Stacey Neal didn’t just play basketball. She clung to basketball after going through some family problems in elementary school.
“In the fourth grade, I was sent to live in Virginia with my aunt,” Neal recalled. “I was away from my family for almost two years. I learned to be very independent. Somebody gave me a basketball for Christmas when I was in fifth grade. I just left the house to play. I would play in the snow, on the ice. It was just a good getaway for me.”
When Neal returned to her family in South Beloit, she had no other girls to play basketball with. It was the early days of Title IX, with the IHSA not adding girls basketball until Neal’s freshman year of high school in 1978. Still, Neal played basketball. Constantly. She played with boys at the park and during lunch time at school, and sometimes even during boys basketball practice.
“They wanted me to play on the junior high boys basketball team, but you had to go to court at the time to get permission,” Neal said. “And my family could not afford a lawyer for me to play basketball, so I waited until I got to ninth grade.
“I never really thought about not being allowed to play. When you are living in that and you are just a kid, you say, ‘That’s not fair,’ but you just keep on going with life.”
And playing with the boys. Older boys that included Perry Range, the greatest player in South Beloit history who went on to start for the Illini in the Big Ten. And, like Perry Range, Stacey Neal made our list of the greatest basketball players in Rockford-area history, coming in at No. 10 on the girls side.
“I played with the guys, and the guys I played with weren’t even guys, they were pretty much men,” said Neal, a 5-foot-6 guard who scored a school-record 1,983 points at South Beloit and led the Sobos to a 65-18 four-year record, including what remains the only two regional titles in school history in 1980 and 1981. “I would play eight to nine hours in the summertime in the park. I had some cousins who were three years older than me who played on the high school team. If they were out there playing, they would let me play on their team.
“I’d play with Perry Range sometimes, too. We lived very close and came to my house all the time. They didn’t have mercy on me. I had to learn how to get my shot off. That didn’t seem good at the time, but it was great in the end.
“Because I played with the boys, most of my shots came from the top of the key. There were no 3-pointers at the time, so I only got two points for it, but that’s where I shot from. When I played against the boys, my shot got blocked a lot, so I shot from there because they would not come out that far.
“I’m left-handed, but I also learned how to be ambidextrous playing against the boys. Other coaches didn’t know what to do. They’d tell their players, ‘She’s left-handed, make her go right.’ But it didn’t matter. A lot of the times, that’s the way I would have preferred to go anyway.”
Neal was also faster than any of the girls she played against in high school. Speed was a big part of her game, although she wasn’t able to show that in her early years in practice at South Beloit.
“We had what was called the big gym and the little gym,” Neal said. “They would let us play in the little gym, but we couldn’t play in the big gym. The little gym had tiles on it. It wasn’t a real basketball floor. It was real slippery. And real small. We didn’t have a regulation court. But it had two rims. We’d slip and slide, playing in a tough predicament.
“When I did get on a real basketball court, I thought, ‘This is easy. No slipping. No sliding. This is cool.’ ”
She became an immediate star for the Sobos. As a sophomore, she scored a school-record 48 points — on 23-for-31 shooting — in a win over North Boone, even topping Perry Range’s best of 42 points.
She averaged 24.5 points as a senior and shot 50% from the field. Neal and Lynette Range, Perry’s sister, were both three-time small school All-Area picks by the Rockford Morning Star, a predecessor to the Register Star, with Range averaging 23 points and 10.4 points as a senior for South Beloit’s SHARK Conference co-champs.
“We packed the gym as a girls team back then,” Neal said. “I had a style of play that was not normal. Dr. J was one of my favorite players and I loved Magic Johnson. I’d throw no-look passes and I could touch the rim even though I was only 5-6. Even people from Beloit came to see us play. We weren’t just walking down the court. We were playing like Showtime, like the Lakers played. Our gym was packed on Tuesdays and Thursdays to see us play.
“We were one of the top teams in the state and we only had six players. That’s why we never got to state. I got a lot of fouls all the time. They always called me for reaching in. What I was doing is not a foul any more, but if I fouled out, we had almost literally nothing on the bench.”
Colleges began to scout Neal during her sophomore year. She wanted to go to Notre Dame, but ended up studying commercial art at Northwestern.
“When I went to visit Notre Dame the thing that turned me off was you had to study theology,” Neal said. “I was a Christian and not a Catholic. I did not like the fact that you would be forced to study something that I was not. Even at Northwestern, I would not give an interview unless they would allow me to give thanks to God before I gave my interview.”
At Northwestern, Neal shot well — 45.2% for her career — but not often, averaging 6.6 points for four years. She averaged 11.0 as a senior, when she also led the Wildcats in assists (165) and steals (58) for a team that had a winning record all four years, going 69-42 overall, including 33-21 in the Big Ten, which did not begin sponsoring women’s basketball until her sophomore year.
Neal, who started her final two years, was in the same recruiting class as Anucha Browne, who remains Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer (2,307 points) and rebounder (951).
“There wasn’t a whole lot of shots to be taken when you are playing with somebody who scores 30-some points a game,” Neal said. “You pass, you steal balls and you get a shot in every now and then. It doesn’t mean that I could not shoot. I just did what was needed.”
Neal has lived in a suburb of Atlanta the last 29 years, running her own design company, Designs by Stacey, and a second company, selling business insurance. She said growing up playing with the boys helped her become great. But she survived those grueling tests because she was determined to succeed.
Then. And now.
“She’s still the same way,” said Billy Buggs, one of those older cousins who invited Neal to play with the boys on the South Beloit playgrounds. “We made her earn everything she got on the basketball court. When she went to college, she was ready. She was stealing the ball from all those girls. She played just like a dude.
“And she’s still dedicated. She designed her own house and started two businesses in Atlanta. That’s unbelievable for a young lady coming from a small town.”
“I was the only girl out there, and I just wanted to get better. I was hell-bent,” Neal said. “I knew I would not be able to go to college just on my own. I needed to get a scholarship. I was very focused on getting good.
“I was always very serious as a kid. And still am serious as an adult. I don’t believe you can be successful unless you set goals. It’s a competitive thing for me. I don’t know where it came from, but it’s always been like that. Even if I cut grass, my grass has to be the best grass in the neighborhood.
“I always have to be the best at whatever I do. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, but it is what it is.”
Matt Trowbridge: [email protected]; @matttrowbridge