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."