SAVOY — Matt Neaville, ironically, is the old man on the block today on the newly formed Champaign Swarm professional basketball team.
Ironic, given that when I used to hoop with Matt, he was always the youngest person on the court.
Matt was a scrawny, 14-year-old kid when we would play daily pickup games at IMPE and CRCE — practically the only two indoor basketball facilities in Champaign-Urbana — while I was attending the University of Illinois pursuing a journalism degree.
Now, he’s 30. And he’s got a 4-year-old son, Jaden, an aspiring athlete himself.
But Matt’s still got game.
I caught up with Matt for the first time since my college days this week. It took Matt a minute to remember who I was when he answered the phone and I told him it was "Stylez," a nickname bestowed on me by our mutual friend, Blake Wetzel of Urbana.
Matt was one heck of a player as I remember him — the best I ever played with, actually. I wanted to know what the heck he had been up to after reading a story about him making the 11-man Champaign Swarm roster in The News-Gazette.
"Remember when you went up to IMPE and crossed up the entire Illini football team and dropped a tear-drop floater on them?" I asked him.
"I still do that every once in a while," Matt said with a laugh.
Matt said he doesn’t play as many pickup games as he did back then — especially now that his pro basketball season is about to begin. Occasionally, he’ll take the court with his former Urbana High School teammate Anton Sanders. But most of the others on the court aren’t from that far back in Matt’s life.
Before Matt became a star at Urbana, he was a star on the courts of IMPE and CRCE — and Huff Hall. It was at Huff Hall when he won the three-point shootout during the U of I basketball team’s Midnight Madness event. Matt was only 14 years old — and the rules-makers for the three-point contest, at first, weren’t sure if he was eligible to receive the prize since he wasn’t even a U of I student.
I remember this because I was there — I was one of the shooters who qualified for the finals, only to got knocked out of the contest by Matt in front of 4,000 people packed inside the Huff Hall gym.
That was the day Matt took his game to another level — and didn’t look back.
I remember him later that year dropping 15 uanswered points in a Gus Macker three-on-three basketball tournament in Terre Haute, Ind. He went on his scoring spree when we needed it most — only one point from elimination. One of the trash-talking opposing players told us, "See you in the loser’s bracket," and then Matt just went off!
Based on his talent alone, anyone who played with Matt knows he could have easily made any roster in Division I college basketball. And despite having "over 50 D-I schools" taking a look at him, that’s not what happened.
His first collegiate stop after graduating from Urbana High School in 2002 was Danville Area Community College. But he left before he ever played a game for the Jaguars.
From there, he attended Parkland College in Champaign, but his academic work wasn’t a priority, so he left.
"I didn’t care about class," Matt said. "I didn’t go to class. So I quit college for a year and a half, two years. Then one day I just kind of woke up and tried to decide what I was going to do with my life."
That decision led him back to Parkland. He picked up his grades to "prove to Coach that I was serious this time."
He played at Parkland from 2005 to 2007, setting "a bunch of records" in the process, he said. In a single game, Matt made a record 17 three-pointers and scored 58 points.
Matt was named a junior college All-American while at Parkland, and after his freshman year was getting looked at by "over 50 D-I schools." But they all passed up on him because he had only a couple of years of Division I eligibility left.
"Once you take your first step in a college classroom, you have five years of clock (in Division I)," Matt said. "And if you quit school, the clock continues. So I was getting looked at by over 50 D-I schools at Parkland as a freshman, but they found out my eligibility would have been up for Division I after my sophomore year.
"A lot of people ask that question (about why I didn’t play Division I ball), but at the same time, that’s the way it is."
Instead, Matt eventually earned a full ride to an NAIA school — Union University in Jackson, Tenn. — where the three-point marksman was a first-team NAIA All-American during his senior year and set the NAIA record for career three-pointers made.
"I was leading the country in scoring at 24.3 ppg my junior year at Union," Matt said.
After graduating from Union University in 2009, Matt played professionally in Mexico for a year.
Then, he signed a contract with the NBA Development League (NBDL). He was put in the NBDL’s "players pool," where teams could pick up players to fill their rosters. But no team came calling.
Matt then wound up playing in the Independent Basketball Association, on teams based in Kankakee and Springfield. He had been doing that for the past "two, three years."
Neaville then decided not to play in 2014.
The chance to be part of the first professional team based in Champaign, however, was too much to pass up. Neaville was one of nearly two dozen athletes who went through a combined tryout and two-a-day training camp with the Champaign Swarm over nine days. The 6-foot, 180-pound Neaville is one of 11 athletes on the roster of the Midwest Professional Basketball Association team, which makes its debut at 3 p.m. Sunday against the St. Louis RiverSharks at Parkland College.
"I think it’s a great opportunity," Matt said. "Obviously, I’m 30 years old. I don’t know where the opportunity will take me, but I’m still playing at a high level. We’ll see how this team goes and the connections go with the league. I could still possibly go overseas if it’s the right situation, but it’s got to be the right situation because I have a 4-year-old and I need to be in his life."
Neaville’s son is already taking after his father.
"He loves basketball already," Matt said. "He might play a lot of sports, though. He likes a lot of stuff."
While he isn’t playing basketball, Matt is studying online toward earning a master’s degree in education from the University of Phoenix. A resident of Savoy, Matt also works part-time as a substitute teacher for the Unity school district and as a part-time bartender at the Philo Tavern.
"I can’t complain about my life right now," Matt said. "It’s been pretty good. I’m just working hard, just basically trying to be a good role model for my son."