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‘Smooth’ on Basketball Court, He’s Stuck in Criminal Court

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Howard McNeil was known as “Smooth.”

He would glide effortlessly downcourt, his ease incongruous with his 6-foot, 9-inch, bowlegged frame. The unlikely gait was uniquely McNeil; he believed it would carry him into the NBA.

It did not.

On an unseasonably warm March afternoon, 16 years after the Los Angeles Lakers released him, McNeil was running again, police said--loping between buildings on West Main Street, lugging a beige-colored safe filled with cocaine.

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The safe’s owner was dead inside her blood-spattered apartment. She was brutally beaten, stabbed a half-dozen times and strangled. A plastic bag was pulled over her face.

“I really didn’t think I killed her,” McNeil allegedly said after his arrest, "[until] the next day when I saw it in the papers.”

His hoop skills had once smoothed over McNeil’s problems. Stints in three high schools. Academic woes that cut short his college career. His fatal, accidental shooting of a teammate.

That was long ago, when he was a teen superstar coveted by every major college program in the country, when Howard McNeil was mentioned in the same breath as Magic Johnson. The college recruiters with their empty promises, the team boosters with their fat wallets--that was long ago too.

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They have no use for Howard McNeil now.

Sports-hungry America keeps no statistics on its athletes once their games end, but many have trouble adjusting to everyday life. “I could tell you dozens of anecdotal stories,” said Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

At age 38, sitting in the county jail, McNeil seemed in danger of becoming another anecdote. He remains behind bars, sporting an inmate’s ID number, insisting on his innocence and waiting to fight his murder charge in court.

“Was he that big a deal?” asked the prosecutor who plans to put Howard McNeil in jail for life.

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Yes. Once, Howard McNeil was that big a deal.

*

The middle child of nine siblings reared by their mother, McNeil emerged from a rugged North Philadelphia neighborhood in the early 1970s. “The next Wilt Chamberlain,” Philly’s hoop mavens declared as McNeil grew.

And grew.

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And grew.

He was a playground presence before puberty. By age 14, he stood 6 feet, 8 inches.

His neighborhood was “a jungle . . . killings, gangs, dope,” McNeil recalled years later. Basketball had saved him from succumbing to its perils.

And if basketball ever disappeared? “I don’t know,” McNeil acknowledged. “I don’t know.”

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In 1973, the eighth grader was the prize in a recruiting war won by Abington High School. A legal fight ensued over whether McNeil could transfer into the predominantly white suburban school district.

Abington won. McNeil left the city.

His reputation was so widespread that best-selling author James S. Michener mentioned McNeil in his 1976 book, “Sports in America.” The teen was “unusually handsome and well-mannered,” Michener wrote. “He saw the game as his best chance of escaping the harsh inner-city life.”

After receiving death threats prior to a February 1976 showdown against arch-rival Norristown, McNeil returned to North Philadelphia and picked up a handgun.

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While showing off the weapon at a Valentine’s Day party, he accidentally fired a fatal shot through the head of teammate Mitchell Lee Jr. “It was just Mitch’s time to go,” the slain boy’s mother said, forgiving McNeil.

A finding of involuntary manslaughter spared the teen a jail term.

Trying to get his life in order, McNeil attended high schools in Virginia and New Jersey. His size, court sense and ball handling made him one of the nation’s top 50 high school players. He backed up that accolade by leading Glassboro, his third high school, to the New Jersey state title.

He attracted scads of college recruiters. Kentucky gave McNeil a personal tour of the 24,000-seat Rupp Arena; other schools offered cash and cars, he said. The teen initially settled on Wake Forest in the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.

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But the winner was Seton Hall, a cramped commuter school in South Orange, N.J., where McNeil claims a booster paid him $2,400. (The school has denied McNeil’s story.)

“Howard could handle the ball like Magic Johnson did,” said Bill Raftery, his college coach, now a television analyst. “He really had some possibilities as a player.”

McNeil was a major coup for Seton Hall as it moved into the made-for-TV Big East conference. The Pirates were stepping up in class, swapping smaller rivals like Fairfield and Wagner for Georgetown and Syracuse.

Howard McNeil would make that transition easier.

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But his personal transition was troubled. He suffered flashbacks of the Lee shooting, frightening dreams that awoke him at night. The booster money had stopped. McNeil was now juggling a part-time job with his studies and basketball.

He started as a Seton Hall freshman, averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds per game, before missing nine games as a sophomore due to bad grades. McNeil continued to view classwork with disdain; his attendance stayed sporadic.

During a rare classroom appearance in spring 1980, McNeil stood before slack-jawed students in a public-speaking class. He opened a copy of Michener’s book and quietly read the author’s account of the high school shooting, referring to himself in the third person:

“He acquired a gun, which he kept in his duffel, and following the Norristown game he displayed it to his fellow teammate Mitchell Lee, also 16 years old. The gun went off. The bullet struck Lee in the head and killed him.”

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McNeil closed the book, left the podium and returned to his seat. The classroom was as quiet as a wake.

That same year, he wed his college sweetheart and moved into a Newark, N.J., apartment. McNeil came into his own as a junior: He earned third team all-Big East honors, stayed eligible, excelled at both center and point guard. His easy smile often followed easier buckets set up by McNeil’s deft passes.

His senior year was jump-started when McNeil held his own against future NBA stars Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon as the Pirates stunned a powerful Houston team, 87-85.

He looked forward to a mid-season Madison Square Garden showcase against Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, a game certain to draw NBA scouts.

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But McNeil’s grades didn’t cooperate. Unable to maintain a ‘C’ average, he had already played his last college game. An embarrassed McNeil kept the news from his wife for two days.

“Howard felt he was going to be an NBA player,” Raftery recalled. “So he concentrated more on that.”

When the 1982 draft rolled around, his bad grades and resulting lack of exposure dropped McNeil to the fifth round. Worse, he was drafted by the world champion Los Angeles Lakers, a team loaded with All-Star caliber talent.

When McNeil arrived at Los Angeles’ fall training camp, he hadn’t practiced or played with a real team since January. The Lakers’ Magic Johnson said goodbye to the “next Magic Johnson” very quickly--so fast that Lakers Executive Vice President Jerry West today remembers nothing about McNeil except his name.

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McNeil returned to Newark and trouble; he was arrested on a petty theft charge. But he soon returned to basketball, finding refuge from his problems on courts around the world.

He spent a decade playing professionally in Greece, Argentina and Portugal before retiring in 1994. The once-disinterested student learned to speak fluent Portuguese and Spanish and began writing poetry.

McNeil, who had split with his wife, spent his off-seasons in New Jersey, fathering a pair of daughters with other women. But he appeared ready to settle down after mutual friends introduced McNeil to his future second wife in January 1994.

Howard and Traci McNeil married two years later, moving into a two-story suburban townhouse in Pennsylvania with her son and daughter. McNeil remained something of a local celebrity from the days of the Abington-Norristown rivalry; he was still approached for autographs.

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On the surface, even with basketball now in McNeil’s past, his life appeared idyllic. But there was an ugly undercurrent.

McNeil had developed a debilitating fondness for crack. He waged a fruitless fight to get clean over several years, checking into different programs but always returning to the drug.

“Recovery is a process, not an event,” said his lawyer, Steven Jarrett. “Unfortunately, it’s also subject to numerous setbacks.”

In 1995, McNeil was cited for receiving stolen property. A year later, he was accused in the beating and sexual assault of a Norristown woman. The victim was knocked unconscious and her nose was broken. She needed eight stitches to repair her face.

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McNeil didn’t show up for his June 1997 trial in the sexual assault case; a warrant was issued, authorities said. But he was not arrested until Norristown police began investigating the town’s second homicide of 1998.

*

It was a warm spring day, March 30. Detectives later provided this dark version of that sunny afternoon on West Main Street:

McNeil brought a small stash of crack to his friend Harry Wooldbridge’s apartment, in a section of Norristown with a growing drug and prostitution trade.

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The pair, with a woman friend, got high around 3:30 p.m. McNeil surrendered his last $5 to Wooldbridge, who scored additional crack from a dealer in the brick row house next door at 1012 West Main St.

Once that disappeared, McNeil left to get more money. He entered the adjoining house to see Frances Brennan, 38, an alleged hooker whose boyfriend peddled drugs.

When Brennan’s beau didn’t answer his beeper quickly enough to suit McNeil, the ex-hoop star asked her to share some cocaine sitting on a plate in the apartment.

She refused. McNeil slammed Brennan’s head into a wall, then struck her again when she fought back. Blood was left on the floor and a hallway wall leading into her bedroom.

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A Sentry safe holding 40 plastic bags of crack was stolen from beneath her bed. Wooldbridge said he watched McNeil leave by the side door to Brennan’s apartment, that familiar bowlegged lope altered by the heft of the 8-by-11-inch safe.

McNeil returned to Wooldbridge’s apartment. There was blood on his shirt, and his watchband was missing a pin. He carried $35 in cash.

The athlete who once lived to play before thousands of people in the Garden and the Meadowlands Arena locked the door. Locked the windows. Pulled down all the shades.

With Brennan’s body lying next door, McNeil and his two friends went on a crack binge--smoking until 6 a.m. the next day, smoking as the police and the medical examiner arrived at the murder scene.

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McNeil later spent some of his newly acquired cash on beer and gas, prosecutor Cynthia Davidoff said.

Investigators found a watchband pin inside Brennan’s apartment. An autopsy showed that the woman had been “killed. And killed. And killed again,” the prosecutor said.

On April Fool’s Day, with his wife’s children looking on, McNeil was arrested outside their home. He was still wearing the broken watchband, police said, and he soon confessed to the crime.

His lawyer claimed McNeil’s statement was trumped up by the cops, and questioned the physical evidence. Few listened. McNeil was charged with murder, robbery, receiving stolen property and drug possession. He was jailed without bail.

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“He wants to be home with his family,” said Traci McNeil, who was forced to change jobs after the arrest created tension at work. “He’s keeping the faith. He knows these struggles and trials will make him a better man.”

The front-page story in the local newspaper contained a passing reference to his basketball career: It mentioned that he had once shot a high school teammate.

*

His college friends and acquaintances can’t imagine McNeil as a murder suspect. “Bizarre, surreal,” said Raftery, echoing McNeil’s teammate and friend, Danny Callandrillo.

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“Oh my God,” said Callandrillo, the former Big East player of the year. “What happened? I thought he was still living in Newark.”

McNeil’s attorney acknowledged his client’s drug problem, but he described McNeil as a good father and husband, a churchgoing man who will be exonerated at trial.

Howard McNeil goes on trial for murder later this year.


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