By Jeff McDonald
WASHINGTON — Even before he walked into that humid, jam-packed locker room in the nation’s capital Saturday, Gary Neal knew he was out of his element.
With no Gregg Popovich around to call his number and no Manu Ginobili to set him up, Neal figured his chances of standing out in the exhibition between two legendary summer pro-am leagues — Los Angeles’ Drew League and the D.C.-based Goodman League — were slim.
His spot-up game and role-player mentality aren’t built for streetball, even streetball played indoors.
“No, not at all,” said Neal, a Spurs guard and Baltimore native who played for the Goodman team. “My point guards are (Denver’s) Ty Lawson and (Washington’s) John Wall. Just have to hope they’re in a distributing mood.”
They weren’t. Neal finished with six points, 38 shy of the 44 pumped in by NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant, who earned MVP honors in Goodman’s 135-134 victory.
As the NBA’s Lockout Summer swelters into its second month, this is what passes for basketball at its apex. It is a standing-room crowd of about 2,000 wedged into a Division-III bandbox at some place called Trinity University, 4 miles north of Capitol Hill and two levels above the campus swimming pool.
It is a trash-talking emcee, Goodman League commissioner Miles Rawls, chattering through free throws when he wasn’t hawking highlight DVDs — entitled, appropriately enough, “No Lockout” — like a P.T. Barnum of the pick-and-roll.
It is the mild-mannered Durant, the only NBA All-Star on either roster, flexing for the crowd after a coast-to-coast drive.
It is streetball legends named “Money Mike” (no last name) and Baby Shaq Jones filling out the end of the bench.
It is showmanship above all else, and in that, Saturday night delivered.
“We put on a show,” said Wall, who added 28 points to the Goodman win. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about money. It’s about loving the game and wanting to play the game.”
Of course, not everybody wanted to.
Wizards swingman Nick Young, reportedly miffed because he wasn’t named the Drew League’s regular-season MVP, didn’t show. Neither did Kobe Bryant, whose presence was rumored after he dropped 43 points and the game-winning jumper in a Drew League game last week.
“We tried to get him,” said Drew Leaguer DeMar DeRozan, a Toronto Raptors forward. “You pretty much have to catch Kobe at the right time and the right place.”
Like a good Spur, Neal wasn’t built for this circus.
Neal, who made the leap from the undrafted scrap heap to first-team All-Rookie last season by staying within himself, couldn’t have felt further from San Antonio had he gone back to Europe.
Minutes into his first appearance, Neal buried the kind of off-balance, guarded 3-pointer he hit about 129 times last season. In the fourth quarter, he added a transition three to a Goodman rally.
In between, Neal might as well have been a paying customer. Certainly, nobody was going to call a play for him, because neither team was running any.
Neal was there at Trinity mostly because he had nowhere else to go.
“I’m pretty much just trying to stay in shape,” Neal said. “If I had to pick, I’d rather be back in San Antonio, getting instruction from the coaches and things like that. Games like this are everywhere now, so you just try to stay active.”
In a way, Neal has been with the understated Spurs too long to shine in a game like this. All-star games, as a rule, are built for dunkers and speedsters, and Neal is neither.
The game opened with a Drew League alley-oop, from Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings to Washington’s JaVale McGee. Moments later, Wall hooked up with Durant for an answer. And so on and so forth, until the final horn.
In the end, Saturday’s exhibition wasn’t an apples-to-apples replacement for NBA basketball. But for Neal, a Spur out of water, at least it was something.