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Continued: Gophers freshman McNeil embraces what he has

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 12, 2014 - 12:10 PM

One of those nights she sat him down.

“She said, ‘This is not what my sister would want for you,’ ” McNeil said. “I was like, ‘You’re right.’ I had to snap out of it, get back on the right track.”

A basketball comeback

Seeing McNeil’s struggles, McCormick took a special interest in the young, promising player.

After McNeil failed his freshman year, McCormick helped ease him into another school in the area. Smith already had coaxed McNeil back into a community basketball league, and in his new environment, he thrived — not just on the court but off.

During the first quarter, his grades began to rise. For the second, third and fourth, he was on the honor roll.

“That was almost a celebration,” McCormick said with a laugh. “Like jump in the air, click your heels.”

As his game and grades advanced, McNeil left Baltimore for Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vt., where he played his final three seasons before following Pitino to Minnesota.

McNeil originally wanted to redshirt his freshman season. Pitino refused. Now, Smith will click on the ESPN boxscores, shake her head and smile, as she monitors her nephew’s progress.

McNeil isn’t the one studying boxscores, tracking his statistics. In his mind, he has already won.

“I know how to see something brighter,” he said. “Sometimes, even though bad things are happening around me, I’ve just got to think someone’s having a worse day than I am.

“So why should I complain?”

Instead, McNeil looks to the Williams Arena rafters. Often, he says, he imagines his mother bringing him the same silent direction she did when he was in seventh grade. He would kiss her twice.

He envisions his dad, out of harm’s way, watching his games. He would go back to the playground, deal up one more 3-on-3.

Stretched before him is a future that seven years ago never seemed possible. Snapping out of his stare across Williams Arena, McNeil stands up and collects himself.

He trots down the steps to join his teammates. Practice is getting underway.

 

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