Dave Neal’s to-do checklist, both short-term and long-term, is rather extensive.
Travel. Remain involved in sports. Play basketball as long as possible. If it’s doable, try not to mess with an unpleasant job market during the worst recession of his lifetime.
And with one decision, the former Maryland forward is pulling off all of them.
Neal will attend the University of Ulster in Belfast this year, where he will work on a master’s degree in sports management while playing in Basketball Ireland’s SuperLeague.
Neal was selected from more than 250 applicants for a spot on his team’s roster, which can include one American.
“It just seemed like something I couldn’t turn down,” Neal said. “I’m blessed to be in this situation where they picked me to go.”
Neal’s path to Northern Ireland was paved with a fortuitous connection. Neal and his family hosted Frank Ben-Eze, a Nigerian power forward who opted to attend Davidson, during Ben-Eze’s high school years. Ben-Eze just finished his freshman year with the Wildcats, and coach Bob McKillop remains in contact with the Neals.
McKillop also is active in Irish basketball with clinics and camp speaking engagements, so when he was asked if he knew of an American player with both the on-court skills and academic ability to thrive in a graduate program, he recommended Neal.
It’s another step in an atypical career for Neal, who was a late signee at Maryland in 2005 and spent much of the next three seasons as a reserve when he wasn’t injured.
Yet he was vital to the Terps’ run to the second round of the NCAA tournament earlier this year, averaging 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds while surviving on smarts and guile as an undersized center in the ACC. In March, he averaged 12.1 points.
And now he’s off to play in a style that might be even more conducive to his unconventional game of step-back 3-pointers and underhanded shots.
“People always say I fit more of an international game,” Neal said. “I’m not the most athletic guy, but I’m very fundamentally sound. That’s what international ball is all about. You’re going to have some athletes, but the majority of it is fundamentals, knowing the game and playing hard. I have a chance to do well, and if I have a good season, you never know what next year will bring.”
Nope. You don’t. Neal will leave for Ireland on Aug. 26, with preseason practices set to begin three days later. Classes won’t start until next month, and the first game isn’t until Oct. 4.
By the time June rolls around, he’ll have a graduate degree and a better chance of remaining involved in sports – either here or the other side of the pond.
Maybe his career can extend beyond this season. Maybe there’s a few more years left. For now, he plans to enjoy an extra year in school and even start a blog to chronicle his international adventures.
Without question, though, he already has a pretty good chance of doing what he wants.
“It’s going to be an awesome experience going to school and playing basketball in another country,” said Neal, who graduated from Maryland in May. “Getting a job right now isn’t the easiest thing, so why not go to school another year and play basketball?”