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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Coaching Legend Pete Newell Passes Away at the Age of 93

Most basketball fans under the age of 40 probably only know of Pete Newell as a mentor of post players at his renowned annual "Big Man" camp but during his Hall of Fame coaching career Newell won an NIT title (1949, University of San Francisco), an NCAA title (1959, California) and an Olympic championship (1960, Team USA), a coaching "triple crown" matched by only Bob Knight and Dean Smith. Newell, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 93, quit being a bench coach at the age of 44 because his doctors said that the stress was too much for him; the last game that he coached was Team USA's 90-63 gold medal game victory over Brazil in 1960. Prior to the 1992 Dream Team that featured 11 NBA stars, it could be argued that the 1960 squad was the greatest U.S. Olympic basketball team ever: Hall of Famers Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were on the roster. One interesting tidbit about Newell's career is that his teams beat John Wooden's teams the last eight times that they played; Wooden did not become known as the Wizard of Westwood until after Newell retired.

I first heard of Newell when I read David Halberstam's outstanding 1981 book "The Breaks of the Game." I was just a child trying to soak up as much information as I could about the history and strategies of the sport. Halberstam described how Kermit Washington--who later became infamous for throwing the punch that almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich--approached Newell and asked him to help him to become a better player, at the time an almost unheard of request from someone who had already made it to the NBA. Halberstam wrote about how ardently Washington wanted to improve his skill set and he described the thought process Washington went through before seeking help from Newell, who at the time worked in the Lakers organization (for whom Washington played at that time). Here is Halberstam's account of Newell's initial reaction to Washington's request ("The Breaks of the Game," pp. 267-268):

Newell in turn was astonished. In recent experience, no player in the league seemed willing to admit that he still had something to learn. Washington had picked the right time to approach Newell. He had left college coaching (where his teams, with less material, had regularly beaten John Wooden's UCLA teams) because he did not like the direction the game was taking--too much emphasis on recruiting, too little on coaching, too much on selling the school to the young men and too little on the young men selling themselves to the school. He did not like his job at the Lakers; when he talked basketball to Jack Kent Cooke, the owner, he was always being challenged by one of Cooke's cronies who knew nothing about basketball..."Why do you want to take lessons?" he had asked Washington. "Because I want to play like Paul Silas," Washington had answered, which was good enough; Paul Silas was an example of the best of the NBA players, a triumph of character and intelligence over pure athletic skill.

The individual big man skills tutoring that Newell did with Washington eventually evolved into an annual "Big Man" camp that attracted more and more players each summer until it got to the point that virtually every promising post player in the country received coaching from Newell.

When Washington's NBA career was in limbo in the aftermath of Washington's devastating punch that seriously injured Tomjanovich, Newell was one of the few people in the basketball world who maintained contact with him. Halberstam wrote ("Breaks," p. 275):

One day Washington showed up at Newell's door with a huge color television set. With it was a small plaque that said, FOR COACH PETE NEWELL, THANK YOU FOR MAKING ME A BETTER BASKETBALL PLAYER, KERMIT WASHINGTON. Pete Newell tried to turn down the gift but Washington insisted he keep it. He eventually relented and accepted it, partially because Washington seemed the loneliest young man he had seen in a long time.

Newell's reluctance to accept the TV was very typical; he ran his "Big Man" camp for more than three decades without receiving any compensation, explaining simply, "I owe it to the game. I can never repay what the game has given me." Many coaches speak wistfully of leaving the bench to simply be a teacher and an ambassador for the sport but then they are lured back into the fray either by love of competition or by a big dollar contract but it can be honestly said of Newell that he aspired to nothing more than to contribute to the sport by teaching the game to anyone who had the burning desire to improve--and there can be no higher calling than to so tirelessly and willingly share the gift of one's knowledge. The basketball world will miss Pete Newell but it will never forget him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:14 AM



At Tuesday, November 18, 2008 6:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's really a sad story. I first heard of Coach Newell back in 1986, when Fernando Martín was trying to make it to the NBA and they reported he had attended a camp dedicated to big men, where a coach named Pete Newell had helped Kiki Vandeweghe devise an unstoppable move.

A former coach once told me what a revolution had been for European basketball when they first saw Newell's US national basketball team in Rome 1960. Two months later, every pro team in Europe was trying to use Newell's defense in their national leagues.

Dying is a byproduct of life, but it's still sad.

At Tuesday, November 18, 2008 8:27:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

A sad day....I heard Calvin Murphy talking about Kermit and Pete Newell yesterday about that. A legend definitely.

At Tuesday, November 18, 2008 4:14:00 PM, Blogger Conor said...

Pete's passing is very sad to hear. He was a great man and a legend of the sport. George Irvine wrote another great, very personal, tribute on Basketball.org that is also worth the read.


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