breaking cycles

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Breaking Cycles

Lester Neal is different. He has an unabated ambition, a calm voice coated with passion, and he does not mince words. Lester Neal wants to tell everyone who will listen: get an education.

Neal’s childhood did not pave the road for academic success.

“My mom was a single parent, raising four boys in the projects in the south side of Chicago,” says Neal. “At one point, I lived in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with 12-15 of my family members: siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and my mother. That was really the norm in our neighborhood.”

“But I always loved school,” Neal continues. “It was something I just picked up. That and basketball.”

Neal did both with vigor and he reached his first goal of being the first person in his family to graduate from high school. But he didn’t stop there. Determined to leave Chicago, get an education and break out of the family’s historic cycle, he looked for opportunities where he could earn an athletic scholarship.

And he found them. Neal left Chicago in 1989 to attend Ventura College in California.

“My mom was thrilled when I went to college,” says Neal. “But it wasn’t just my mom and my family, but my whole building as well. I lived in a 16-story building with ten apartments on each floor. When I left for college, it was a big event for everyone. We didn’t have a car so one of my neighbors took me to the airport. I remember one of my other neighbors saying to me, ‘Make sure you graduate!’”

Neal found southern California to be far different than southern Chicago.

“At home I lived in all-black community, went to an all-black school and all the teams we played against had all-black players,” says Neal. “And because there were a lot of drugs and gang violence in my area, I was confined for safety reasons to a very small radius. It just wasn’t in my best interest to venture out so I didn’t. So when I went to Ventura in 1989, I was in complete culture shock. I had never seen a white person before.”

The transition was difficult for Neal despite how welcoming everyone in California was. The culture shock was fierce and he became homesick.

“There were two decisions that were two of the most important in my life,” says Neal. “The first was the decision to leave Chicago and go to California. The second decision was to stay in California. It saved my life.”

“I was able to see something that was different than what I knew,” says Neal. “Ventura helped me become a man.”

Neal did exceptionally well at Ventura College and transferred in Arizona State to play for the Sun Devils in 1991.

“I have to say, though, ASU tricked me,” says Neal. “I visited in November and it was beautiful. Then I went to school in August and it was the hottest day ever. I tried to play it cool and went out at midnight to shoot some hoops and it was still 100 degrees outside. So they really tricked me! But I absolutely enjoyed Arizona State. It was a great experience.”

Neal attended ASU from 1992-1993 when he withdrew in March, two months before his May graduation, to prepare for NBA camps.

“I’ll be the first person to say, ‘how stupid was that?’ And I always wanted to come back and get my degree. But I played in Europe for nine years. And then had a back injury and needed surgery. At that point, real life took place. Real life being a mortgage, insurance, and kids. I really wanted to go back to school, but I would have to pay out-of-pocket for those 12 credit hours and I didn’t have the money at the time. So for seven to eight years that went on and really bothered me.”

Despite taking almost two decades off from academic life, balancing a wife, three kids, four grandchildren, a full-time job, a part-time job coaching basketball at Scottsdale Community College and volunteering with at-risk youth, Neal went back to school.

“I had such a great time when I went back,” he says, “I really enjoyed it much more this time around. I used good time management and just got to really enjoy the classes. I made the dean’s list twice.”

“I have really seen how having a degree can open up doors and how not having a degree can close doors,” he says. “Now I want to start a master’s program. I’m looking into physical education because I’m a coach and I love coaching and would like to further my education in that field. At the same time, I’m very active with inner city youth so the education that comes with earning a social work degree is desirable as well.”

Neal and his wife have founded the nonprofit Neutral Zones of America, a youth organization to motivate kids to further their education.

“I was meant to work with the community, youth and families,” Neal says. “And I know how important education is. Even though it wasn’t instilled in me or in my household growing up, I knew it was important. I wanted to break the cycle.”

And he certainly has done that. And more. He is inspiring many others to break the same cycle.

“I’ve seen friends be killed or fall to gangs and I used to wonder ‘Why me? Why did I survive?’,” says Neal. “But I don’t ask myself those things anymore. If anybody can be inspired or motivated by me or my story, that’s the beauty of everything. I’m constantly encouraging people I know - or even people I don’t know - to pursue as much education as possible.”

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