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Strong Willed
Sharp-shooting Neal more than just a survivor

OU's Michael Neal earned Big 12 Rookie of the Week honors for his performance against Texas Tech over the weekend. The following story ran in a previous issue of Sooner Spectator...

Most observers expect the Oklahoma men’s basketball front court will be dynamite this winter, but fear the backcourt could be a dud.

Taj Gray, Kevin Bookout and Longar Longar are back as tough, productive and seasoned forwards and centers for the Sooners, but what about the guards? Drew Lavender and Lawrence McKenzie transferred, Jaison Williams graduated, and some guards the OU coaching staff tried to reel in during the off season got away.

As it turns out, OU’s guards could become one of the more pleasant surprises in the Big 12 Conference. Case in point: Michael Neal. The 6-foot-3 junior transfer from Lon Morris College was a junior college first team All-American last season, and was named most valuable player of his region. As a freshman, Neal made second team All-America and scored more than 30 points twice during the NJCAA national tournament.

And Neal says he won’t be alone in that backcourt.

“It shouldn’t be a problem at all,” the Mesquite, Texas, product said of OU’s guard play. “We have a great point guard in Chris Walker, and Terrell Everett can handle the point, too. We all can shoot it, so in my eyes, there is no problem. I think we’re pretty set right there in the guard position.”

One of OU’s problems last season was the lack of consistent shooting from the perimeter. Neal should help resolve that issue. Last year at Lon Morris, he shot 48 percent from the field, he made 41 percent of his 3-pointers, and swished more than 81 percent of his free throws.

A solid all-around guard, Neal also averaged 4.2 rebounds per game both years at his community college and about two steals a game over that same span. And back at Poteet High School in Mesquite, Neal was an All-State selection and district MVP who averaged 27 points and five boards as a senior.

Longar, one of Neal’s roommates, said the guard has brought his shooting stroke with him to Norman.

“Oh, he can shoot the ball,” Longar said. “At pickup games, all he needs is an inch and he’ll knock it down. I’ve been watching him ever since he’s come to campus and he’s a real good shooter.”

The respect is mutual. Neal said OU was such an attractive choice for him as a guard because of the program’s talented and proven big men.
“I always wanted to come to Oklahoma,” Neal said. “It’s the best fit for a player like me because we have, in my opinion, the best big men in the nation and they’ll get every board and they draw so much attention that it only leaves a person like me open to knock in shots and to shoot jumpers to help out the team.”

“It’s kind of hard,” he added, “for a defense to stop a big man and then somebody who can shoot the outside shot. It was just a no-brainer for me. It was a perfect fit for me.”

Neal’s ability and statistics indicate he is a winner, but they merely scratch the surface of his resolve. Neal earned a spot on OU’s team because of his tireless work ethic — one that was tested three years ago while recovering from a potentially fatal condition.

Neal had a sinus infection that made its way to his brain, and by fall 2002, surgery on his brain was required.

“The infection was being caused by something, I’m not sure what it was,” Neal recalled. “But they had to get it out, otherwise it would keep coming back.

“At the time, I didn’t know how dangerous it was. My mom wouldn’t tell me because she didn’t want me to worry. But yeah, it was extremely dangerous. I had to keep my magnesium and potassium levels up so whenever they did have the surgery, my heart wouldn’t stop. It could have gone the other way and I wouldn’t be here today, but I’m fortunate and I’m blessed. So I’m just here, taking advantage of it.”

Surviving surgery was the biggest hurdle to his recovery, but not the only one. Neal said he was hospitalized for two months and his weight dropped from 188 pounds to 152.

He was a freshman at another junior college at the time, and the entire circumstance “was a major, major setback in basketball. I had to work extremely hard to get my shot back and get back in basketball condition.”

Neal left the hospital on Thanksgiving Day 2002 and was cleared to practice by late January of 2003, so he worked out with the team and often stayed after practice to keep shooting. By the end of the school year, though, Neal transferred to Lon Morris.

“When I went there … I was trying to prove, you know, that they didn’t waste a scholarship on a player,” Neal said. “I wanted to come in and contribute, so I worked extremely hard. I came in before practice 30 minutes to an hour and just shoot, and after practice I’d shoot, and I think that’s why I had real success down there.”

The work paid immediate dividends, as Neal was the only freshman named to the 2003-04 NJCAA All-America first or second team. He led Lon Morris to the national tournament and a 28-6 record that season.

Winning a regional championship is his favorite highlight, so far.

“I hit a lot of clutch shots and that always sticks with me,” he said. “But winning a championship (is best) because you work so hard to win, and after you win it, that’s just the best feeling to me.”

Neal credits his family with not only seeing him through the surgery and recuperation, but also for helping instill his love of basketball and inspiring him to excel. It was many, many pick-up games with older brother Derrick in Mesquite that, along with his first organized basketball team in seventh grade, eventually shifted Neal’s athletic focus from football to basketball.

Neal crafted his game at a neighborhood park where he and Derrick spent countless hours playing against older kids.

“I kind of always knew I wouldn’t be able to score on them because they were bigger and better,” Neal said. “But as I kept playing, I figured out ways to be effective, like shooting or things like that. You want to play so bad, you don’t want to be on the sidelines and watch. So you have to get better somehow and after (games at) the park, me and my brother would stay up there and shoot, and I would shoot for hours. That’s how you become better.”

Neal wears his family devotion on his sleeve, well, on his shoulders. Each shoulder has a tattoo of a star, one with the letter “G,” the other with an “M.” They stand for his younger sisters, Gloria and Melanie. Neal has another brother, Rafael (everyone calls him Peanut), and they’re held together by their mother, Elizabeth Neal.

“I was about to get my mom’s name and she said, ‘You don’t need to get another tattoo of me,’” he said with a rare smile. “I have two brothers and two sisters, and I told my brothers I wanted to get (a tattoo) for them, but they’re boys; they can fend for themselves. But my sisters, those are my two princesses.”

Derrick, though, was a big influence. Now that Neal plays for a top 25 basketball program, he said, “It makes me feel good that I made him proud, that I got to this level.

“I think that’s more drive for me to work hard and get better every day,” he said in a determined voice, “because you don’t want to let them down. You certainly don’t want to let your teammates and coaches down.”

Longar noticed his roommate’s focused demeanor right away, and it’s not just for basketball. Longar said Neal “is all about business, pretty much, taking care of his work.
He’s always in his room doing some homework or reading a book. When he’s not, he’ll come out and play some video games. But his character is he’s really about taking care of stuff. That’s who he is.”

Neal is indeed quiet, but sunlight shines through the cracks of his businesslike exterior. You can see it when he talks of family, it’s evident when he speaks of his new basketball family in Norman, and it’s inescapable when he describes the feeling of winning.

It is, in fact, those sources of joy and inspiration that push Neal to work and practice like his life depends on it — a concept he is all too familiar with.

“I haven’t had a bad day here yet,” Neal said of joining the Sooners. “As much work as we do, as hard as we work, I promise I never had a bad day. It’s always worth it in the end."