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."