By Jahmal Corner
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - While Carmelo Anthony commanded the basketball spotlight with a calculated relocation to New York, former childhood team mate and Spurs rookie Gary Neal quietly pursued a more roundabout path to the NBA court.
Neal, a sharpshooting reserve guard for league-best San Antonio, has been enjoying a breakthrough season after chasing his professional hoop dreams as an international journeyman.
The undrafted, unsung Neal has a friendship with fellow 26-year-old Anthony dating back to their early basketball days growing up in Maryland, but Neal's trip to the big time could not be more different.
"He has like seven years (of NBA experience) on me -- and a seven-figure contract," Neal told Reuters. "It took me three years in Europe to finally get an opportunity and I'm just thankful that I'm able to take advantage of it."
Neal's road to opportunity was nearly derailed long before it began when he found himself embroiled in a scandal.
Following his sophomore college season at Philadelphia's La Salle University in 2004, Neal and a team mate were accused of rape by a 19-year-old woman.
The two men were eventually acquitted but Neal was dismissed from the La Salle basketball team. He transferred to Towson University in suburban Baltimore, and was sidelined for a year.
Despite reclaiming his game and his name during a decorated career at Towson, Neal was not selected in the 2007 NBA Draft and ended up trying his luck overseas.
The 6-foot-4-inch (1.93-meter) guard went first to Turkey for Pinar Karsiyaka, then to Spain for FC Barcelona, Italy with Benetton Treviso and back again to Spain for Unicaja Malaga.
Neal never did perfect his Spanish or Italian, but basketball bridged the language barrier for him and kept him connected to life back in the United States.
"I would miss sleep to watch Carmelo in the playoffs," Neal said. "Denver was the only team I would stay up into the early hours of the morning to watch.
"(Carmelo and I) have a good relationship. Sometimes we work out together in the summer in Baltimore. He's a great player.
"I always felt like I was an NBA player as far as talent and my ability, I was just waiting for my opportunity."
Opportunity finally arrived last year when the Spurs invited Neal to camp and signed him to a three-year contract.
In a matter of months, Neal has gone from the fifth guard on the team's depth chart to a valuable asset.
Neal's placid on-court demeanor and composure fit right in with the Spurs and a franchise model of understated excellence, personified by unassuming 13-time All Star Tim Duncan.
In perfect San Antonio fashion, Neal said he was not taking anything for granted about his NBA status.
"Coach (Gregg) Popovich doesn't let you feel like you've arrived, he's always pushing you to get better," Neal said. "When the season is over it will probably set in that I'm an NBA player, but right now it's just a lot of hard work."
(Editing by Larry Fine and Clare Fallon)