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Neal-Smith thrilled with honor

In her part of Lawrenceville, Ida Neal-Smith had the best of bargaining chips.

Not far off Ga. Highway 124 near the Hooper-Renwick School, her childhood home had the neighborhood's only basketball goal. If the kids wanted to hoop, it was at her house. And if they were at her house, she was playing.

"I had that one rule, as long as I wanted to play, I played," Neal-Smith said of growing up in Gwinnett in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I had to play because it was my court. It was all guys, no girls. Mostly teenage guys. So I was 7 or 8 and they were 16 or 17 when I first started playing, but I had to get picked."

It was on that court that Neal-Smith developed the basketball skills that would make her a star at Central Gwinnett as well as one of the top players in Georgia Tech history. Considered one of the groundbreakers in what is now basketball-crazy Gwinnett, she was one of the five selections for the inaugural class of the Gwinnett County Sports Hall of Fame.

The 1985 Central grad will receive that honor during a Sunday ceremony at the Gwinnett Braves' home game at Coolray Field.

"I'm pretty excited about it, the first thing I thought was, 'Wow, the first class?'" Neal-Smith said. "A lot of people could have gone in with the first class so I'm just very honored. I didn't even know they were putting one together. But I was pretty excited when I got the call.

"My co-workers were all standing around listening to my conversation. So my whole office knew about it right away."

Neal-Smith and her family still live in Gwinnett, so she has a group of 45 supporters coming out for Sunday's ceremony. Many of them remember how the slick ballhandler got her start in basketball, right next to the Lawrenceville home where her mother still lives and where she raised five children.

The star was Neal-Smith, whose success in the Lawrenceville recreational league and at Central (where her jersey is retired) earned a scholarship to Georgia Tech. She rose to stardom on The Flats with her skills as a distributor -- her 4.7 career assist average is second all-time at Tech -- but also was a proven scorer who dropped 35 on Tennessee back in 1989.

Her senior season, when she averaged 19.2 points and 7.1 assists, was her best and made her the Yellow Jacket woman to earn first-team All-ACC honors. Back in 1995, she was inducted into the Tech Hall of Fame and also was her school's first selection as an ACC Legend a few years back.

That's the extent of basketball in her life these days.

"(Some friends from Tech) have tried to get me into their Hebron league three years running and I just can't do it," Neal-Smith said. "I'm very competitive still and I'm one of those if I can't play at a high level, I won't play. I play to win. If if I can't win, I don't want to play."

Neal-Smith's life away from competitive basketball has kept her busy. She worked previously as Tech's assistant athletic director for NCAA compliance, but has spent the past 10 years at Trammell Crow, where her husband Shelton also works, as a project manager.

She also was a community basketball coach at Central until Cass Cassell retired in 2006.

"I always tell people, and I don't know when I'm going to do this, but when I get out of commercial real estate one day, I'll be a coach and a teacher," she said. "I don't know when I'm going to do that but I can definitely see myself coaching."

Much of her life also surrounds her 7-year-old daughter, McKenzie, an active athlete who is into tennis but also has done ballet, T-ball and basketball. She's a rising second-grader at Branch Christian Community School.

McKenzie wasn't around for some of her mother's earlier basketball highlights, like her induction into Tech's Hall of Fame, but she will be there for Sunday's ceremony.

"She doesn't know much about (my basketball)," Neal-Smith said. "She just thinks, she's not anybody special, she's just mom. But she's excited about this. She's telling all her friends. She knows it's a big deal for mom."