Jeff Neal sees the sports world from a variety of angles. He is in his first year as the Summit High School girls basketball head coach, and thus deals daily with teenaged, pony-tailed dreamers. When he’s not coaching the Tigers on the hardwood, however, he’s recruiting capital from the pro ranks, trying to raise $20 million to fund a Ritz Carlton investment venture in the Turks and Caicos island chain. Some of the nation’s most famous pro athletes are among his company’s investors, including NFL stars Ty Law, LaVar Arrington and Amani Toomer, and NBA sharpshooter Michael Redd.The pro contacts were enabled in large part by the seven years Neal spent as a sports agent for top athletes. In fact, while living in Denver, Neal used to represent the likes of Nuggets stars Nick Van Exel and Antonio McDyess, as well as the enigmatic Shawn Kemp. As an agent he was responsible for overseeing all of the athletes’ day-to-day needs. If he couldn’t solve their problems himself, he said, it was his job to find someone that could.Now, coaching a surprising 5-2 team that includes his two daughters, freshman Samantha and junior Amanda, Neal has found a fresh enthusiasm at one of sport’s lower levels.
He said the team isn’t too aware of his past or present professions – “They know I’ve done work with pro athletes, but I don’t know if they know any more than that” – and generally keeps his professional dealings separate from his work with the Tigers.Before moving to Summit last year, Neal spent a few years building the girls youth feeder program at defending 5A state champ ThunderRidge, which is competing this year for a national title. Then he headed to the mountains, and volunteered as an assistant last winter with Summit.Hoops has long been a part of Neal’s blood. He grew up in tiny New Castle, Ind., and played high school basketball with Indiana legend Steve Alford (currently the head coach at Iowa). Under Alford’s father – the team’s head coach – Neal said his team regularly would take the floor in front of 14,000-plus crowds that filled the world’s largest high school fieldhouse.After playing baseball and basketball at Albion (Mich.) College, the 6-foot-5 Neal transferred to play baseball at Ball State, and eventually completed law school at Indiana. In Bloomington, he said, “I realized I wanted to combine legal work and sports.”While working as an Indianapolis lawyer, Neal met then-Indiana Pacers stars Detlef Schrempf and Rik Smits, and launched his sports agent career by representing them.
Today, he and his colleagues are about halfway to their $20 million goal for the Ritz Carlton project, which is currently under construction. The hotel is being built on West Caicos, an uninhabited, 5,500-acre island in paradise.Although he has kept his real job separate from his coaching exploits in the past, he has hopes to someday combine them: He put an offer on the table last year that, were Summit to win the state title, he would take the team’s coaching staff on a vacation to the Turks and Caicos. This year, he said, it’s been extended to the whole team.”I think we’re still one big player away from that, though,” he said.What was your craziest experience with a pro athlete while you were an agent?”I’d have to say it involved a meeting with Shawn Kemp at 3 a.m. at a casino in Las Vegas. It was the only time I could track him down. It ended up being about a 10-minute meeting, for something that probably should’ve taken two hours. Shawn had most of my unique stories with sports agency, as a matter of fact.”
You’ve seen the inside of pro sports. Do you think it’s in a good state?”No. Because of how important money is to both sides, the players and the owners. And because of how the players live in an unrealistic world. I think fans are starting to realize that money and greed plays a bigger role than anybody would like to see.”What was it like growing up as a Hoosier?”It was very much like it’s depicted in a lot of movies and TV shows. My life was basically basketball and family.”
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