Mike Newlin, who plays guard for the Houston Rockets, graduated from college magna cum laude with a degree in English. He’s very proud of, and much more willing to talk about, the academic distinction than whatever basketball honors he gathered at his alma mater, the University of Utah. He never told me his scoring average there, but Mike did volunteer that except for some obscure academic rule his magna degree would have been a summa.
In spite of that scholastic background he almost never reads novels or poetry, the heart and flesh of all English curricula. Instead he reads books about psychology or science or medicine, books of obscure facts or astrology, and, most of all, books of self-improvement which tell how to build vocabulary, to get more things done in a day, or to develop a photographic memory. “I’ve got to learn,” he told me almost desperately. “I’ve got to have something that I pursue as hard with my mind as I pursue basketball with my body.” But the final object of his mental pursuit is a mystery to Mike, and this mystery must be part of the force that bends his life into such strange patterns.
“I need some focal point, someplace I know I can always come back to. But where?” We were in a motel room in San Antonio where the Rockets were going to play an exhibition game against the San Antonio Spurs of the American Basketball Association. Mike was wearing yellow corduroy pants and a T-shirt. It was the middle of the afternoon, but he had been napping when I called. The bed was severely rumpled and the sheets and bedspread pushed onto the floor as if his nap had not been peaceful. On the bedstand, lying open, was a paperback book on the physiology of the brain.
“I haven’t found that place yet,” Mike went on. “Someplace where you know you belong. Right now I like moving. That’s why I don’t have furniture. When I don’t have anything, I don’t feel like anything’s holding me down.” We had both been sitting on an uncomfortable foam-rubber couch, shoes off, with our feet on a coffee table as we watched the World Series on the television across the room. But now Mike stood up and walked a few paces back and forth as he talked. It wasn’t the moody pacing of someone absorbed in his own thoughts as much as a way of dispelling nervous energy. “But now, since I haven’t got a focal point, motion is the most important thing to me. Keep moving. That’s even my whole philosophy of basketball. Without the ball, stay low and keep moving. With the ball, fake one way and go the other. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”
He was still standing in the center of the room. He abruptly stopped talking and crouched like a batter at the plate. He took a short step with his left foot and swung an imaginary bat. “Whack!” he said. “Baseball was my first love. I played center field but I was always a hitter.” He swung a few more times. Then he switched to a golf swing. “And golf,” he said, swinging again. “Whack! I love golf. But you can’t really swing as hard as you want to at golf. I want a sport where you can play hard as you can sometimes and need a delicate touch other times. I want something where winning or losing is all up to me. The only sport I know like that is one-on-one.”
Ironically, I had first heard of Mike in 1972 because of a televised one-on-one tournament for professional basketball players. Newlin was then a rookie averaging only 7.6 points a game and wouldn’t make the Rockets’ starting line-up for good until the following season. At 6’5” he was, by professional standards, a short man. But it looked for a while like he might win. He beat various journeymen players and even such sterling opponents as Cazzie Russell, so awesome an opponent in one-on-one that some smart money had figured him as the probable winner.
Even more surprising than his winning ways were his determined concentration and wild aggressiveness, both of which were reflected in his appearance. His hair was short in those days and, combined with his broad, flat boxer’s nose, his slightly twisted mouth, and his sullen and threatening eyes, it made him look, in the flush of competition, like some back-alley fighter of long experience. And like a back-alley fighter, he unleashed himself on his opponent with real fury. He would do anything to win. If he could save a ball by diving after it, scraping chin, knees, and elbows in the process, he would dive without hesitation, in fact with enthusiasm, as if he actually enjoyed the pain. Nor was he especially careful of his opponents’ well-being. If they were between him and the ball, tough cheese for them.
He was the most noticeable player in the tournament. Many of the other matches, in their delicacy and grace, looked like some esoteric form of physical debate; Newlin’s matches resembled somewhat restrained brawls involving a ball and a hoop. When all the dust had cleared, Mike finished third, beaten finally by Bob Lanier of Detroit, who at 6’11” and 250 pounds was both tall and powerful enough to meet Newlin’s concentrated fury with calm precision.
Mike’s skill at one-on-one developed early, since he learned basketball not as a team sport but as an individual one. His family lived in Portland, Oregon, until Mike was fourteen, when his father, a site negotiator for Safeway, was transferred to Southern California. In Oregon Mike’s first love was baseball; but when his family moved to La Canada, a small community near Pasadena, they arrived too late for Mike to go out for Pony League. Instead he spent the summer shooting baskets in a park not far from his new