Lester Neal could only shake his head and chuckle last Saturday as Randy Carter filled his ears with some Westside chatter.
Neal is the leading scorer on the Ventura College basketball team and is from Chicago's Southside. Carter, from rival Oxnard College and the state's leading scorer, is from Chicago's Westside. The two squared off, in a verbal sense, as a prelude to Wednesday night's first game between the two schools--and the Chicago players--this season.
(Results of Wednesday's game were not available at press time.)
But Saturday, Carter had Neal pinned in a corner. After all, Carter had scored a season-high 41 points that night against Rhode Island College, and was making sure his homeboy knew all about it.
Carter didn't let up. He had done downtown so often, he was mass transit. Nobody could stop him. Nooooo- body .
"He was talkin' smack, man," Neal said. "Tellin' me about his 40 points."
That's 41 , Lester.
Neal smiled, unimpressed, and waited for the Westsider to catch his breath and give him a chance to tell Carter about the 20 points and 11 rebounds he posted the same night against Santa Barbara. When Carter finally inhaled, Neal countered.
"He was telling us how they beat us all four times last year," Carter said with a laugh. "Yeah? Well, we just let them do their talkin.' "
Talking smack is expected when Carter and Oxnard teammate Joe Daughrity, also from Chicago's Westside, get together with Neal more than 2,000 miles from home.
They are the top three junior college scorers in an area full of surfboards and convertibles, and they are wearing t-shirts during a time of the year they're used to wearing parkas. Although they thrive on an opportunity to jaw at one another, they equally enjoy talking about life in the Windy City.
"When we see each other, it's like 'What's up, man?' " Daughrity said. "It's like 'Hey, it's somebody else from Chicago.' "
And somebody else who has escaped the inner-city ghettos in order to concentrate on goals in a more accommodating environment.
Lester Neal was hanging out with some friends around the Robert Taylor Homes in Southside Chicago last summer, enjoying his final day at home before leaving for Ventura on Aug. 29.
"They were saying I should call it a night, but I told them I was going to hang out with my partners before I leave," Neal said.
Neal lived with his mother and three brothers in a two-bedroom apartment at the corner of Second and Wabash. The apartment is part of a 16-story building in the Southside projects, which extend 30 blocks and claim Detroit Piston star Isiah Thomas as a former tenant.
In the projects, thieves stall the elevator, then prey on tenants as they walk darkened hallways. This time, however, a thief held Neal at gunpoint in the middle of the lobby and walked away with some jewelry and about $200 of Neal's traveling money.
Although Neal is 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, he quickly realized he was overmatched. "I was scared," he said. "I just stayed calm and tried to be patient."
The strategy spared Neal injury, but left him even more discontented with ghetto life. Shootings had already taken the lives of two childhood friends, Nathaniel Perry and June Stewart.
Stewart's death was particularly disturbing. He and Neal were boyhood friends who played playground basketball together. Neal attended Stewart's funeral the same day as a game with Simeon High, then the top-ranked team in Illinois, and he played poorly in a blowout loss.
"I had a lot of things on my mind," Neal said.
He wore a sweatband with Stewart's initials the remainder of the season, a sweatband that remains tucked in the back of a drawer in his apartment. It is a symbol of one of many difficult memories.
"It's so hard to focus on things because of all the distractions," Neal said. "Sometimes I had problems outside of school and would take that problem to school with me, which would create more problems."
Neal didn't have many problems on the basketball court at Dunbar High, a perennial national power. He averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds during a three-year varsity career that ended with a third-place finish in the city playoffs and a 29-5 record.
But Neal failed to meet Proposition 48 academic standards, and Coach Fate Mickel sought a disciplined junior college program for Neal. He found that at Ventura.
Mickel has known Ventura Coach Phil Mathews since Mathews' days as a recruiter for Cal State Fullerton.
"If I send any boys out there, I know Phil is going to take good care of them," Mickel said. "He's a good coach and a disciplinarian."
Neal headed west, leaving behind a 3-year-old son, Latavius, as well as family and friends. Although Neal was bringing a troubled past, Mathews didn't consider him a risk.
"Fate isn't the kind of guy who is going to send someone who will embarrass him or his program," Mathews said. "Kids from his program are good kids."