It's not hard to describe the late fall feeling in most towns. The chilly autumn air has now replaced heat of a scorching summer. Dinner seems like it's a bit later since the sun has set so early. People are raking leaves in their yard and trying to find Halloween costumes. Friday and Saturday nights are filled with excitement as the town's basketball team kicks off their season. This is fall season in the Midwest.
This repetitive feeling is one that Jerel McNeal has had for years. When autumn hits, it's time to pick up a basketball. Ever since he could remember, Jerel has spent this time in a gym cheering or at home watching basketball.
"The 90's were a great time for basketball," he noted. "I grew up watching and playing the game all the time. I fell in love with it."
Even before McNeal could play competitively, he spent time at his local high school watching the players on Friday and Saturday nights. He watched with envy, wondering if he could ever reach that level. As a junior high student, he looked for pick up games against older kids in the neighborhood.
"I loved playing with the older kids," he laughs. "My older brothers would take it to me."
So what? Sounds typical.
What kid didn't grow up wanting to be a basketball player? What kid didn't grow up being roughed up by his older brothers? Who didn't look up to the high school kids as a ten year old?
McNeal separated himself at an early age from his peers. He took advice from his coaches very seriously, and still carries much of it with him today.
"I was brought up in a good, fundamental basketball background. I was taught never to be one sided and to always play hard on the defensive end. One quality that I carry with me from my childhood is my anger when someone scores on me. I could not stand when anyone scored on me or the team."
During his senior season at Hillcrest High School in Illinois, McNeal averaged twenty points and six steals a game. He led his team to the sectional final game before bowing out to Homewood-Flossmoor and star forward Julian Wright (Kansas). He garnered All-State honors from almost every newspaper in Chicago and participated in national All-Star games such as the Old Spice Red Zone Shootout and the EA Sports Roundball classic. Marquette coaches expect big things of McNeal as he begins his career at Marquette alongside a talented freshmen class.
"Jerel's greatest strength is that he doesn't have any weaknesses," remarked Assistant Coach Jason Rabedeaux. "We recruited him as a jack of all trades, a very steady player. Every time Jerel is on the floor we expect him to help us win."
"He has to get it going for us defensively, energy wise, and in rebounding the basketball," said Head Coach Tom Crean, who noted that McNeal has been the team's most impressive rebounder in early season workouts. "The thing about Jerel is that he has always won, he is truly a leader. We are so anxious to watch him improve and I fully expect him to be out there this year playing some quality minutes for us."
How difficult it must be for a freshman, an 18 year old freshmen, to come into a division one program and take a large role right away…to be counted on as a leader. It is a role that McNeal has certainly embraced thus far.
"We are all expected to contribute to this team. We try not to listen to the expectations…people all over campus ask us about the team and about how Coach pushes us. We cannot get caught up in that. Personally, I am just trying to bring all sorts of energy to this team and do whatever they ask of me."
It doesn't seem like a lot has changed since McNeal's younger days. Sure, there are more expectations now, but for McNeal, this is more than just a game. He has spent his life playing basketball, falling in love with the game. Now, he truly has something to show for it.
"I've worked so hard to get to this level," McNeal explained. "Once I got to high school I realized that this is something I really wanted to do and now I am finally here. This is a dream come true for me. I honestly couldn't think of anything else I would rather do than be here, playing basketball at a high level."
Just as McNeal's adolescent eyes were fixated on the older players ten years ago, Marquette's eyes will watch with anticipation for what McNeal can do during his freshmen year. Everyone will soon find out as this cold air comes rushing in.
It's that time of year again.
One on One with Jerel McNeal
Another "Fall" for Jerel McNeal
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