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 home. He made one friend and the two of them played one-on-one for hours. When the summer ended, they both entered as freshmen in a small, all-boys parochial school. They went out for the basketball team, but only Mike made the squad. After getting cut, Mike’s friend lost interest in the game. But even while he was playing on the team, Mike continued to practice by himself. Team practice was in the afternoon, but in the evening Mike would go to a recreation hall near his house and shoot baskets on into the night. “That’s still the way I like to play best,” he told me that afternoon in San Antonio. “In one-on-one you have to go after the ball hard but you have to be delicate too—tip the ball delicately toward the basket.” He raised his arms and his fingers gently pushed an imaginary ball. “And you have individual responsibility.”
The regular season—83 games in six months from New York to Portland, from Chicago to Atlanta—was about to start, and Mike was philosophical that afternoon about his life in basketball. “You’ve got to be playing for some reason in yourself. Some guys are playing for the crowd, but what are they going to do when the jump shot won’t drop any more? What have they learned then? Me, I never think about basketball. I mean, I don’t know who we’re playing next or who’s on a hot streak or what team’s supposed to win. If I did that I’d be worrying about those things rather than about my own playing. I just show up and say, ‘Coach, who’m I guarding tonight?’” Mike was sitting on the couch again. He had a habit, the same habit I’d noticed in other professional athletes, of rubbing his chest and arms as he talked. “I’ll tell you when I found out what basketball was really all about. Last year, big game against the Celtics, I scored a lot of points and hit a shot in the last seconds that won the game. So I was a hero, right? Well, one hour after the game, I mean after the game, not one hour after I showered or anything, one hour later I was sitting on my couch just like this”—he sat on the edge of the motel room’s uncomfortable couch, elbows on knees, staring down at the floor—“and I just sat there. There wasn’t anybody I cared about to talk to, I didn’t want to go out, so there I was, the hero, sitting alone one hour after the game.”
We talked for a while longer, watching the baseball game during pauses until Mike asked me, “What are your plans for the rest of the afternoon?”
“I thought I’d stay here and watch the rest of the ball game.”
“Oh. Well, I know I said we would do that…”
He was not completely certain how to proceed, but I had gotten the message. I started putting on my shoes.
“I hope you understand,” he said. “It’s just that there’s this game tonight, and I’d like to catch a little more sleep.”
I wasn’t feeling bad about it at all. “It’s work,” I said. “If I had a story to finish and you were keeping me from it, I’d sure tell you.”
His face relaxed and he smiled. “It’s just an exhibition game,” he said. “You know, I could blow it off, but… well, you know, it’s a game.”
Mike is a loner. In practice when coach John Egan calls the team together, Mike will frequently sit to one side, away from the rest of the team. If his nights and summers shooting baskets are any evidence, he has always kept his own counsel. His best friends even today, though he lives 2000 miles from them, are his three older brothers. One is a poet; another, a painter; and another, the oldest, an insurance executive who doubles as Mike’s financial counselor. Mike is given to calling them long distance, especially when he is on the road. He was the sixth of ten children. It could be that his isolation and his grim, determined drive through sports and books are ways of finding both himself and a place for himself in the midst of so many people.
Considering his background, Mike’s going to Utah was a maverick’s decision. There was no apparent reason for a Southern California boy to go there, especially when he had had offers from schools like Stanford and UCLA. But Mike’s high school coach, whom he admired, knew one of the coaches at Utah. This connection got Mike an invitation to see the school. In spite of the stories he’d heard of Utah being a restrictive, nervous, overly religious place, the look of the land made him feel immediately comfortable.
And since no one knew him there, Utah would give him the chance to build a life and reputation that were completely his own, to assume individual responsibility for himself. He was the most valuable player in the Western Athletic Conference for three straight years and became the Rockets’ second draft choice in 1971, when the franchise was still in San Diego. Mike signed with the team, happy for the chance to return to Southern California. Only a few weeks later the move to Houston was announced. It was time for Mike to start all over again in a new city and a new league.
He hasn’t done badly. In the two years since his rookie season, Mike has averaged 17.0 and then 18.4 points a game. This season, as I write, his average is 16 points a game, the second highest on the team. During the exhibition game in San Antonio, I sat next to an assistant coach of the Milwaukee Bucks who was scouting the Rockets. He had been a college coach whose teams had played Utah while Mike was there. “He still plays about like I remember him,” the coach said. “A good shooter, very aggressive. Maybe he could improve his defense some.” We watched Mike dive for a ball and slide on his back several feet across the floor. “I think,” the coach added, “he may be just a little flaky.”
If he is flaky, it is because he pushes himself mentally. He has decided he should be aggressive, he has decided to dive after balls; and if he frequently seems on the verge of going out of control, it is because his body cannot always keep up with the workings of his mind. At the same time his decisions have propelled him into basketball, they also have kept him at a slight distance from it. He once told George White of the Houston Chronicle that he needed to concentrate doubly hard when teammate Calvin Murphy was in the game: “He does so many things with the ball that it’s interesting just to be a spectator.” Only a man who has thought a lot about his own play would describe a teammate’s play as “interesting” or run the risk of taking such an aloof, academic posture while he plays.
During his three years in Houston, Mike has never lived in the same apartment for more than eight months. He frequently changes his phone number, which is never listed. For a long time the only furniture he owned was a mattress on the floor of his bedroom. Last year he finally bought a suite of furniture but sent most of it back. Now, although he lives in a spacious new apartment, it contains only a white couch, a lamp, a mirror, a bed, a stereo, and a number of books and magazines which have accumulated in little piles on the floor. His closet holds a moderate number of stylish clothes and a trunk brimming over with pairs of wool athletic socks rolled into balls. His refrigerator is practically empty. It is the apartment of a man without a home. Since the Rockets pay Mike a salary close to $100,000 a year, he could afford a home if only he could find one. Significantly, his only real extravagance provides excellent mobility. It’s a silver Jaguar XK-E.
The spareness of Mike’s living habits is most likely an antidote to the turmoil of his mind: “My brother asked me why didn’t I just live and I would learn from living, from being what I was. But that’s not enough, because I’d be living anyway so I’ll learn from that no matter what. People say you can stay still and learn. Maybe so, but you might wake up someday and realize you’ve learned a lot about sitting on your ass.” But by the same token this constant motion has filled his head with the strangest variety of obscure knowledge—he can, for instance, cite instantly the number of seconds in a year: “It’s something you may never need,” he says, “but then, you never know”—and caused him to form, adopt, and lose ambitions almost daily. In San Antonio we had talked for most of the afternoon before he mentioned that learning to become a team player had been the most important factor in improving his play: “You know a really great player doesn’t use all the skills he has all the time because if he does, he’s overplaying in terms of the team. He’s taking too many shots, he’s forcing situations, or something. That’s why Pistol Pete (Maravich) isn’t really a good player. He’s trying to show all his skills every time he gets the ball. A player has to learn which of his skills are needed at that moment for the team to get a bucket.” He went on to say that he had had to learn to keep his emotions collected while he was playing: “It used to be if someone scored on me and made me look bad, I’d try to take the ball right back down and score myself to get even. But now, if somebody beats me and scores, I always pass the ball away, let somebody else bring it down court, and just keep on playing the way I normally would. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Then he started talking about what he wants to do when he retires from basketball. He wants something that would make him work under pressure, that would involve a certain amount of teamwork, but where the ultimate responsibility would lie with him alone. “I think it’s surgery,” he said. “It combines all those things. I think I’m going to go back to school at Utah and become a surgeon.” The whole performance had been so good, the thinking about basketball so acute, the desire to become a surgeon so fervently stated, that I left firmly convinced that it was exactly what he was going to do. But when I saw him in Houston about a month later, we talked for hours and he never once mentioned being a surgeon. Since he wants to keep moving, his obsessions depart as quickly as they arrive. Friends of his tell me one time he had been reading a book about a girl who had lost the use of her arms and had learned to do everything with her feet. He told friends he was tired of his own feet getting a free ride all these years. “They’re mere appendages,” he said, vowing to teach them to do better. He has also wanted to be a Russian translator at the UN, work with battered children, be an ambulance driver, and much more.
Lately Mike has taken to wearing a shark’s tooth on a cord around his neck. It’s an important symbol for him. “I think I’m like a shark,” he said. “I read they can’t stop moving. They have to keep moving to live.” But during all this motion, while this plan and that have come and gone, the one constant thing in Mike’s life has been basketball. It has absorbed his energies since he was in the eighth grade, has kept him pushing himself up and down miles of hardwood court, has kept him diving for balls and sliding across the floor, has paid for his car and clothes and food and books and sparse apartment and long-distance calls to his brothers. It is the one thing he has never moved away from.