His athletic skills aren’t quite as developed as his teammates. He does not start for the undefeated eighth-grade basketball team Gabe plays on.
Gabe actually does not get to play much.
What he is best at is inspiring his teammates and the other students at Pansy Kidd Middle School in Poteau.
On Saturday night, he sat and watched his teammates build up a big lead in the finals of the LeFlore County Junior High Tournament against Hodgen.
As the game wound down, coach Kyle Hardaway put Gabe in the game. We have all seen this before as players who seldom get to play get a chance but nothing happens.
His teammates gave the ball to Gabe the first time down the court and encouraged him to shoot. He did, from way outside. The crowd watched the ball with anticipation, hoping somehow the ball would find the target.
It didn’t, but his teammates and fans were still enjoying Gabe getting a chance to play. The next time down the court, Gabe set up outside the three-point line on the right side of the court.
His teammates made sure Gabe got another chance. He caught the ball, paused for just a second and let loose a shot that looked as good as his more talented teammates.
The basketball flew high and true toward the goal. Almost every eye in Carl Albert’s gym watched the flight of the ball. They realized there was a chance the ball could get close to the rim, but it would be too good if the ball actually went in.
This time, the ball did go through the rim and through the net. The crowd roared, his teammates celebrated on the bench and the court. A great night for the Raiders suddenly was even better.
It was the loudest roar of the night, one that was certainly heard outside the gym.
Yes, it was almost too good to be true. Gabe got another chance but his shot was deflected, not that it mattered. Gabe made a basket he will remember forever.
Teammate Kendrick Hardaway won the MVP award for the tournament. Two other teammates, Jerrett Lowrimore and Jon Scott Sanders were named to the all-tournament team.
But after the game ended, the player who went to accept the plaque for the team championship was one Gabe Neal. His smile stretched from one ear to the other. On this night, he was an inspiration to all of us. For a brief moment, nobody worried about the recession, the frigid temperatures or whatever problems we all face.
And 10 or 20 years from now, when the other players remember winning the 2010 LeFlore County Junior High Championship, they might not remember the score or who the opponent was on that cold night. But they will remember Gabe and his night to shine.