Shouldering THE Burden : Neal Left a Chicago Ghetto to Play for Ventura and Try to Create a Better Life for His Son

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Take a look at Lester Neal and it is easy to see why Chicago is known as the City of Broad Shoulders.

Neal, Ventura College's standout sophomore center from Chicago, has shoulders like an ox yoke. They are big enough to sit on and, indeed, the hopes and dreams of many ride on them.

Neal is the player a balanced Ventura team looks to during crucial moments, the workhorse who can bring Coach Phil Mathews his second state title at the school, the star who evokes among Ventura fans memories of Cedric Ceballos.

He is also the guy who hopes to pull his mother out of the Chicago housing projects, to provide a role model for his younger brothers and to justify his high school coach's continued support.

However, Neal's greatest responsibility comes from the littlest person relying on him--his 4-year-old son Latavius.

"What I don't like to see (is for his life to) turn out the way I grew up in the projects, struggling. (I would like) for him not to have to go out and fight and have to do the things I did to get by," Neal said. "I want him to get a fair chance on the educational level."

Neal has come to Ventura to get his own life together and lay the groundwork for a better future for his son. That groundwork includes averages of 20.7 points and 14.8 rebounds a game.

"It was basically important for me to get out of the city of Chicago," Neal said, "to get out of the state so I wouldn't be home as often so I could be more focused and provide. Maybe someday in the years to come I could be able to provide for my mother and my son."

Although he said history is one of his favorite academic subjects, Neal would just as soon put his past behind him.

Chicago might have been too much Neal's kind of town: too many temptations, troubles and distractions.

"I told Lester I don't think I prefer him to come back here if he can help it," Betty Neal, Lester's mother, said from Chicago. "I would like him to stay out there and make something of himself."

Charles Dickens would have needed mood-altering drugs to concoct a milieu as rough as the one in which Neal grew up as a child.

"Lester hasn't had, let's say, a super life," said Fate Mickel, Neal's coach at Dunbar High. "He's from the heart of the ghetto."

Neal grew up in the public-housing projects on the South Side of Chicago, an area so depressed that the New York Times recently did a Sunday Magazine cover story on poverty in the projects down the street from Neal's home.

Latavius still lives in the projects with Neal's mother. She has pledged to take care of him as long as Neal stays in school, but Neal would like to pull his son out of an environment that ages boys quickly.

A young Neal attended the funeral of slain high school basketball star Ben Wilson, shot near Simeon High, and Neal said he himself was already getting in trouble before he became a teen-ager.

"You know, I wasn't as much of a momma's boy; I was a troublemaker," said Neal, the only one of Betty Neal's four sons to be involved in athletics. "I had my fights. I had my gang fights and all that."

Neal said he never joined a gang but associated with gang members.

Latavius was born during Neal's sophomore year of high school, adding another layer of complexity to Neal's life.

"It was hard," Neal said of his efforts to support his family at the age of 15. "I was forced to get a job at McDonald's."

However, Neal was doing more than working at McDonalds in order to make ends meet.

"To be honest with you, there was times where, you know, it would be hard for me to get by," Neal said. "I got involved with the drugs for a little while."

Neal said he was never caught with drugs nor did he use them.

"I used to sometimes work out of the drug houses," Neal said. "Didn't realize how dangerous it was until you look back on it because, you know, the money was just looking so good."

Neal said he quit dealing drugs the day before he came to Ventura. He also was held up the night before his departure and divested of more than $200.

"It was just the neighborhood stickup man," Neal said. "I wasn't scared."

After failing to meet Proposition 48 academic standards out of Dunbar High, Neal began looking for a junior college. Mickel knew Mathews from Mathews' days as a recruiter at Cal State Fullerton. Mickel, who has a reputation as an academically oriented coach, wanted to get Neal as far from Chicago as possible and steered him to Ventura.

When Neal stepped off the plane in California, he vowed he would not land in the kind of trouble that would send him prematurely back to Chicago.

"There's nothing left in Chicago for me but trouble and early death, and I didn't need that," Neal said.

Ventura was initially too tranquil for a guy from the Windy City. Neal's homesickness and shyness were evident when he distanced himself by sitting on a fence during his first team barbecue. He and returning star Leo Parker also had an immediate clash of personalities, and there was tension between them all season.

"At first I thought (Neal) was coming home because he was kind of lonesome," Mickel said.

Mickel and Neal talked constantly and still talk at least once a week, and Mathews has assumed a similarly influential role in Neal's life. Mickel and Mathews have been, in some ways, father figures for Neal.

"We're pretty close off the floor," Mathews said. "It's more like a big-brother type relationship. I can tell him things I can't tell other players. He's more mature."

Now, Neal is the sergeant-at-arms for the African-American alliance of Ventura College and, Mathews said, is on schedule to receive his associate in arts degree this spring.

He claims to have turned his life around, but what else would one expect from someone who rebounds as well as Neal.

The leading rebounder in the state, Neal virtually levitates above the madding crowd in the lane.

"He's a rebounding machine," said Ceballos, now with the Phoenix Suns. "I call him 'Little Larry' because he plays like Larry Johnson (of Nevada Las Vegas fame.) Once he gets his inside game down, he'll be really good."

One could call him a good weakside rebounder, but whichever side Neal takes is de facto the strong side. Not only does Neal want the ball more than his opponents do, he is also bigger and stronger.

Many big men are built like the angular, elongated figures in Giacometti's sculptures, but Neal has the bulkiness of a Rodin figure. He looks as if a sculptor completed his body then decided to add some large lumps of clay here and there, building arms and a chest of startling power.

Carrying 220 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame, Neal clearly is built of a different clay.

Neal plays with a mean mien, but it is deceptive. He will chat with opposing players while they wait to go into the game or give an opposing coach "five" as he trots past the bench.

The powerful image persists, though. One coach called him "a 6-foot-5 Mike Tyson," and a goatee accentuates a fearsome on-court demeanor.

"He's such a physical player," Mathews said. "He wants people to feel his domination."

Those who do not feel it, see it. Neal averaged 18.4 points and 10.5 rebounds as a freshman and this season has led Ventura to a 28-4 record and second consecutive Western State Conference Northern Division championship. Ventura, the second-seeded team in the Southern California regional of the state tournament, will open postseason play Saturday night against visiting Golden West.

At Ventura, the final minutes of a tight game are known as "Neal-time."

"That's option No. 1," teammate Uba Satterfield said of Neal.

Oxnard Coach Remy McCarthy calls Neal the best player in the state. McCarthy has told Arizona State, one of the schools recruiting Neal, that "Lester can go in and help them be in the top two or three in the Pac 10. At the next level he can rebound and guard with anybody, period."

Neal has worked hard on his jump shot but knows his limits, rarely shooting anything longer than a 10-foot jump shot and scoring many of his points on put-backs and dunks.

He also has struggled throughout his Ventura career with injured ligaments in his right (shooting) wrist. He injured the wrist in a car accident before he came to Ventura and will have it operated on as soon as the season ends, Mathews said. Neal wears a brace in practice but discards it for games.

"I don't think people have seen his real shooting ability," Mathews said. "I would venture to say if he had a healthy hand he'd be even more devastating. He's a warrior."

Neal's intensity sets him apart. Mathews fairly sizzles on the sidelines, constantly exhorting greater effort from his players, yet he seldom yells at Neal.

There is simply no need.

However, the Neal who screams with passion when he pulls down rebounds is a far cry from the Neal who coasted through Dunbar High games thinking, "Let's play so we get the game over so we can go hang out."

As a youth, Neal considered himself a baseball player, but he began playing basketball at Dunbar. Long a national and Chicago-land power, Dunbar competes in the Red-Central Division of the Chicago Public League.

Basketball is tough on and off the court in the Public League and the Red-Central, perhaps its strongest division. Away games were an adventure because players invariably had to play on another gang's turf.

The court itself was the turf of such stars as Marcus Liberty (Nuggets), Nick Anderson (Magic), Deon Thomas (Illinois) and Jamie Brandon (LSU), all of whom Neal played against.

"(California basketball) is not as brutal as it was back in Chicago," Neal said. "I was always fighting. All this talking going on."

DePaul would like to lure Neal back to Chicago but look for him to stay west of the 100th meridian. Neal already has visited Arizona State, UNLV and USC. Other schools recruiting him include Oklahoma, Colorado, Washington State and Kansas State.

At a four-year school, Neal likely will move from center to power forward. It will be a bit of a change but nothing compared to the change he has undergone in the past few years.

"If I had it to do all over again, with the attitude I got now I wouldn't be involved in it," Neal said. "I look back now thankful that there was no harm done to me or I didn't have any trouble with the law concerning drugs."

His life has been a continual endurance test, yet Neal has room on his massive shoulders for everything but a chip.

"I'm one of the lucky ones. . . . Each family has someone in their family capable of doing something to help," said Neal, who frequently talks of helping others. "I was just one of the lucky ones to pursue my talent to something further."

Latavius might be one of the lucky ones too. He is enrolled in Head Start, an educational program, and his father hopes to put him on track toward a better future.

"I talk to him on the phone two or three times a week," Neal said. "I miss him a lot. He's my pride and joy.

"My mother and my family are what's keeping me going."

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