumps surfaced some 1,600 miles away just as they had that February night in 2000 when the entire town of tiny Aberdeen, Md., roared as one for the amazing Gary Neal.
“On my way to work today I checked my Facebook and saw that he [Neal] had just updated his page and so I sent him a post,” said Neal’s Aberdeen High School basketball coach Richard Hart, who still coaches there today. “I wrote, ‘Gary Neal comes through when the spotlight is on. Anyone surprised? Not me.’
“Obviously, that was a reference to the championship game.”
A sophomore guard for the Aberdeen Eagles, Neal led the school to its first boys basketball state championship since 1976 in dramatic fashion. He’s been a legend there ever since.
“It came down to a timeout and a tie game with less than a minute to play,” Hart said, replaying the moment as if it happened last night rather than Neal’s playoff-high 24-point Game 3 of the NBA Finals gave the San Antonio Spurs to a 2-1 series lead. “It got tense with 10 seconds to go and Gary, you saw a look in his eye. He had the ball at halfcourt and he decided to take charge. He couldn’t finish at the rim so he threw up a four-or-five foot jump hook over [the defender’s] hand, and the whole town of Aberdeen exploded.”
Aberdeen is a town of some 15,000 close-knit residents — “kind of like Mayberry,” said Aberdeen High administrative assistant Diana Jackson — and located about 30 miles northeast of Baltimore.
Jackson’s four sons grew up playing basketball with Neal in the neighborhood and her television, her sons’ televisions and many, many others in the town were tuned in to Tuesday night’s Game 3 as the unheralded Neal poured in six 3-pointers, and a crucial one that beat the halftime buzzer and carried the momentum into a devastating second half.
While Twitter exploded during and after the game with “Who’s Gary Neal?” tweets — some sent tongue-in-cheek while others were dead serious — Aberdeen, Md., is both full-fledged Gary Neal territory and Spurs country.
“Our principal had on [Neal’s] jersey yesterday during announcements,” Jackson said, “so I would say so.”
Neal averaged better than 20 ppg during that 26-1 title season. On his NBA bio Neal still calls that Class A championship his most memorable experience to date. Perhaps that’s about to change if the Spurs can get two more victories and claim the franchise’s fifth title in the Tim Duncan–Gregg Popovich era, the fourth of the Big Three era and the first since 2007 when Neal became the all-time leading scorer in just two seasons at Towson University near Baltimore.
From there, Neal’s professional basketball journey has been one of perseverance. The 6-foot-4 gunner went undrafted and without opportunity on home soil he headed overseas. One year, he led the Turkish League in scoring. Another year he did it in the Italian League. In the summer of 2010, the judicious San Antonio Spurs called. They brought Neal in for mini-camp workouts. Impressed, they invited him to play on the Summer League team in Las Vegas.
Just married, Neal said he had to re-arrange his honeymoon to take his shot at the NBA.
“I had to kind of smooth it over with my wife,” Neal said. “We were going to go to Atlantis for a week for our honeymoon. She decided it would be a good thing if we went to Vegas instead so I could make an NBA push.”
Days after Summer League ended, Neal signed a three-year contract to become a 26-year-old rookie with the Spurs. He’s earning a basement-level $854,389 this season, the final year of his deal. Performances such as Game 3 will assure he becomes an NBA millionaire next season just when the direction of his career was becoming a bit clouded. This season, and especially the postseason, has been full of ups and downs. Until the start of The Finals, Neal was losing backup time to young guard Cory Joseph.
Neal’s minutes dropped abruptly, from 19.3 mpg in the first round to 15.3 in the second and 12.8 in the conference finals. He’s counted on to drop 3-pointers and if he’s not doing that, then he’s not going to play. And that’s what was happening. He shot 25 percent from beyond the arc in the first three rounds.
But Popovich saw something in the Heat matchup that favored Neal.
He played him 22 minutes in Game 1, Neal’s high since Game 1 of the semifinals against Golden State. Neal was just 3-for-9 from the floor and 1-for-5 beyond the arc but still, Popovich stuck with him for 22 more minutes in Game 2. Neal went 2-for-3 on 3s, a precursor to his breakout with six 3s in 25 minutes in Game 3. His 24 points were just five shy of his career best.
He and teammate Danny Green (27 points in Game 3 as part of a series-high 56), another success story plucked out of obscurity by the Spurs, have emerged as significant story lines in a series that was supposed to revolve around the star power of both clubs. They combined to make 13 of the Spurs’ NBA Finals-record 16 3-pointers Tuesday night.
“I told him if [Miami] keeps trapping me you are going to get the ball and you are going to be able to get shots,” Spurs point guard Tony Parker said. “I said, ‘We need a big game from you,’ and I was saying that for like a week. I was very happy for him.”
Until Game 2 of The Finals, Neal had not made made at least two 3-pointers since Game 1 against the Warriors and Game 4 against the Lakers in the first round. Suddenly, he’s splashed eight in the last two games and is averaging 23.0 mpg in The Finals.
“As a professional, it’s your job to stay ready,” Neal said. “You never know when your number is going to be called. You don’t know anything. So you have to come up and continue to prepare yourself for whatever assignment the coach decides to play you in. The last three games in the Finals I’ve been a steady rotation guy. I’m just thankful that I was able to stay mentally and physically ready for this opportunity, that I could take advantage of it.”
And back in Aberdeen, they were thankful for the goose bumps.
“That was my second year (as coach at Aberdeen) and I thought I’d get back there (winning another championship) soon, but I haven’t been back since,” said Hart, whose Eagles lost in the 2005 championship game. “To be able to relive that moment, I always thank Gary for that.”