Kenyon McNeail went from being a legend at Louisiana Tech with his name plastered all over the university record books alongside NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone to being frozen out after graduation. After being left out for so long, he is now in Portugal, trying to take advantage of an opportunity and realise a dream.
By Roscoe Whalan
Two-time NBA MVP Karl Malone sits in the living room of his Ruston, Louisiana home, the walls covered with his prized hunting trophies.
Still a mountain of a man – years removed from the pros – across from him is a bright-eyed shooter from Conway High School, Arkansas.
“When I first walked in his house his living room is full of every animal you can think of,” Kenyon McNeail, who was just 19 at the time, recalls.
“All types of lions, cheetahs and tigers and deer and buffalo and anything you can think of he’s got in his house.”
This was McNeail’s recruitment trip to Louisiana Tech University back in 2010.
Besides the hunting mausoleum, the former NBA-great’s words stuck with the 6’1 point guard as he made the trip home.
“You can’t knock hard work. Hard work doesn’t go without being noticed.”
Malone would know. He spent 18 years in the pros and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame the same year he met McNeail but long before that he was dubbed ‘The Mailman’ while playing at Louisiana Tech because he always delivered.
“He’s big on playing for the name on the front of the jersey not the name on the back of the jersey. I kinda took that to heart and I lived with it,” recollects McNeail.
Fast forward four years and McNeail had no jersey, no team and no prospects of a basketball future.
“It [was] very scary,” he said, recalling his time after graduation.
“When I got done with my season I was thinking that I was guaranteed something. I felt like I had Sixth Man of the Year, I had [the] 1,000 Point Club, I had the record for 3-pointers.”
“I thought that I was set for something but after so many months went by not knowing where you’re gonna be, what you’re gonna do, it starts to stick in your head.”
At just 23, McNeail had completed four seasons at Louisiana Tech. His name forever etched in the record books alongside Malone’s as the 36th member of the 1,000-point club, and the all-time leader for three-pointers made.
But for every Mailman the school delivers, dozens of prospects, just like Kenyon McNeail go unnoticed.
“In college we tried to treat it as much as like a profession as you could,” he says.
“[It was] everybody’s goal, everybody went to college to get to the professional stage.”
Just one in 30 high school boys in America end up playing NCAA level college basketball according to NCAA Research.
About one per cent of those end up in the NBA, and just a few more make it playing in the pros overseas.
And so, the Bulldogs’ Conference-best 29-8 record, the agonising two straight championship game defeats and missing the NCAA tournament, were forgotten.
All the records, the night when McNeail exploded for 9 threes and nailed a game-winner in front of 5,000 screaming fans, were gone.
“It just felt terrible to come up short another year and especially with it being my last year to lose the conference game,” McNeail recalled.
“He was a great young man, and he will be very hard to replace,” Louisiana Tech Coach Mike White said last month.
“Kenyon is the all-time best here.”
But, to McNeail’s surprise, his greatness as a Bulldog didn’t translate into a basketball career right away.
Instead of giving in, he headed to Memphis, where his uncle owns a barbershop – not for a fresh cut but to work on his game.
“He cuts a lot of celebrities hair, a lot of the Memphis Grizzlies guys, he also cuts Penny Hardaway’s hair, so he help[ed] me out with a couple of training sessions in Memphis and a couple of pick up games and stuff like that.”
Going toe-to-toe with NBA greats – past and present – McNeail was playing and praying for a chance.
Little did he know his dream was etching ever closer, albeit more than 4,000 miles away.
“Kenyon also had interest from many other clubs, including Holland, Greece and the Ukraine, but unfortunately (as is often the case with European deals) these fell through pretty early on in the picture,” Agent Olaf Bortuz said.
“In short, it’s very tough to place players in good European teams (given the oversupply of available players) and it can be quite ‘cut-throat’.”
His offer with Portuguese Basketball League’s UD Oliveirense came on September 17 – just days after his son’s first birthday.
“As soon as they had the flights tickets together, I was off and ready to go, this is my first time going across the water, pretty much,” McNeail said.
When he touched down, the contrast to home was very real.
“One of the guys that picked me up, he didn’t speak any English.
“He just kept saying my name and trying to let me know that he’s the one that’s supposed to pick me up.
“So that was pretty funny … He’s speaking no English and I’m speaking no Portuguese, so it was an interesting ride back.”
Those barriers extended to the basketball court, too.
“We got two coaches that speak pretty good English. A couple of terminologies that they don’t know that we learn from each other and they call threes a different word. Or pick and roll different.”
“Basketball is global. So you can kind of point and throw hand signals in the air and we can figure out what each other saying.”
So far it’s working.
In just his second game, McNeail, starting at point guard, scored a game-high 27 points on (5/7 3FG) and recorded four assists.
He also led UD Oliveirense to its first win of the season away from home on what he’s quickly learning is hostile territory.
“In America we don’t allow too many extra props and stuff into the crowd, we just have the yelling and screaming. Here, they use everything they can get.”
“They had a drummer in there that went off on the drums trying to distract us while we were on offence.”
An unlikely trio, McNeail lives with two teammates, Portuguese 6’9 power forward, Helder Carvalho and 6’9 Serbian center, Dussan Sisic.
“We pretty much the best of friends, we’re always with each other, two minutes don’t go by without us seeing each other.”
“Helder’s from Portugal so he has a good idea of how things work here he’s been showing me around, showing me the culture and stuff like that.”
It’s a long way from his days at Louisiana Tech but for McNeail it’s a dream come true.
He’s made it – and he’s met a few of his fellow countrymen who’ve made it too.
“It’s pretty cool to see, [to] meet a guy that is from America and you kinda hear that he went to this school or this school. It’s pretty neat knowing that it is a small world.”
For players McNeail, nothing’s guaranteed, but, for now, he’s just glad to have the chance to play for the name on the front of his jersey again.
A former TV reporter for Yahoo! Australia, Roscoe Whalan is an Australian journalist now working and living in Washington D.C. He can be followed on Twitter here.
Photo: Kim Ramalho