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ESPN The Magazine: The Godfather
ESPN The Magazine

From a distance, the dull gold sheen suggests just another expensive watch on another well-tanned, well-to-do man's wrist. It's only when you get closer that the presumption's flaw becomes clear. But you have to get close enough to hear Pete Newell -- hear what he has been teaching to, and learning from, the biggest names in basketball for 65 years and counting. Close enough to see the watch face, embossed with four rare achievements only two other men (Bobby Knight and Dean Smith) can boast of: NIT champ, NCAA champ, Olympic gold, Hall of Fame. Close enough to find out who gave him that one-of-a-kind watch.

For the past 24 years, every big man of any significance has spent at least one summer week trying to get close enough to Pete. And if this year's Big Man Camp (held in Honolulu) had a melancholic air, it was because of the unavoidable realization that his one-of-a-kind tutelage might not be available beyond a 25th.

Considering how players have changed with each generation, and how Newell has reached them all, this much is clear: It is the man, not the watch, who has kept time.

"The chance to spend a week with Pete Newell is like a student of literature getting to spend a week with Hemingway or Frost," says new Pistons coach Rick Carlisle, a camp instructor. "The man is the greatest treasure we have in our sport. He is the godfather of modern basketball."

Pete Newell? NotJohn Wooden, Jerry West, Dean Smith or Phil Jackson? No, not when they all used his blueprints for their success. Wooden wasn't the first coach to zone-press his way to an NCAA title (1964); Pete was (1959). Before West got Shaq for the Lakers, Pete got Kareem. The Dean's famous four-corners offense? Pete's invention. Phil's celebrated triangle? Jackson learned that from Tex Winter, whose first taste of higher hoops learning came as a Huntington Park (Calif.) High senior in 1940, when he served as manager for the Loyola freshman team -- coached by Pete. Even Tark's trademark towel-chewing was a Newell habit first.

"Pete is the one person who transcends every level of basketball," says Pistons assistant Kevin O'Neill, another instructor. So why don't you know this? Because Newell bailed on coaching in 1960, after a second straight NCAA Finals appearance with Cal, in part to save his health but also because the big-business aspect of his job had overtaken the teaching. He moved into NBA management, eventually becoming Lakers GM before retiring in 1976 to spend more time with wife Florence. But her health problems, and the medical bills that followed, forced Pete back to work as a Warriors consultant. (Florence died in '84.) "He stopped coaching midcareer," says Dick Doughty, a backup center on the '59 title team. "Who knows how many championships he would have won."

If Newell isn't a media darling, it's because there's no chipping off a sliver of his knowledge for a mere sound bite. He is a water balloon of information -- prick him with a question, and be ready to get doused. His camp has become so respected that having been part of its humble start is a badge of honor. Stu Lantz, an instructor, former Lakers guard and longtime Chick Hearn TV/radio sidekick, says Newell worked with him as early as 1968, when both were with the San Diego Rockets. But former Lakers/Blazers forward Kermit Washington usually gets credit as the first camper. The No. 5 pick in '73, he asked Newell for help three unproductive years later. They met three times a week at 7:30 a.m. at the Loyola gym (it's now Loyola Marymount) and Pete turned a raw end-of-the-bench athlete into an All-Star. That attracted L.A.'s Tom Abernethy and Don Ford, and a young UCLA forward named Kiki Vandeweghe.

As Newell stands between a podium and a white trellis backdrop in a Hawaii Prince Hotel -- TV and newspaper reporters recording this year's introduction of 17 pros and 40 college players -- Vandeweghe listens from the back, near tables loaded with shrimp, crabmeat and chicken wings. "You have no idea how hysterical this is," says Kiki, Denver's new GM and a longtime instructor. "I remember the three of us -- Kermit, Pete and myself -- standing outside a little gym in Rogers Park, banging on the door because we couldn't get in. One time we all showed up and nobody brought a ball. Another time there was a tarp and a piano on the floor from a dance the night before. As we pushed the piano off to the side, I told Pete I thought we were here to play basketball. He told me this was our strength program."

The camp counts Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, James Worthy and Scottie Pippen as alumni, but it wasn't until it moved to Oahu in '93 and attracted Shaq that the public took notice. (His appearance nearly proved disastrous when he almost drowned while snorkeling, then wiped out on his moped a few days later.) "We had no idea how it would go over here," Newell says. "But that first day we're driving up to the gym, I see this serpentine line of people all the way up the hill. They were waiting to get in."

Newell turned 86 shortly after this year's camp. It just doesn't equate. True, he oversees drills more than he participates anymore, but he ignores pleas by Lantz and Vandeweghe to sit down during the twice-daily, three-hour workouts (pros in the morning, college kids in the afternoon). Pete showed up the first day sporting a big bandage on his left shin, muttering that he'd barked it on an ice cream shop's concrete bench trying to get around some "grandpa." His eye follows the bikini-wearing beach honeys strolling through the hotel. "Lot of dollies around here," he chirps.

The camp retains a certain quaint charm as well. The players, no matter how recognizable, stand up and introduce themselves at the first meeting. There's a head count on the bus as it leaves the hotel for the Kekuhaupi'o Gym each morning at 7:30. Practice uniforms are reversible Hawaiian-print shorts and T-shirts with the sleeves cut off. Player names are magic-markered on the back above a half-dozen local-sponsor logos. Pete demonstrates each drill using Carlisle, Vandeweghe and Miami Heat assistant Marc Iavaroni, then splits the players into three groups. Each player repeats the drill until he executes the move and makes the shot (no dunking allowed for college guys).

The sessions are an ideal gauge of pro potential. Sprinkled among the hundred or so locals in the stands are various GMs, scouts and agents. Grizzlies forward Stromile Swift arrived the first day without his basketball shoes, then later pulled a midweek no-show -- explanation enough for his flatlining career. Pistons rookie Rodney White, meanwhile, quickly adopted the footwork nuances and held his own against the Warriors' Antawn Jamison, whose improvement since last year's camp earned him the cover of this year's program. "This is five days of your time," Pete tells campers. "We just hope it's had an imprint on not only how to play the game, but how to conduct your life."

Don't be fooled by the Big Man tag. "I thought it would be a bunch of seven-footers shooting jump hooks," White says. Instead, he's learning the pliés that underpin the game's ballet, like using a different pivot foot on each side of the floor. The very first drill of the week: making a leftfooted pivot on the right wing, a new experience for most righties. Pete also explains the advantages of catching the ball in the proper place, and the angles created by pivoting correctly. It all sounds painfully simple, but only one of every five pros understands and exercises such basics. They're the same players who make getting open look easy. "I learned how to close the distance to the hoop once I get by a guy," says Spurs forward Malik Rose. "It's about minimizing wasted steps."

Pistons forward Ben Wallace, another first-time camper and notoriously poor shooter, discovered Newell's eye isn't trained just for footwork. "He saw that I was dropping my left hand early, which made my right elbow flare out," Wallace says. "I got instant results. All these people watching me every day, all day, and they didn't see that."

Pete is responsible for bigger transformations. Vandeweghe had no speed or hops, but he averaged 20-plus points seven times because he mastered Newell's counters, like the reverse-pivot, step-back combo that became his signature juke. Bernard King, an alcoholic and pariah after pleading guilty to attempted forced sexual abuse, had his career (if not his life) saved in 1980 by a summer with Newell, who then convinced the Warriors to acquire him from Utah. Washington, the camp's first director, might have been a never-was if Newell hadn't stood by him after he shattered Rudy Tomjanovich's face with that infamous punch 24 years ago.


nd Pete's done it all for free. In L.A., he asked players to donate $100 to Loyola's athletic department. In Hawaii he charges $2,500 per pro, $1,000 per college kid. But he has never seen a dime. The camp's lone salaried employee is Cheryl Lopes, wife of camp director Merv Lopes, the former Chaminade coach. They arrange transportation, attract sponsors, secure insurance and order uniforms and equipment. That frees Pete to do what Pete does best. "I can't imagine there's another person in basketball who has given so much and asked for so little in return," Carlisle says.

Iavaroni credits Newell's endorsement for getting him every NBA job he has had. Mark Grabow, Golden State's strength and conditioning director, got his start in the NBA 13 years ago when former Warriors coach George Karl observed him running the camp's warmup drills. "He's basketball royalty," Grabow says of Newell. "And this is how we honor him. This camp is his life blood."

Which is why no one wants to contemplate the camp's end. Lopes, who turns 70 this month, says he'll step down next year, probably ending the Oahu run. But some instructors wonder if maybe this year is it. Even Newell joked at the closing luau: "I don't buy green bananas anymore."

Then again, the principle behind Newell's teaching is making time do the work. Taking time to assess the defense before attacking. Saving time by understanding that everything you need to be happy and respected in basketball is reflected in playing the game the right way. "Except the man can't tell time," Washington says. "He'd tell us there were two minutes left in a drill, and five minutes later we'd still be going." Newell laughs and admits it's true: "They were too tired to curse me."

Now about that watch: The '59 champs had it made for Pete and presented it to him for his 75th birthday. "Nobody had a more important impact on our lives," Doughty says. "Not in basketball -- in life. As we grew up and matured, we were even more in awe of what he was able to do with us."

A gift so many years after the fact? Sounds like it was about time.

This article appears in the September 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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