Thursday, August 18, 2005

[NBA] Pete Newell's Big Men Camp

Read the article in LA Times about this almost 90-year-old Iron man and his long-lasting yearly Big Men Camp.


"I talked to the doctor and he said, 'Just don't overdo it,' " said Newell, a Hall of Fame college coach and one-time general manager of the Lakers who had much of his right lung removed in March because of a cancerous tumor.

"What happened was, I had a cough that was hard to get rid of," Newell said.

The first day of his camp, he picked up a newspaper with the story of TV anchorman Peter Jennings' lung cancer death on the front page.

"I'm doing better than some," Newell said.

"The doctor told me, 'His was totally different from yours.' There's no sign of any kind of growth. But you never know."

A smoker during his years as a coach at San Francisco, Michigan State and California, where his Golden Bears won the 1959 NCAA title, Newell quit years ago, but cancer found him anyway.

His Big Man Camp — an annual affair that has drawn an astonishing list of NBA stars that includes Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy, Scottie Pippen, Sam Perkins, Antawn Jamison and Jermaine O'Neal — helped give him a goal in his recovery.

"This camp has always rejuvenated his energy level and his passion for teaching basketball, probably even more so this year because of his health issues," said his son, Pete Newell Jr., a camp staffer who retired from coaching at 61 this year after guiding Santa Cruz High to the Division III state championship.

After the season ended, Pete Jr. went to his father's home in Rancho Santa Fe and urged him on in his rehabilitation, trying to get him ready for his already-scheduled camp.

"Pete came and really got me in the groove. He'd tell me to walk another 15, 20 yards," the elder Newell said. "I'd say, 'That's another 30 or 40 — up and back.' "

"I lost 40 pounds. People ask about the diet. I say, 'Don't do the one I did.' I've put maybe five pounds back on."

Pete Jr. wasn't sure his father would be able to handle the Big Man Camp until he saw him recover after conducting a coaching clinic at Newell's Tall Women's Camp in Monterey a couple of weeks earlier.

"What I told one of the coaches is, 'You guys ask him questions for about 15 minutes,' " Pete Jr. said. "That's the energy level I thought he had.

"And he went in there at five after seven in the evening, and we had to shut him down at five after nine. He went two straight hours."

It worked much the same after the Big Man Camp.

"I feel better than I did before I went," Newell said.


The camp got its start in the 1970s, with Newell working with Laker player Kermit Washington and then-UCLA player Kiki Vandeweghe, now general manager of the Denver Nuggets.

It has been held 28 of the last 29 years, with the exception of the NBA lockout year in 1998.

Once a pro-only affair — and previously held in Hawaii, among other sites — it is now based in Las Vegas and it is mostly a college camp, with Bynum and Laker teammates Brian Cook and Jumaine Jones among the few NBA players who also included Golden State first-round pick Ike Diogu and second-year Warrior Andris Biedrins.

The camp is unique in that there are no guards, no scrimmaging and no dunking.

"We don't allow the dunk. It's not a dunking contest," Newell said.

It is about instruction, and anyway, these guys already know how to dunk.

"That's a misnomer, Big Man Camp. It's a footwork camp," said Pete Gaudet, a onetime Duke assistant who works as a camp instructor.

"One of the truisms is, you play 40 minutes a game," Newell said. "You might play four minutes with the ball, a little less or a little more.

"Look at it another way. You play 100% with your feet."

Newell laments that a generation of players has been "over-coached but under-taught." Even among professional players, fundamentals are lacking.


For Bynum, it was part of a summer-long indoctrination into the game.

"I first heard about it about four years ago, from my AAU coach," Bynum said. "Ever since I was 13 or 14, I heard about it, but I didn't have the money to come. Now, it's free."

Newell liked what he saw in Bynum.

"He seems to have kind of an innate understanding of the game for someone as young as he is," Newell said. "I don't think it will be three years before he plays. I think [Laker Coach Phil Jackson] will like him."

The Lakers' Jones was attending his third camp.

"I called the team and asked if I could come," Jones said. "I had a couple of problems with my footwork in the triangle offense.

"I didn't know anything about Pete before I started coming to this camp. You've got to take your hat off to Pete, doing this for this long and still teaching. You can tell he has the passion for the game."

The connection with the players keeps Newell current as he follows their careers, from college through the NBA.

Old enough to be their great-grandfather, he is still relevant to their game — a remarkable accomplishment on its own.

"When he played, they had the center jump after every basket," Newell's son said. "That's how far back he goes. The width of the key was only six feet — and it really looked like a key. Now they don't even call it the key, they say 'the lane,' or 'the paint.' "

Perhaps most old-fashioned about Newell is that he doesn't take a profit from the camp, though some players once got together and gave him a sports car in appreciation.

"This is just helping kids. He's always been special," said Laker broadcaster Stu Lantz, a longtime Big Man Camp coach.

Like most of the staff, including organizer Merv Lopes, the former Chaminade coach whose team famously upset Ralph Sampson and Virginia, Lantz works for no more than airfare, hotel and per diem.

Many say they never doubted that Newell, who turns 90 Aug. 31, would make his 28th Big Man Camp, despite lung surgery.

Others worried, but he made it fine.

"We're just in the moment," Pete Jr. said. "We all feel blessed he's able to do what he does. I know Merv would like to see it go to 30 years. But one year at a time."

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