For years Pete Newell's Big Man Camp in Honolulu seemed no different to me than several NBA myths, like Oliver Miller's diet or a franchise owner who loses money. I'd heard of them all, but I'd never seen evidence supporting their existence.
Then, in what proved to be an unofficial tryout, The Magazine sent me to the camp four years ago to do a short freelance piece on Michael Olowokandi. Familiar with the luxurious way the NBA operates, and the Islands, I expected natives to carry the players on litters to some palatial air-conditioned court where Newell, sitting on a throne of sculpted lava rock with a burnished Ohia scepter, showed them hieroglyphics illustrating the lost art of back-to-the-basket offensive post play. I figured I'd watch that for a couple of hours a day, write a paragraph or two and spend the rest of the time at the beach or the clubs chasing mini-skirted wahines.
What I found was a daily 7:30 a.m. bus ride listening to Gary Trent telling tales about how crazy life was with the Blazers, and then arriving at a stuffy, never-been-ACed high school gym. The stands were sprinkled with NBA GMs, scouts, coaches and agents in short-sleeved shirts, shorts and beach sandals, relaxed and ready to hobnob. I saw a then-unknown Austin Croshere going hard and striving for perfection in the simplest drills, work that would later translate into prime-time recognition and multi-million-dollar contracts.
I made the camp part of my offseason schedule. It afforded a unique look at the work ethic, attention span and learning curve of approximately 25 different pros every year, many of them rookies getting their first taste of how radically different the pro game is. Okay ... it allowed me to surf every afternoon, too.
What I also found, of course, was Pete Newell, the bane of anyone trying to write a short piece or make short a day's work. Talking for five minutes with Pete could be an hour-long ordeal. Anyone who approached him had to be greeted, asked if they were getting something out of the camp and posed with for a photo if desired. Giving you his undivided attention, he'd start with a thoughtful assessment of the state of the league and references to players he taught 40 years ago before mentioning the player in question. The man was in his 80s and he was wearing me out.
My perspective changed this year. I was there to listen to him and did -- for hours at a time, mesmerized. The only indication of his age is that his voice sometimes falls to a whisper and he occasionally mixes up a Kareem with a Shaq. Since he's seen and talked about basketball for 65 years, I'll give him that.
In our interviews for my latest Magazine piece, Newell covered dozens of topics, among them the knee-jerk reaction that prompted the 24-second clock's introduction, the college offenses that have eradicated post play and his memories of helping a brand-new GM named Jerry West put together his staff. He saw Tex Winter as a hot-shot high-school guard. He noted that 60 percent of the league's centers are averaging 10 points or less, when not too long ago centers owned the league MVP trophy. He believes the most influential rule change this season won't be abolishing illegal defense but trimming the time allowed to get the ball past midcourt from 10 to eight seconds.
All this from a man who never has accepted a penny for running the camp for 24 years. And not because he already has a bankroll -- he never made more than $12,500 as a college coach despite taking Cal to the NCAA finals two years in a row. It's because he feels he's profited from basketball in the lessons it has taught, the relationships it has forged and the experiences it has provided. Demanding money for passing all that on, for a man of Pete's integrity, would be both greedy and hypocritical. "I owe it to the game," he says. "I can never repay what the game has given me."
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins often uses Newell's observations in his Saturday notes column. Before I met Pete, I attributed that habit to their shared Cal connection and Jenkins having written a book about Newell, called A Good Man. Back then I questioned how in-tune Pete could be. I also wondered about that book title.
I'm embarrassed that I doubted either one of them now.
Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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