SAN ANTONIO -- Sometimes Gary Neal forgets he is in the NBA, and assumes he is still in Turkey or Italy or Spain, trying to raise a family an ocean away. Then he sees out of the corner of his eye the Spurs' highlights on television, a figure in black and silver who looks an awful lot like himself, and he recognizes that his whole improbable journey is real.
"I know we're a couple months into the season, but honestly it hasn't sunk in yet," Neal said. "I feel like I've been on a roller coaster that hasn't stopped."
He pauses for a moment to consider the metaphor. This is not a roller coaster he's on. It's a rocket ship.
Last spring, Neal finished his third season of professional basketball. He had never been in the NBA, never been to the NBA summer league, never even attended an NBA minicamp. The closest he came to the league were a few predraft workouts coming out of Towson University in 2007. "But those weren't serious," Neal said. "They were bringing me in to work out with the guy they really wanted to see."
Many American players have spent a year overseas and still made it back to the NBA. Some have spent two years and pulled it off. Neal spent three, understanding that the stigma would be too much to overcome. He was at peace with it. The money was good. The lifestyle was fine.
Then Neal got engaged last year and began to think about starting a family. "I didn't want to be off somewhere in Russia while they were here," he said. He asked his agent to contact NBA teams and the Spurs invited him to a free-agent camp in the summer. With their vast international network, the Spurs knew that Neal was an NBA-caliber three-point shooter who would be willing to accept a limited role, but they didn't know much else. "He wasn't hugely on our radar," coach Gregg Popovich said. "He just came to fill out the group."
Popovich watched Neal fight through screens and began to think of him as a potential Eddie House, an undersized but rugged shooting guard who could bring instant energy off the bench. The Spurs asked Neal to summer league and watched in amazement as he shot 50 percent from three-point range. "We didn't want to screw around after that," Popovich said. They awarded Neal a three-year deal and pegged him as a potential replacement for the departed Roger Mason and Keith Bogans.
The Spurs have the best record in the NBA, 18-3, which they attribute mainly to their sped-up offense. Their headliners, as always, remain the same. In fact, Neal has arguably been the most significant roster addition since last season, when the Spurs were the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Their celebrated import this season was supposed to be power forward Tiago Splitter, but Neal is playing more minutes (15.9) than Splitter and scoring more points (6.6). He has cooled down from summer league, but not by much, still shooting a blistering 42.6 percent from three-point range. He scored 16 points against the Clippers, made five three-pointers in Charlotte and sank three free throws to force overtime in Minnesota. "That's when I really felt like part of the team," Neal said.
When Popovich talks about Neal, he flashes back to Jaren Jackson, another undrafted shooting guard who played for five teams in the CBA and even made a stop in the World Basketball League before landing in San Antonio and helping the Spurs to their first championship in 1999.
"We look for that kind of guy," Popovich said. "Maybe they tried and failed, or never got a shot, and they are at that time of their life when they really want to prove something. Those players can be very valuable to a locker room."
Neal grew up in Baltimore, playing on the same AAU team as Carmelo Anthony, and he went to La Salle as a point guard. The first week of his freshman year, the starting shooting guard was injured, and Neal spent hours between classes honing his shot with a ball machine in the gym. He made himself into a marksman, but after his sophomore season, a 19-year-old woman accused Neal and a teammate of rape. Though Neal was acquitted, La Salle kicked him out of school and he had to take out student loans to enroll at Towson. Neal scored 25.3 points per game as a senior, fourth in the nation, but Towson never sniffed the NCAA tournament and NBA teams stayed away from Neal at the draft. He still doesn't know how much of their reluctance was due to the charges against him.
The Spurs do not often sign players who have been in trouble, but they also do not often reject players prematurely. They view Europe as a place where raw Americans can be developed, not discarded, and if development takes three years, then they can wait.
After researching, interviewing and observing Gary Neal, the Spurs concluded that his time had come, even if he wasn't so sure. "I can't lie," he said. "I couldn't have predicted this." He is now part of the rotation for the best team in the NBA, lobbing questions at Tim Duncan and getting answers. Neal's wife lives with him in San Antonio, and when asked about the family he hopes to start, he said: "We're working on that now."
As he spoke, video of a recent game flickered on the big-screen television in front of the Spurs' locker room, one more high-definition reminder that he is here after all.