Neil Christel could have been in the movie “Slapshot.” He could have been one of the Hanson brothers. When Christel played at Reading High in the mid-1970s, he wore “nerd glasses.” At least that’s how I remember him. Forty-five years later, I can’t say for sure if Christel actually had the white, athletic tape connecting the frames, but I’m going to say yes.
If ever there was a player whose game didn’t show up in the boxscore, it was Christel. They didn’t keep track of charges taken; nobody charted proper defensive switches; and there was no way to measure whether a defender challenged a shot with a hand in the face or not. Christel did all these things. It took coaches like Jim Gano and Pete Carril to see Christel’s value.
In fairness, Christel could also rebound, pass and knock down the elbow or mid-range jumper. He was among the smartest players I’ve ever seen, always in the right spot defensively, always making the extra pass and always a step ahead as a thinking-man’s player.
I went back and looked at Christel’s numbers at Princeton. They’re underwhelming, but that’s the essence of Christel; he was so much more than statistics. In fact, he was the kind of player where most of what he did was hard to measure with numbers.
Back in 1981, Princeton and Penn finished in a tie for the Ivy League championship. They had to play a one-game playoff — at Kirby Fieldhouse, Lafayette College — to determine the Ivy League champion and the NCAA representative. Princeton dismantled Penn 54-40 that day, and Christel was a big part of it.
I remember one play in particular where Penn guard Angelo Reynolds came off a screen set by a bigger player. Christel, guarding the big guy, surprised Reynolds by switching in an aggressive manner. The ball came loose on the floor and Christel and Reynolds went for it. Only Christel dove, got there a split-second before Reynolds and while laying spread on the floor, slapped the ball to a Princeton teammate. It started a fastbreak.
Christel made a great defensive play, forced a turnover that was credited to another player back then, and got an extra possession for the Tigers. Christel played in 109 games for Princeton and started every game as a freshman.
Christel was on the floor during the triple-overtime classic, when Reading beat Steelton 65-63 on Pete Mullenberg’s buzzer-beater. Nobody remembers Christel hit a jumper with six seconds left in the first OT to tie that game up. And, yeah, Stevie Rossignoli hit a big one in the second OT.
By the way, it’s Dr. Neil Christel now, and he’s a chiropractor in Reading, PA. Fitting, because he did so much heavy lifting as a player.
I’m really enjoying your blog posts, Matt.
I went to Framingham South High School in suburban Boston with David Blatt, who was the co-captain of that Princeton team. Blatt didn’t see a lot of playing time that year, but he was well respected by Coach Carril.