David Neal will never forget the time he walked into his college basketball coach’s office for a chat.
“We need you to be a great teammate,” Neal remembers the coach telling him. “and be REALLY enthusiastic.”
The words from nearly two decades ago stuck with Neal due to who they came from: legendary former Tar Heels basketball coach Dean Smith, who recently turned 83 years old.
Neal, a walk-on at UNC after starring at Sanderson High in Raleigh, heeded Smith’s advice and even earned playing time in 26 games for the varsity squad in the 94-95 and 95-96 seasons.
Neal, now the boys basketball coach at Apex High, had such highlights as drilling a three-pointer vs. Tim Duncan’s Wake Forest squad, feeding the great Vince Carter on a basket vs. NC State and, most impressively, being on a Final Four team.
“I was blessed with the opportunity that coach Smith gave me at Carolina,” Neal said as he reviewed game film in his office this past week. “To play at Carolina has given me instant respect.”
Neal has earned plenty of respect as well, getting his first coaching gig at Louisburg High before moving on to Apex. He’s done a remarkable job with the Cougars, rolling up a 280-176 record with a trip to the state championship game in 2008.
Apex may be on another magical ride this season, advancing to the quarterfinals of the state 4A basketball playoffs following Friday’s 64-63 win over Northern Durham. Majid Raji’s last second jumper ended Northern’s season at 26-3 on its home court.
Neal knows a little bit about magic rides, likening his own tale to that of “Rudy” (Ruettiger) the smallish football player who eventually achieved his dream by seeing action for the Notre Dame football squad.
“It was an absolute dream come true, as my dad worshipped coach Smith and he and my sister both went to Carolina,” Neal recalled. “For me to make that team was a miracle… it was similar to Rudy.”
Even though he didn’t star for the Tar Heels, much like Ruettiger with the Irish, Neal said being a little-used reserve gave him perspective he utilizes to this day.
“While I was ecstatic about being at the end of the bench, it’s different being there,” Neal said. “I appreciate our guys who don’t get in the game much.”
Neal enjoys his continuing relationships with the Tar Heels and he often thinks about his experience at UNC.
“Our practices are just about exactly what they do there,” Neal said. “I try to incorporate the Carolina way into what we do at Apex.”
While he follows the Tar Heels as closely as possible during a busy basketball season, while still serving as PE teacher at the school, Neal can’t spread himself too thin.
“I love my Tar Heels and watch them every game,” said Neal, who also has two sons (Walker, 9 and Andrew, 7) with his wife Holly. “But I have so much invested in Apex… my focus is on getting us prepared.”
Coach Smith probably wouldn’t have it any other way, either.