The late Al McGuire would have loved the Kentucky-Mississippi game on Thursday. Both teams provide examples that support his famous observation about sons playing for teams coached by their fathers:
“Your son has to be the best player on the team, or the worst player on the team,” McGuire said. “Can’t be in between.”
Freshman walk-on Brad Calipari is not the best player on Kentucky’s team. Nor is he in between. Yet the son of UK Coach John Calipari is a fan favorite whose walk to the scorer’s table in the final minutes of a blowout victory elicits cheers. Each of his two baskets so far this season produced a fan reaction that sounded like ecstasy.
Mississippi guard Cullen Neal was an in-between player for Craig Neal at New Mexico. He was heckled by fans at home games. He read threatening posts on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. He became the first high-major player to transfer away from a program run by his father.
“It was just an overload,” he said of his three seasons playing for his father.
When asked at the Southeastern Conference Media Day in October about the reported death threats he received, Neal paused before responding.
“I mean, I don’t want to talk (about it),” he said. “I just want to move on from it. The past is the past, and we’ll keep going with that.”
Neal was one of the two most celebrated high school players in New Mexico. The other was Bryce Alford, whose father was New Mexico’s coach. When Steve Alford moved to UCLA, his son followed.
Neal, who was New Mexico’s Mr. Basketball as a junior (Bryce Alford won the award in their senior season), originally committed to St. Mary’s. But he joined his father, who was promoted from assistant to head coach when the elder Alford departed.
Geoff Grammer, a sportswriter for the Albuquerque Journal, said the younger Neal was not a shrinking violet as a high school player. For example, Neal was known to blow kisses to the opposing fans after making a shot.
Neal’s three seasons playing for his father were tumultuous. Before his freshman season, his appendix ruptured and he contracted mononucleosis. Still, he was a contributing player on a team that finished with a 27-7 record.
Neal essentially sat out his sophomore year after a season-ending ankle injury in the third game. Even this led to controversy. Grammer recalled fans grumbling about Neal sitting with the coaches rather than his teammates during games.
The elder Neal remembered a story being written about the shoes his son wore as he watched a game from the bench.
“We knew it might be difficult going into it,” the younger Neal told CBSSports.com. “But we didn’t know it would be that difficult.”
It got more even difficult last season as Neal averaged 12.3 points, but also committed about as many turnovers (101) as he got credit for assists (114). The Lobos had a final won-loss record of 17-15.
“He’d be walking the ball up the court,” Grammer said. “He’d still be in the backcourt, and people would be yelling, ‘Pass it! Pass it!’”
When asked at a February news conference if the criticism was affecting his son, Craig Neal said, “I’ll just put it this way: when you have to change your phone number and you have to shut down your Twitter account and you have to change your Facebook account, it’s sad. It’s not fair that you get threats and you get death threats, and it’s not right. So does it affect him? I think that kind of answers your question.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, the elder Neal said, “I think he felt like a prisoner in his own room.”
Mississippi represented freedom. Why Ole Miss? The elder Neal and Rebels’ Coach Andy Kennedy have known each other since 1985. Craig Neal was the player host when Kennedy was a prospect on a recruiting visit to Georgia Tech.
Mississippi needed a point guard with Stefan Moody gone. Cullen Neal needed a fresh start. New Mexico needed some quiet time. It was a win-win-win.
“I view this as my second chance,” Cullen Neal said. “I can breathe.”
The elder Neal said he’s seen a change in his son, who graduated in three years with a 4.0 grade-point average. He is working on a Master’s degree in journalism, and will be eligible to play two seasons for Mississippi.
“The best thing I can say is that he’s got a smile back on his face,” Craig Neal said of his son. “I’m sure with what he went through here, he’s got a little self-doubt. …
“My biggest thing is I just wanted to get my son back to being happy. And I think I have.”
Kentucky at Mississippi
8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2)