Birthday surprise is just what the doctor ordered

Matt Neal of Pendleton, left, is all smiles after receiving a sweatshirt autographed by the Portland Trail Blazers for his birthday Sept. 7, 1974. (EO file photo)

A 19-year-old Pendleton man received a once-in-a-lifetime birthday surprise from his music teacher in September 1974 while recovering from brain surgery.

Matt Neal’s 19th birthday party on Sept. 7, 1974, was a casual affair, attended by his family and a few local celebrities, including Pendleton football coaches Don Requa and Gary Yates and state superintendent of public instruction Jesse Fassold, friends of the Neal family. A bevy of Neal’s admirers of the female persuasion perched about the room.

Also in attendance was Shirlene McMichael, Neal’s piano teacher for eight years and the director of the Pendleton High School orchestra, for which Neal played string bass. McMichael brought a very special gift to the party: a white sweatshirt signed by players on the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team.

When his sister Darcy pointed out a small “Bill Walton” on the sweatshirt, Neal’s eyes grew several sizes larger and the biggest smile of his life flashed across his face. “That’s pretty nice,” he said softly.

Neal met the former UCLA All-American and NBA legend in a Portland hospital after a relapse from surgery to remove a brain tumor in March 1974. Walton was in the hospital recovering from knee surgery. The two became fast friends. McMichael contacted the Trail Blazers with the idea of an autographed sweatshirt to help speed Neal’s recovery, which doctors cautioned could take several months.

“Sports is just about that kid’s whole life,” McMichael said. “I thought it would be a neat thing to do for him, especially since he already knows Walton.”

Not all of the Blazers signed the sweatshirt, since most were out of Oregon for the off-season, but McMichael did manage to get signatures of John Johnson, Rick Roberson, Greg Smith and Larry Steele, in addition to Walton’s. A representative of the Blazers organization was working with McMichael to gather the rest of the players’ signatures when they returned for fall training camp in Portland.

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