ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Basketball has taken Gary Neal many different places throughout the world, but his NBA career knew just one place as home. After finally getting his shot and proving himself as a valuable role player for three seasons in San Antonio, Neal ventured into free agency looking for something more.
Neal eventually landed on Milwaukee as the place where he hopes to prove he can be more than just a role player in the league.
“It’s just being a part of something that’s turning around,” Neal said of why the Bucks were intriguing to him. “Talking to coach Drew and getting an understanding of the ideas he had for the team and me, it was kind of a challenge.
“It was a situation I was looking forward to, coming in here and being a guy they could rely on. It was a bigger role, a (higher) level of importance. As a competitor, you look for those situations and this is the first time in the NBA I’ve had a situation like this.”
The Bucks are hoping Neal provides scoring and 3-point shooting off the bench, but coach Larry Drew is also counting on him to bring some of the habits learned from San Antonio’s winning culture.
After team chemistry collapsed last season, Bucks general manager John Hammond sought out positive influences for the locker room. Neal fits the bill, as he spent three seasons in one of the best locker rooms in the NBA and has played with a few of the game’s best leaders.
“He’s a huge piece to this puzzle that we’ve put together,” Drew said. “Having spent the years in San Antonio, he was in a phenomenal program. He’s played with two of the best players in the league in Tim Duncan and (Tony) Parker, and I think (Manu) Ginobili is in that mix as well.
“He’s been with real professional guys and has developed good habits. That’s something we talk about here. Gary has been in a program like that and now it has a chance to rub off on some of our guys … He’s a competitor; he’s a fiery guy.”
Neal has had to fight for everything in his basketball career. After being dismissed from LaSalle University due to an off-court issue he later was acquitted from, Neal finished his collegiate career at Towson. He went undrafted despite averaging 25.3 points per game his senior year and headed to Turkey to play professionally.
Three European countries and four different teams later, the vagabond finally got his first crack at the NBA at 26 years old. He impressed San Antonio enough during summer league and the preseason to earn a roster spot. From there, Neal became a contributor off the bench, being named to the all-rookie team after the 2010-11 season.
His finest moment with San Antonio may have been Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals. Connecting on six 3-pointers, Neal scored 24 points off the bench to help the Spurs take a 2-1 series lead over the Heat.
The Spurs would go on to take a 3-2 series lead heading back to Miami, but San Antonio watched as its five-point lead with under 30 seconds to play in Game 6 disappeared.
“I saw the rope,” Neal said after Game 6. “Everybody saw the rope.”
Miami went on to win Game 6 in overtime and then won Game 7, leaving San Antonio stunned at how close it came to winning a championship.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over that,” Neal said. “Making it to the Finals, for some people they never get a chance to do that.
“You can never take that opportunity for granted and coming so close but falling a little bit short will always be something that sticks with me. It doesn’t help it’s always on ESPN or NBA TV, either.”
Former Bucks guard Ray Allen hit an impressive 3-pointer to tie Game 6 and force overtime for Miami, but some felt he traveled before taking the shot. Neal refuses to blame one play or potentially missed call as why he missed out on winning his first ring.
“It was a bang-bang play,” Neal said. “The refs did the best they could do. They didn’t call a travel and he made the shot, so you have to give him credit.
“There were three or four situations where we could have sealed the game and Ray Allen wouldn’t have had a chance to tie it up. In the game of basketball there’s a lot of ups and downs, and they were able to win a championship.”
While Neal’s minutes should be more consistent with the Bucks, his style of play will be the same. He’s a streaky shooter but can get hot and carry a cold offense during stretches. Neal is a career 39.8 percent 3-point shooter in 757 attempts, shooting over 40 percent from distance in two of his three seasons in San Antonio.
“He’s a shot-maker,” Drew said. “And you can’t have enough of those type guys.
“He’s not afraid to take a big shot. With him in the game coming off screens, it puts constant pressure on the defense. They make a mistake in defending him and he gets his feet set, he’s knocking the shot down.”