By JON COOKError, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 15)
During the 2014-2015 basketball season, the Bluffton University Beavers men’s basketball program opted for a simple three word team slogan for year: “Embrace The Grind”. While it is not at all rare for teams across the country, high school, and college to adopt such slogans from year to year, I am not at all sure that any program in the country at any level is more well-suited for that particular motto. Having spent multiple season at Bluffton as an assistant coach, I can speak from experience and with a certain level of authority on just what a grind it is to try and succeed at the small Mennonite school in Allen County. But this column is not about that. Well, not exactly.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a team that on many levels, led by their superstar LeBron James, began with a mindset to embrace the grind when “The King” chose to come home three years ago (also the 2014-2015 season oddly enough), and embrace that grind they did. Working through two full seasons with sky high expectations that were derailed in year one at least in part by injuries to two of the Cavs Big 3, a tumultuous coaching change and a seven game battle with a team that boasted the greatest single season record in league history, the Cavs won a championship… in Cleveland! But this column is not about that. Well, not exactly.
This column is about the one thread that, for the time being, connects the Bluffton University basketball program and the Cleveland Cavaliers… and is most assuredly about embracing the grind.
Player Development and Basketball Operations Assistant
The card is complete with the logos of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA Developmental League, and of course the Canton Charge. For those who may be unfamiliar, the NBA has a minor league system of sorts, called the NBA Developmental League, or more affectionately, the D-League. The Canton Charge are the Cleveland Cavaliers affiliate in the D-League. Tyler Neal is a Bluffton High School (2009) and Bluffton University (2013) alumnus. He played four years of high school basketball and then four years of college basketball for his father, veteran Bluffton Head Coach Guy Neal. He now works for the Canton Charge, and by extension, the Cleveland Cavaliers. If ever there was a young man who fully avows, and so completely lives the concept of embracing the grind, it is Tyler Neal. And that is exactly what this column is about!
When I first met Tyler Neal, I was an aspiring coach who had formed an acquaintance that would soon become a friendship, with Tyler’s father while working basketball camps at Ohio Northern University. I don’t remember many of the details of meeting Tyler or exactly when it happened. What I do remember is that the very small, very young boy had eyes as big as saucers, an infectious smile, and a seemingly never ending supply of energy. I also remember that he was walking with corrective braces on his legs. I wasn’t sure what that meant for his future, and at the time I am not sure his father did either. But by the time I became an assistant at Bluffton in 1998-99, Tyler was a school-aged kid who seemed to live in Bluffton’s venerable old gym, Founders Hall, and he already had a pretty deadly jumper. His childhood was a journey both with and toward Bluffton University basketball. He describes it this way:
“For me, Bluffton basketball is my family. I have a father who just happened to be the head coach, and every year I gain a couple more brothers. Guys that played at Bluffton when I was 3 years old and guys that are in the program now are all guys that I talk to and have a special bond with.”
While it may seem to the outside observer that Tyler would just grow up and, of course play for his dad at Bluffton, that was not the way that either of them planned for things to go initially. In the end though, Tyler’s best opportunity to live out his passion and achieve a dream of playing college basketball was to do so at the place he knew best. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand the pressure that goes along with playing college basketball for your father.
Tyler was, admittedly, under recruited out of high school and he was coming into a program that he had known his entire life, as a part of a recruiting class. His father had worked very hard to convince those young men that playing at Bluffton was the right move for both them and for his program, yet some would be competing with his own son for playing time.
I was in the gym at the new Sommer Center on the Bluffton campus the night Tyler Neal played his last college game in 2013 (a huge win over rival Defiance in a packed building). I remember waiting just off the floor outside the locker room and greeting him with a long emotional hug. For my part, it was great pride in what Tyler represented during his four years as a college player, and a true sense of appreciation, even admiration for the journey he had just completed. For his part, that moment was undoubtedly about so much more, I think Tyler summed it up pretty well.
“The best part was sharing the experience with (my father). It was something that we were both passionate about and we were working toward the same goal. Not many get to experience being part of a team with their father at a collegiate level. Working toward the same goal with him every day for 4 years was the best part about playing for him. The hardest part was earning my teammates respect. I never wanted my teammates to think that I ever got something based off of my dad being the coach. I can remember going out of my way to do certain things my freshman year like carry the water cooler or being extra early to practices and meetings because I never wanted them to think I was privileged or entitled. That was definitely the hardest part and took a few years of getting used to.”
After college, and despite his father having some serious reservations, Tyler made the decision to pursue coaching as his career, and he became a graduate assistant at The University of Akron under former head coach Keith Dambrot (Dambrot recently left Akron to become the head coach at Duquesne University). Tyler spent three years at Akron. The team won 20 games or more each season and won the Mid-American Conference championship in 2016. When asked how his time as a player at tiny Bluffton University prepared him for Division I college coaching, Neal said,
“Being a basketball player at Bluffton University means having a blue collar attitude. No matter what, you show up every day ready to work, ready to do the little things and ready to be a good teammate. Those characteristics and family attitude that were instilled in me at Bluffton were huge for me when I first got to Akron. I am convinced that Coach Dambrot and his staff are the hardest working coaches in the country. So that “no excuses, nose to the grindstone” attitude from my Bluffton days allowed me to fit in at Akron.”
During his third year at Akron, Neal knew that he was going to have to be ready to move on when that 2015-16 season came to an end, and he knew that, at a minimum he wanted to continue in college coaching if possible. As a graduate assistant, Neal had the opportunity to meet and work with or against countless numbers of coaches at the college ranks from all around the country. He spent much of that year “cold calling” and writing to people in all walks of the basketball universe searching for an opportunity to continue his career, and his efforts resulted in an unexpected connection.
“In my third year at Akron, I really didn’t know what the next step would be. I began to understand that in the basketball business, and in any business for that matter, networking is key. I made it a point to reach out and introduce myself to as many coaches and basketball personnel people as I could. At this point, I was just hungry to learn and to take the next step in my career. Luckily, I had the opportunity to network with a few front office members from the Cleveland Cavaliers. David Griffin, General Manager for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Mike Gansey, General Manager for the Canton Charge were unbelievably generous and helpful to me. These were guys that were working to bring an NBA Championship to Cleveland and they were nice enough to talk and offer up advice to me along the way.”
Advice was all that he got initially, and the spring/summer of 2016 was a very uncertain time for Neal. He paid his own way to the NBA Summer League in an effort to continue networking, and just to get some “facetime” with people who might be able to open other doors for him to continue his career in basketball. After Summer League, and with the age of 26 approaching, Neal faced the stark reality, that he would soon be on his own for such things as health insurance, and was forced to begin considering job opportunities of any shape or size, outside of coaching.
“Several times in the last four years I have found myself wondering if this is really what I want to do with my life… There were also points in the last four years where I looked into jobs in other industries. At the end of the day though, I always have this gut feeling that this is right where I belong.”
That gut feeling paid off in the fall of 2016…and so did some of the cold calling and the grind of continuing to network. In September, Tyler was hired by the Canton Charge. The surreal experience of reporting to Cavaliers training camp and watching NBA superstars enter the facility where he now worked as a franchise employee was soon replaced by the day-to-day grind of film study and preparation, individual player workouts, and a myriad of other responsibilities covered by his job title.
With the D-League season in the rear view mirror, and the Cavaliers getting ready to play Game 2 of the NBA Finals tonight, it is easy to lose sight of the cold hard truth for Tyler Neal. His position with the Canton Charge was a one year contract, and nobody’s exactly sure what his position will be next year. In typical Tyler Neal fashion, he sums up that uncertainty this way
“There aren’t many days off in this business. You miss a lot of holidays, weddings, and other family events. Starting out as a GA or intern in the basketball business there are a lot of dues to be paid. Someone has to do the “not so fun jobs… The biggest lesson I have learned over the last four years is that no matter where I am or who I work for I always have to stick to my core values. Everyone is different, everyone has a different path, everyone has a different skill set. For me, I know that as long as I show up everyday with an open mind and that nose to the grindstone attitude I will be okay. Working in Division I basketball and now in the NBA is an absolute dream and while I still have a ways to go I try to remind myself each day how lucky I am… but at the same time I have been able to get this far with just good old fashioned hard work.”
From corrective leg braces to varsity basketball as a freshman, to the pressure of playing college ball for his father, to cold calling an NBA General Manager in hopes of an opportunity. As he has done for more than two decades now, Tyler Neal will continue embracing the grind…
His business card reads:
Player Development and Basketball Operations Assistant
But it doesn’t come close to telling the story!
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