Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Coach on the Floor
by Chuck Gordon

In her family, Amber Neely ’16, ’17 (MASM)’s competitiveness is legendary.

“As a kid, she would always want to race me,” says her dad, Tommie Neely. “Even if it was just going up and down the stairs, she would always ask me or her mom to time her. Like, ‘Count! Count, Dad!’”

Maybe that’s why heading into what most people would consider a daunting new job, she’s unfazed.

It’s early July 2022, and Neely is a little over a month away from starting a new role: In August, she will begin teaching marketing at Julius L. Chambers High School in Charlotte. Perhaps more intimidating is her side occupation coaching the school’s varsity girls basketball team, which just happens to be the three-time defending 4A state champion.

Amber Neely tossing up a basketball

A few of the team’s players followed their previous coach, Donnell Rhyne, to Northside Christian School, where he has taken over as head coach. For Neely, 28, the math could be problematic: an incredibly successful program minus several key players equals immense pressure. She shrugs it off.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Neely says. “I’m a natural athlete, a natural competitor. I’m ready to take it on, honestly. I’m not scared. As long as I do what I’m supposed to and get them prepared, everything will fall into place.”

Coming from someone else, that quote might sound boastful or cocky, but Neely says it in such a sweet and disarming way that you can’t help rooting for her. She pulls off the neat trick of exuding confidence and self-deprecation in equal and appropriate measures.

Her confidence was honed over hours and hours on the basketball court, soaking in lessons barked by demanding coaches, riding mile after mile on buses, running fast break after fast break for middle-school, high-school, AAU and college teams. She’s been immersed in basketball for two decades, ever since her parents noticed that, nearly as soon as she could walk, she gravitated toward whatever balls happened to be around: basketballs, soccer balls, baseballs.

Basketball is the one that stuck. Like a lot of coaches, Neely was a point guard during her playing days. The position demands a lot of things: selflessness, confidence, leadership – characteristics that also happen to translate well to the education and business worlds.

Neely no doubt came by many of her positive traits naturally and from her upbringing, but basketball helped refine her character.

“Naturally, I’m a leader,” she says. “Naturally, I want to be the best – the best teacher, the best coach. However, a lot of that stuff came from (Wingate head coach) Ann Hancock – being on time, doing what’s right all the time, exceeding expectations, not just being average or doing the minimum just to get by.

“You know, in college you get lazy. You don’t want to work out all the time and put extra shots up. At the time I thought, Ugh, I don’t want to do this, but now I look back and I’m like, ‘OK, you have to put in extra work to be better,’ and that goes outside of basketball, too.”

Coming into her own at Wingate

Neely played a few different sports when she was younger – she tried tee-ball when she was little and ran track in middle school – but from a young age she was all-in on basketball. Track especially provided difficulties. “I remember one time I was running the 200,” she says. “I got beat and was like, ‘This is not for me. I’ll stick to basketball.’ I’m a competitor. I like to win. That just crushed me.”

Luckily, she was exceptionally good on the court. In high school, Neely led her Mallard Creek team to the N.C. 4A semifinals and earned a scholarship to North Carolina Central University, an NCAA Division I school. One long, 2-28 season later, she transferred to Wingate.

It proved to be a beneficial move for both parties. The Bulldogs won three conference titles with Neely running the show. She was the embodiment of the selfless floor general, initiating the offense, driving and dishing, making sure her teammates were running the offense correctly. And, above all, playing lock-down defense. In three full seasons at Wingate, she averaged 6.4 points per game, but she was always among the league leaders in assists and steals.

“I love putting ‘I graduated from Wingate’ on my resume. When people see that, I feel like I’m automatically at the top of the list.”

“Probably her natural tendency was to get other people the ball where they could be successful,” Hancock says.

“When I first started her out in basketball, she really didn’t care about scoring or putting the ball in the hoop,” Tommie Neely says. “Her thing was stealing the ball. She wanted to figure out how she could take that ball from you. With her eye-hand coordination and the way she could time things on the court, if you’re not careful she’s taken the ball and gone the other way.”

The younger Neely was an aggressive in-your-face defender on the perimeter, the kind of player who could rattle opposing guards. She was somewhat intimidating. It’s like the soft-spoken Neely became Mrs. Hyde on the court.

“She’s really quiet and is a sweet person, but when she steps out on the floor, it’s like she puts on a whole different costume or a whole different uniform,” her dad says. “Once she engages, it’s hard to slow her down. Her motor runs at 110 miles an hour the whole time she’s on the floor.”

“Man, she was a tough player,” Hancock says. “As competitive as they come. A great defender – would get after you, pressure the ball.”

Amber Neely dribbling

Neely has transferred that determination and work ethic to her career. Not only does she teach and coach – jobs that often mean putting in many extra hours a week – but she also sells cancer insurance on the side, a gig she picked up after her mother’s fatal bout with cancer during her final year at Wingate.

Basketball helped her through that ordeal as well.

“She’s had adversity in her life, with her mom passing away,” Hancock says. “I hope that maybe some of the things that she did in athletics prepared her to get right back up.”

Basketball has influenced her professional life in other ways, too.

“Just being prepared,” Neely says. ‘The importance of being knowledgeable about what you’re talking about. With basketball, it’s watching film. With teaching, it could be reading the data, talking to my assistant principal about how I can be a better teacher, being on time and being consistent, knowing how to work well with others. Basketball is a bunch of teamwork, and in the classroom I feel like it’s teamwork as well with my students. Let them shape the classroom. It’s not all about me.”

Neely’s parents got certifications at technical schools but didn’t get four-year degrees. They were determined for their daughter to go to college, however they had to finance it.

“I was willing to go broke in order for her to do whatever she wanted to do in life,” Tommie Neely says.

Basketball proved to be the ticket. Neely feels certain she would have gone to college even if she’d never picked up a basketball, but she also knows it would have been a lot more difficult.

“It probably would have been really, really hard,” she says. “I probably would have had to take a lot of student loans out. I would be paying them off right now and would be stressed out with that.”

She can thank Title IX for laying the groundwork for budding athletes like her to wind up playing in college.

“I love putting ‘I graduated from Wingate’ on my resume,” she says. “I just feel like that opened a lot of doors for me. The school just speaks volumes – the education part, athletics, just the family culture. When people see that, I feel like I’m automatically at the top of the list.”