The Sixth Man (cont.)
With Spurs guard Gary Neal. The 6-4 Neal is a 26-year-old rookie who spent the last three years playing in Italy, Spain and Turkey. This season, he has played in every game while averaging 8.6 points in 18.4 minutes and shooting 39.6 percent from the three-point line -- the result of an overseas investment in his ambition of an NBA career.
"What was driving me every day to do two practices and perform was to have a chance at the NBA," he said. "That was my goal."
What made him think he could achieve that goal? He had gone undrafted in 2007 after averaging 25.3 points as a senior at Towson. He sought respect by yielding to a new system of preparation.
"Practice at 10 a.m., get out of practice at 12:30; you've got to be back in the gym at 6 p.m., you get out at 8, and the next day you've got to do it all over again," Neal said. "The best thing about the European way is that it's not really about the individual -- it's about the team."
It just so happens that a similar perspective has helped define the Spurs and separate them from most NBA teams over the past dozen years. Their interest in Neal served to verify his growth.
"I'm a better player at 26 than I was at 22," he said.
He knows how to work harder now, and how to devote himself to the larger needs of the group. In Europe, he played a variety of roles -- as the league's leading scorer in Turkey, as a little-used sub in Spain, as a do-everything leader in Italy.
"Over there, you play 28-30 games in your domestic league and every game is important," he said. "For a lot of guys, your paycheck is based on game-to-game in Europe. It puts everything in perspective, so when you get in the NBA you don't put as much pressure on yourself, because you've been in situations where you have to perform to get a check. If you have two or three bad games, you might not get paid that month or they might cut you and bring in another guy. It's a different environment, and I think it helped me a lot with the mentality of how they do everything over there."
He was used to playing for demanding coaches like Gregg Popovich.
"It's the work level -- you play two games and still practice twice a day for four days a week," Neal said. "That's a lot. Having to do that and still performing at a high level and then being a guy who played 30 minutes a game -- that was something I didn't really understand until I got over there.
"I carry a lot of that stuff from Europe back home as far as being in shape and being able to work and get shots up and things like that."
Though Neal isn't the normal rookie, his teammates don't want to hear about his previous life.
"I don't feel like a rookie on the court as far as the speed of the game," he said. "But being around these guys, they make sure you feel like you're a rookie."
The champions. With the exception of the 2003-04 Pistons, no team won an NBA championship dating back to 1980 unless it had at least one of these 11 players. A list like this puts the chase for Carmelo Anthony into perspective: Does he have it in him to someday join this most impressive company?
6 championships: Michael Jordan
5: Kobe Bryant
5: Magic Johnson
4: Tim Duncan
4: Shaquille O'Neal
3: Larry Bird
2: Hakeem Olajuwon
2: Isiah Thomas
1: Kevin Garnett
1: Dwyane Wade
1: Moses Malone
Sharks take 2-0 series lead with 7-2 win vs. Kings
Canadiens grab 3-0 series lead with 3-2 win