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'Smooth' on Basketball Court, He's Stuck in Criminal Court

Sports: Howard McNeil starred at Seton Hall, was drafted by Lakers. But 16 years after his glory days, he faces a murder charge.

July 12, 1998|LARRY McSHANE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NORRISTOWN, Pa. — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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