Couple uses rivalry to help

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Alan Walsh | The Daily Wildcat Alan Walsh / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Sun Devils hate Wildcats. Wildcats hate Sun Devils.


Knowing this, former UA women's basketball player Apryl Garnett-Neal and her husband, former ASU men's basketball player Lester Neal, have used the heated rivalry to raise money for underprivileged children.


Former athletes from each school have committed to play in the first annual Alumni Classic at 12 p.m. Saturday in downtown Phoenix's US Airways Center.


""We've gotten a great response,"" said Neal, who played for ASU from 1991-93. ""When you tell people about what you're doing —  an alumni game between former athletes —  there's going to be a ‘wow' factor.""


The event — which will raise money for the couple's non-profit organization Neutral Zones of America, Inc. — will feature many former Arizona greats. Men's basketball players Gilbert Arenas (1999-01) and Kenny Lofton (1985-88), along with football running back Trung Canidate (1995-99), will highlight the celebrity list.


ASU alumni attending the basketball game include current Boston Celtics guard Eddie House and Sacramento Kings forward Ike Diogu, the Alumni Classic Web site said.


Garnett-Neal said she expects 3,000 to 4,000 fans to attend but didn't know the exact number of ticket sales when contacted Wednesday.


""I haven't watched as closely as you think I would,"" she said. ""I sort of want to be surprised.""


Neutral Zones of America is an organization which works to keep low-income youth off the streets and in a safe environment. The name ""Neutral Zones"" comes from the couple not wanting ""to have any gang affiliation or any type of situation that could bring harm to the kids,"" Garnett-Neal said. ""We want them to be in a neutral area, where a kid could be a kid and be empowered.""


Neal, who grew up in the South Side of Chicago, knows that even community centers can harvest gangs, drugs and violence. The goal, he said, is to eventually create a community center that youths can attend without the pressures of their rough neighborhoods.


""We had a community center (growing up) and that's why my vision for Neutral Zones of America is so much different,"" said Neal, who grew up without a father figure. ""That's not a knock on the boy's clubs and the YMCAs because they do an awesome job, but I know often times in that particular environment, the community center itself is infested with gangs and drugs and violence.


""You have a lot of kids that want no part of that,"" he added."" For a child to make that choice to not be involved in gangs and drugs … they have that right.""


Using their former-athlete statuses as an advantage, the idea for the rivalry game sprung up during a conversation in the couple's home office.


Garnett-Neal, who played for the UA women's basketball team only from 1991-93 because of injury, said their entrepreneurial idea was held off after the premature birth of the couple's son almost two years ago.


But while she put the subject on the backburner, her husband — who she met after a 1993 Arizona vs. ASU men's basketball game — was set on following through.


""I was like, ‘OK,' and started waiting for it to progress and started talking to people,"" she said. ""The response was like, ‘OK, we really need to do this.'""


Now, the inaugural game is set with the hope of creating more similar events in Phoenix and Tucson.


Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students.


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