On most days, Gary Neal runs into his old math teacher and principal, as well as some of his former coaches, and still can’t bring himself to call them by their first names.
“It’s just weird,” said Neal, a former NBA player who is now 37 and almost 20 years removed from his days as a star basketball player for Calvert Hall College High School. His jersey number (14) hangs on a wall inside the gymnasium.
“A lot of people there, you have been calling them by Mr. or Mrs. for so long, it seems a little strange to be calling them by their first names,” Neal said. “So, I am sticking with the Mr. and Mrs. right now.”
Since early June, Neal has also been able to refer to them as colleagues after being named Calvert Hall’s varsity basketball coach, a job that was attached to a teaching position in the school’s social studies department.
“I think it says a lot about a person who can go back home. I think it speaks to the values of a person,” Neal said. “So, to be able to be accepted back home with a lot of the people who are still there when I attended school, it means a lot to me.”
Neal spent his first three years of high school at Aberdeen, where he led the Eagles to a state title during his junior year while averaging a triple-double. He transferred to Calvert Hall for his senior season and the chance to play in the Baltimore Catholic League alongside fellow NBA alum Jack McClinton.
But after graduating from Calvert Hall in 2002, Neal had a rocky college career. He was charged and later acquitted of rape, but not before being dismissed from the basketball team at La Salle University, where he scored more than 1,000 points during the course of two seasons and was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year as a freshman.
After sitting out a season, he landed at Towson University, where he walked on to the basketball team with two years of eligibility left and eventually earned a scholarship for his senior season.
Neal averaged more than 25 points, four rebounds and three assists during his senior year at Towson and became the fourth player in NCAA history to score more than 1,000 points for two different schools.
Although he had aspirations to be drafted into the NBA in 2007, Neal was forced to begin his professional career overseas. Throughout the course of three years, he enjoyed productive stints playing in Turkey, Spain and Italy.
The NBA’s San Antonio Spurs noticed and signed him to a three-year deal in 2010. Neal became a productive contributor for the team. He scored a career-high 29 points in an overtime win against the Houston Rockets in 2012. He also posted a career-playoff-high 24 points in Game 3 of the NBA Finals in June 2013, a series the Spurs lost in seven games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
That sort of resume, and the fact that his jersey hangs on the wall in the gym, should resonate greatly with the players he is now assigned to lead at Calvert Hall.
“As players, we look at it as, ‘This guy knows a lot.’ So, we all need to buy in and listen to what he is saying,” said Mike Williams, a junior point guard for the Cardinals.
Neal still smiles and politely answers the questions about playing in the NBA, but he prefers to keep the focus on the challenge ahead. Calvert Hall has not posted a winning record in basketball since the 2015-16 season.
“If you are still talking about things you did a decade ago, you don’t have anything positive going forward,” Neal said. “I am not one of those guys to tell old war stories. I am the coach at Calvert Hall. That’s what I like talking about.”
Neal had long wanted to teach history and coach basketball. Growing up, conversations around the dinner table centered on politics and world affairs since his father, grandfather and a couple of uncles all served in the military. When they got tired of talking about that, the conversation shifted to sports, Neal said.
The opportunity at Calvert Hall was the byproduct of some fortuitous timing. The job came open a week before Neal completed his master’s degree at Towson to become a high school teacher.
“To me, it’s just the biggest form of giving back to your community when you are giving kids your time and sharing your experiences with kids, good and bad,” he said. “I just think that’s a great way to give back.”
While pursuing his master’s at Towson, Neal spent two seasons (2019-2021) on Pat Skerry’s coaching staff with the Tigers’ men’s basketball team.
“He did a good job for us,” Skerry said. “He was good with the kids in relaying his experiences and the things he had to do to become the player he was. I think the guys really respected that because he obviously did that.”
In turn, Neal said the experience on Skerry’s staff opened his eyes to what it really means to be a coach.
“It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes things, what goes on,” Neal said. “It’s not just basketball. That might only take up two or three hours of your day. There is a lot going on in relations to players and kids that you are responsible to look after. That was really important for me to see because a lot of people who have never coached before might not understand it’s about way more than basketball.”
“There’s a lot that goes into making sure the kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing, making sure they are staying out of trouble and staying on the right track,” he continued. “So, it’s a lot of coach-to-player interaction and coach-to-player relationships. That’s a really big part of being a successful head coach, and that’s what I was able to see [firsthand working] for Coach Skerry.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Calvert Hall
Originally published Dec. 15, 2021