Mike Newlin of the New Jersey Nets—two good examples of what obscurity really means—has been trying on cowboy hats for more than an hour in a Denver store. Enthusiastically. Very enthusiastically. "I have enthusiasm when I can't possibly justify it," says Newlin with a laugh, which is the perfect attitude for a player on one of the three worst teams in pro basketball.
In fact, a case can be made that Newlin, who is 6'5" but spends much of his time on a level with true grit—see the loose ball on the floor; see Newlin dive for it; see that Newlin is the only player to dive for it—is the Nets' sole link with respectability as their nightmarish season limps to a close. New Jersey President Joe Taub, whose team was 24-54 at week's end, admits that Newlin "has been our bright spot," and General Manager Charles Theokas calls him "instant offense." Or, in the case of the Nets, their only reliable offense.
As playoff time approaches—the Nets were among the first to call in sick—many teams would like to have Newlin, a guard, in their colors. For good reason. He leads New Jersey in many categories, including thorough game preparation and want-to, as well as free throw percentage (.891), playing time and scoring (21.4 points per game) and ranks second in assists (287). A shooter getting assists is a novelty, but Newlin takes pride in his passing. During a bus ride to a practice the other day, he joked with teammate Maurice Lucas, saying, "I'd have even more assists if I played on a club with better shooters."
Newlin has a rep as a "flake lost in space," according to one general manager. But that's partly because he has an all-star mind, which makes him a rare bird in the NBA. It also helps make him eloquent when it comes to talking about what it means to be a pro and the true significance of winning and losing.
"Winning a game is ephemeral," he has said. "To just try to win is blasphemous. You have to do it right. I don't want anything to do with the bastardization of the purity of the game. The pleasure I get is playing. Until the final buzzer, I haven't lost. I'm a winner for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. So what does the winner get that I don't? Ten more seconds of pleasure, that's all. The mere fact I tried is a win. But the main point is, it's just such a pleasure to be a professional athlete. The problem with many athletes is they take themselves seriously and their sport lightly."
For the moment, however, he's taking his hat seriously. "Rarely do you buy anything you feel this good about," he says. "Look at me. I am where I am. Today, I'm a Denverite. I'm the perfect chameleon." Overcome with delight, he rushes out onto Larimer Street and asks some strangers walking past, "Do I look O.K. in my new hat?"
A startled middle-aged woman says, "You look great, like you own all of Colorado and Arizona, too."
"Do you mean that?"
"Of course I do."
"Oh, thank you very much ma'am."
The hat. It sums up Mike Newlin. Here's a guy making $250,000 a year getting positively euphoric over a $30 hat. "I couldn't ask to improve one thing in my life," he says. "Honest, my life is a ride on a Ferris wheel with every rotation more exciting than the last." Newlin makes Pollyanna sound grumpy. Driving through some New Jersey city streets not long ago, Newlin was saying, "Gosh, isn't this pretty?" Actually, no, but to Newlin it really was.
Newlin views his gypsylike life in the NBA as if it were a first-class ticket to everywhere. Which it is. He doesn't go to cities, he embraces them. In Philadelphia he studies the Continental Congress and says, "I fall in love. I stand there and reflect on Franklin walking on those same cobblestones. I'm not a tourist with a camera but a visitor with an inner eye." In and around Boston he has examined the famed harbor and followed Paul Revere's route through Lexington. In Washington he likes to visit Arlington National Cemetery and immerse himself in the life of Robert E. Lee, who lived close by and is buried there. In New Jersey—his Hackensack apartment contains not only 32 bottles of vitamins but also a chart of the history of man on the wall—he has traced the route of Washington's retreat from New York. In rural Ohio he loves the farms; in San Diego he loves the golf courses. He is truly a man for all towns. While other players lie in hotel rooms watching TV and grousing about what has been written of their wondrous abilities in the press, Newlin says he has "a game plan for every city. For me, life without learning is death."
Reporters don't interview Newlin; he bombards them with questions. "I love writers," he says. "They're so clever." That's what he says. You can criticize Newlin and still be his friend. O.K., Mike, your dribbling isn't world class and your lefthanded drive could stand a little polishing. "Criticism doesn't bother Mike," says Cindy Linscomb, his girl friend, who lives in Houston, "because he has never played for a harsher critic than himself." One of Newlin's teammates, Jan van Breda Kolff, says that "Mike treats it like a compliment when someone points out a deficiency. He listens very carefully and then goes right to work correcting the fault."
Newlin, 32, is, in fact, one of the last of the old-fashioned players. Not nearly as good as, say, John Havlicek, but like him. Newlin loves to make personal appearances to help the team, assist old ladies into their chairs and stand at attention during the national anthem. Though he's finishing off-his 10th year as a pro, when he's in the game, he's forever diving onto the floor. "People praise my hustle, but it's not even worthy of praise," Newlin says. "It's just basketball. Every possession is worth eight-tenths of a point. It's that simple."
He pushes, shoves, harasses. He's relentless. And he shoots an exquisitely precise jumper with one of the fastest releases in the NBA. "I love it that at one end of the court you have the finesse of a jumper and then you run 94 feet and you have the brutality of football," Newlin says. "And I love the reality of this game. Guess what? If I don't hit my jumper, I'm gone. Clean." Once, when asked why he was wearing gloves, Newlin replied, "You put your money in a wallet, don't you?"
Newlin is totally dedicated to the game. "Guys get to be pros," he says, "and they think they don't have to practice hard anymore. That's a big mistake." With that, he looks into his omnipresent notebook for a quote he has copied: "Genius is perseverance in disguise." He offers it without comment, but there's no doubt that's how he views himself.
Newlin is the first Net to arrive at practice, must be first in all the running and suicide drills and so on and always stays around until he makes at least 100 foul shots in a row. "All making free throws is," says Newlin, the NBA's fourth alltime best foul shooter, with a career percentage of .870, behind Rick Barry, Calvin Murphy and Bill Sharman, "is using your body as a machine. Just line up and let it fly. It's non-thought. I wouldn't have a guy on my team who didn't shoot 80% on free throws. Anybody can do it. Shoot 100 free throws a day all summer and you can do it." In February, Newlin missed two foul shots in a game. The next day at practice he shot 300, making 249 of 250 in one stretch.
Then there are Newlin's shoes that he had specially designed—they're somewhere between a high cut and a low cut—to "cradle" his ankles while adding extra rubber to give him more spring. "What you have to do is convert forward motion to vertical motion," he says, "and something has to absorb the transition. If it's true, as the experts say, that 75% of your shot is in your legs, isn't it amazing how little research players put into shoes?"
Newlin's equally scientific in honing his sweet jumper, which he never practices from farther out than 15 feet. "If you can shoot from 15 feet, you can shoot from 20," he says. And though during games he sometimes seems to fling prayers from long range, he says, "I have never thrown up a wild shot, even in practice. One bad shot undermines a month of hard work."
Nor does Newlin believe that there are natural basketball players. "Nobody is inherently anything," he says, "except a pain in the ass. If it's natural, I suspect it. If it's disciplined, I respect it." Nobody is more disciplined than Newlin. No boozing, no late nights in different beds. "There are so many things to do that my mind only wants to sleep six hours a day but my body says, 'Sorry, pal, but I've got to borrow five more.' " He's methodical—Wheaties on game day, for example, because "I figure if I eat like a champion, maybe I'll play like one"—and intense, which prompts Linscomb to describe his on-court appearance as being that of a "warrior in Ben Hur."
This intensity was bred into him as one of the 10 kids of Vincent and Henrietta Newlin of Portland, Ore. "We weren't allowed to get Cs," says Mike. To reinforce this concept, Vincent insisted that his son bring home every schoolbook he had every night, regardless of whether he had any homework. Another important influence was Mike's maternal grandfather, who would dress up in a suit, tie, spats and cane to go to work—as a mason. His other grandfather was just as normal;. he walked around quoting Shakespeare. Perhaps the most valuable lesson came from Vincent, an insurance man, who, Mike recalls, "always came home with a smile on his face."
Even now, the mere mention of Portland sets Mike to rhapsodizing over the smell of fir and pines and 14 kinds of fruit trees. When he was in the ninth grade, the family moved to LaCrescenta, Calif. and Mike took up basketball—typically, in his own way. By himself. "All you learn playing with other guys are bad habits," he says. At 5'6", however, he was too short even to play alone. But a neighbor lady had read of Russians putting a drop of iodine in their orange juice every other day to promote growth. Mike did it and grew from 5'9" to 6'3" between his sophomore and junior years in high school. Was drinking iodine smart? "Whatever I do is whatever I do," he says. "The only mistake is to analyze it."
He attended the University of Utah, where on the first day of classes he went to each professor and said, "I am an A student. What do I have to do to get an A?" From then on, he says, "They looked at me differently." An English major, he graduated with a 3.7 average but failed to get a Rhodes scholarship, partly, he thinks, because when he was asked during a Rhodes interview what he would do if he were stuck in the wilds of Outer Mongolia alone, he said he'd just step into the nearest phone booth and call home collect. But he was not totally whimsical at Utah. "I recognized I could make a jumper," he says. "It wasn't talent, it was time." Having discovered that the other players practiced 15 to 17 hours a week, he set his schedule at 42 hours.
"I can't stand being a variable; I'm a constant," says Newlin, defending his hard work. "But you've got to be able to handle the bad times. That's when you face reality, when you get smoked. You need rude awakenings. It teaches you humility. Not that I haven't learned enough humility in 10 years."
Newlin was with the Houston Rockets from 1972 until he was traded to the Nets before the 1979-80 season, for a second-round draft choice and $25,000. Characteristically, he told the Nets, "You gave up too much." During his last three years in Houston, Newlin says he was locked in a personality conflict with Coach Tom Nissalke and got to sit a lot. Nissalke disagrees, saying he discovered that what Mike did best was come off the bench. Whatever, Newlin says, "The best team players always sit in the NBA. Actually, it was a great pleasure to sit with those great guys, a thrill a minute really. It's a wonderful subculture. You can learn more in adversity than in good times." Which explains why Newlin has learned so much. In 10 years his team has made the playoffs only three times.
At Houston, he says, "I could have moped around. Instead, I worked my butt off in practice every day. So what happened? I sat. For three years. That's O.K. The coach doesn't answer to me. I am chattel to management and a pawn to the coach. I love it. I like doing what I'm told. He's the coach, and he can do whatever he wants. Did I get a bum deal? No, I got a deal. That's all. Every athlete overstates his ability. I once told a coach, 'You always think less of us and we always think more.' It's a chain. Players think that they're great and the coach thinks that they're not; the general manager doesn't think either one is any good; and the owner is wondering why he didn't get into baseball instead."
The night after purchasing the cowboy hat, following a rare horrible performance in a 140-123 Nets' loss to Denver—5 for 14 and only 27 minutes playing time—Newlin was asked if he was depressed. "That word isn't in my vocabulary," he answered. Later, as he walked into the hotel lobby, a passerby inquired, "Who won?" "We did," said Newlin, cheerfully. Why did you say that? "Oh, people don't want to be associated with losers. It makes them feel bad, and I didn't want that guy to feel bad." Newlin has been known to describe other poor performances as his "zenith of embarrassment," and after the Nets were again blitzed recently he said, "We should go back on the floor and let the fans boo us for 15 minutes."
He sits down in the hotel coffee shop, studies the menu and, in what passes for pessimism in Newlin's life, asks the waitress, "Do you have bread and water? That's what I deserve." He orders a BLT on whole wheat. It comes on white. "I deserve it," he says. "It's stale, too. I deserve it." Then he orders a piece of apple pie. The waitress brings cherry. "I deserve it."
But it's all said in great good spirit. Various people offer condolences, and Newlin muses, "Gee, I hate to let the coach down. I'm glad he took me out of there. If I'm not making baskets, I don't deserve to play."
At which point Newlin bumps into his hat, knocking it off a chair. "Sorry, pal," he says to The Hat. "Isn't this something? I have a new friend—my hat." He treats it gently, as you would any friend. "Mike has a lot of weird ways," says Harry Barrett, an old friend who is chief statistician for the Rockets.
Over the cherry pie—"I bet this is better than the apple would've been"—the conversation drifts to things other than basketball: Newlin's interest in Ancient Greek history, the Civil War, espionage, computers, juggling, real estate, archery. Right now he is deeply involved in Bible study, but only as an academic pursuit. "I'm not religious, I'm a Biblicist," he says. "All the Bible is is a treatise on how to live life. It's just like any Parker Brothers game. The rules are on the box top." Soon he plans to learn Hebrew and Greek so he'll be able to read the original versions of the Bible. Why? "These days the translations are fraught with Victorian and Elizabethan thinking," he says.
The cherry pie finished, Newlin suddenly brings the meal to a close with a clap of his hands. Then he announces, "Now we're going to have some real fun. Guess what we get to do? Put on our hats."
Newlin's idea of having a ball is to make at least 100 straight free throws at every practice.
Newlin leads the Nets in scoring and is second in assists.
A group of Boston children hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere from Newlin, a history freak.
His contract is up soon, but Newlin won't have to go hat in hand.