Upon hearing the news of PeteNewell's death today at 93, I flashed back to a morning in 2002. Checking out of a hotel in Denver, I blinked at a phone charge on the invoice. I was working on a piece about the decline of fundamental basketball and came to Denver to catch a practice at Division II power Metro State, where Newell disciple Mike Dunlap was then coaching.
I hadn't realized that a single call with Newell had cost hundreds of dollars.
At the old coach's request I'd called him at 5 a.m.. ("Call me early. I'm an early riser.") And for three hours Newell had expounded on the game he loved. He pinballed from subject to subject: How to restore U.S. supremacy internationally. How to revive the lost art of post play. How to hammer home to a generation reared on SportsCenter that the basics of footwork and positioning will never go out of style. (Dunlap was a true believer, which explained my presence in Denver: The man who's now an assistant at Arizona held 6 a.m. practices where he wouldn't permit the ball to hit the floor, and the old coach loved him for it.)
How good was Newell during his time on the bench? (Almost unimaginably, that career lasted only 14 seasons: at San Francisco, Michigan State and ultimately Cal, where he won an NCAA championship in 1959 and a year later lost to Ohio State in the final -- beaten by a defense that Newell himself had taught Buckeyes coach Fred Taylor.) He became the first coach ever to win NIT, NCAA and Olympic titles. His Golden Bear teams, though stocked with no-names, beat Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati and Jerry West and West Virginia, in tournament play and out. UCLA's John Wooden lost the final eight times the two faced each other.
Newell was the Watchtower-wielding Jehovah's Witness of the game, the man who'd come calling, Commandments in hand, and wouldn't leave. Not that anyone wanted him to. In 1960, after leading players like West and Robertson to an Olympic gold medal, he heeded the orders of doctors who feared for his health given how he dealt with stress. He was 44, and never again coached a team -- yet for more than half of his life he carried on with the game as easily the most dedicated and engaged ex-coach ever. Newell's catechism was profound in its simplicity. Conditioning. Tempo. Defensive pressure. And post play -- especially post play.
During his dotage the man who had made an NCAA champion of 6-foot-10 plodder Darrall Imhoff founded the Pete Newell Big Man Camp. This wasn't something parents could sign Junior up for, but rather a post-graduate seminar where NBA players realized how privileged they were to participate. Though his campers were multimillionaires, Newell charged them nothing for his time. Like those three hours he gave me on the phone, engagement with the game was its own reward. And so even players like KareemAbdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Shaquille O'Neal beat a path to his door.
Former NBA star Kermit Washington once described what it was like to be one of Newell's Big Man campers: "We'd run drill after drill. People would leave the court, throw up and come back for more. Pete was there out of the goodness of his heart, so you weren't going to tell him you were tired. Instead, you'd just go home and die."
There's one final detail from that epic, triple-digit phone bill, and it tells you all you need to know about the man. I'd placed the call to East Lansing. The Spartans had gone 4-18 in 1949-50, the season before Newell arrived. And though they never placed better than third in the Big Ten during his four seasons there, the men who played for Newell found the experience so profound that they make a point of staging a reunion every year. That's where Newell was.
A 13-year coaching career. Retired at age 44. And the reason a bunch of ex-ballplayers have gotten together annually for more than a half-century.
Pete Newell, R.I.P.