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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 menâs 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, OUâs 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 wonât be alone in that backcourt.
âIt shouldnât be a problem at all,â the Mesquite, Texas, product said of OUâs guard play. âWe 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 weâre pretty set right there in the guard position.â
One of OUâs 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 Nealâs roommates, said the guard has brought his shooting stroke with him to Norman.
âOh, he can shoot the ball,â Longar said. âAt pickup games, all he needs is an inch and heâll knock it down. Iâve been watching him ever since heâs come to campus and heâs a real good shooter.â
The respect is mutual. Neal said OU was such an attractive choice for him as a guard because of the programâs talented and proven big men.
âI always wanted to come to Oklahoma,â Neal said. âItâs the best fit for a player like me because we have, in my opinion, the best big men in the nation and theyâll 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.â
âItâs kind of hard,â he added, âfor 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.â
Nealâs ability and statistics indicate he is a winner, but they merely scratch the surface of his resolve. Neal earned a spot on OUâs team because of his tireless work ethic â 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.
âThe infection was being caused by something, Iâm not sure what it was,â Neal recalled. âBut they had to get it out, otherwise it would keep coming back.
âAt the time, I didnât know how dangerous it was. My mom wouldnât tell me because she didnât 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 wouldnât stop. It could have gone the other way and I wouldnât be here today, but Iâm fortunate and Iâm blessed. So Iâm just here, taking advantage of it.â
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 âwas a major, major setback in basketball. I had to work extremely hard to get my shot back and get back in basketball condition.â
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.
âWhen I went there âŚ I was trying to prove, you know, that they didnât waste a scholarship on a player,â Neal said. âI 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 Iâd shoot, and I think thatâs why I had real success down there.â
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.
âI hit a lot of clutch shots and that always sticks with me,â he said. âBut winning a championship (is best) because you work so hard to win, and after you win it, thatâs just the best feeling to me.â
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 Nealâs 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.
âI kind of always knew I wouldnât be able to score on them because they were bigger and better,â Neal said. âBut as I kept playing, I figured out ways to be effective, like shooting or things like that. You want to play so bad, you donât 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. Thatâs how you become better.â
Neal wears his family devotion on his sleeve, well, on his shoulders. Each shoulder has a tattoo of a star, one with the letter âG,â the other with an âM.â They stand for his younger sisters, Gloria and Melanie. Neal has another brother, Rafael (everyone calls him Peanut), and theyâre held together by their mother, Elizabeth Neal.
âI was about to get my momâs name and she said, âYou donât need to get another tattoo of me,ââ he said with a rare smile. âI have two brothers and two sisters, and I told my brothers I wanted to get (a tattoo) for them, but theyâre boys; they can fend for themselves. But my sisters, those are my two princesses.â
Derrick, though, was a big influence. Now that Neal plays for a top 25 basketball program, he said, âIt makes me feel good that I made him proud, that I got to this level.
âI think thatâs more drive for me to work hard and get better every day,â he said in a determined voice, âbecause you donât want to let them down. You certainly donât want to let your teammates and coaches down.â
Longar noticed his roommateâs focused demeanor right away, and itâs not just for basketball. Longar said Neal âis all about business, pretty much, taking care of his work.
Heâs always in his room doing some homework or reading a book. When heâs not, heâll come out and play some video games. But his character is heâs really about taking care of stuff. Thatâs who he is.â
Neal is indeed quiet, but sunlight shines through the cracks of his businesslike exterior. You can see it when he talks of family, itâs evident when he speaks of his new basketball family in Norman, and itâs 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 â a concept he is all too familiar with.
âI havenât had a bad day here yet,â Neal said of joining the Sooners. âAs much work as we do, as hard as we work, I promise I never had a bad day. Itâs always worth it in the end."