Neal becomes 11th men’s coach since 1967 (Photo by Lester Neal)

Lester Neal promoted to men’s basketball head coach

Former ASU forward Lester Neal named as new MCC men’s basketball head coach.

Mesa Community College announced the hiring of new men’s basketball coach Lester Neal. The announcement came after the program posted the lowest win total in a season since 2000.

When Neal heard the news from MCC Athletic Director John Mulhern, he was on his way out of town and was growing anxious for what was to become of his journey. Upon receiving the call from Mulhern he became elated with the news and needed to take some time to process the moment.

“I had to pull over and give thanks and honor to God,” said Neal, “I had my moments where there were tears of joy but once that went away I knew that the work was about to happen and the pace was about to pick up.”

Neal comes from humble beginnings, growing up in Chicago. Neal’s life was centered around family, and Neal was the first in his family to graduate from high school and college. 

Growing up with cousins, brothers, aunts and uncles Neal had a strong family relationship that he would translate to the bonds he would form with his teammates at the programs he would attend.

Neal’s journey to leading the men’s basketball team  is one that you could say helped him gain experience not only as a player and coach, but as an influential person. 

Neal attended Ventura College in California from 1989-1991. At Ventura, Neal did not feel out of place or as if  he did not belong despite being from Chicago. 

At Ventura, he played under Hall of Fame coach Phil Matthews and learned how to play hard, study, and manage his time. When he started at Ventura, he struggled academically with a 2.0 GPA, but after learning how to become a better student, he graduated with an impressive 3.4 GPA. 

On the court Neal was difficult to deal with for opponents. He was 6 feet, six inches tall and averaged 14.8 rebounds a game in the 1991 season. During his time at Ventura, he set the school record for rebounds in a season and was named to the Junior College All-American First Team, as well as the Western State Conference Player of the Year.

Neal then transferred to Arizona State University where he played  two seasons, leading the then Pac-10 in rebounds with almost 10 a game. After his time at ASU, he played professionally overseas for roughly 10 years in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Neal was a player described as one who will do anything it takes to help his team  win by diving for loose balls, husting for rebounds, and playing for the team’s success instead of his own. 

His play at ASU was so impactful, an award called the, “Lester Neal Warrior Award,” was created to recognize those who played with passion and dedication. Neal credits his great play to those who coached him and kept him on the right path.

“I reaped the benefit of having coaches who stood in place of mentors and really gave me the blueprint for preparing me for where I am today,” said Neal.

After his playing career, Neal found himself still wanting to make an impact on others just like his coaches did to him. He began working with families in low income neighborhoods in Arizona. 

Neal also went back to ASU and finished his degree in 2012, earning a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. He then began his coaching career by becoming an assistant coach of the Scottsdale Community College men’s basketball team before taking the same position for the Chandler-Gilbert Community College men’s team.

He then returned to Ventura College and was an assistant coach for three years, before becoming an assistant coach at MCC under interim head coach Jimmy Herrera. 

The first season for the Thunderbirds post-legendary coach Sam Ballard did not live up to expectations as the team went 5-20 on the year.

Coach Ballard left a lasting legacy and big shoes to fill in regards to the MCC basketball program. From 2008-2020, Ballard won 223 games and won the Region I championship in 2013-2014. 

MCC men’s basketball was always competitive under Ballard, and the program had a reputation of hard working, defensive minded players.

With his first time in the driver’s seat of a college program, Neal will have his work cut out for him. However, he knows he can count on those around him, such as MCC women’s head coach Kori Stephenson. 

Neal wants to also leave a legacy after his time at MCC, a legacy of winning but also one of impacting his players, much like he experienced at Ventura College.

“I’m building the program just like the program I came from,” said Neal, “I would like to leave a legacy where 30 years later players can still call me because I’ve impacted their lives, and that’s what it’s all about. I want to impact their lives to where 30 years from now they can reach back and call me like I do with my coach.”

As far as the goals for the upcoming season, Neal has high expectations for their squad as he hopes they will be able to win their conference, go to the playoffs, and go to regionals. He wants to be able to put the best product on the floor for the Mesa community to feel good about.

Holding his players accountable for their academics will be a goal of his as well for the program.

Neal knows how impactful coaches are to their players. They are not just people with whistles and a whiteboard, they are mentors, friends, and family.  With all the experience Neal has as a coach, and as a mentor to those around him, the MCC program could be in for a new legendary coach.