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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.