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The NBA centers and power forwards standing single file along the baseline in the gym at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles last month had at least two things in common: Every one was talented, yet few were sufficiently skilled to excel in the pros. Which is why all eyes and ears were intent upon the top of the key and the soft-spoken, silver-haired man who some experts think has the greenest thumb in basketball.
This tiller of men was Pete Newell, 67, a consultant to the Golden State Warriors and one of the finest basketball minds extant. The goings-on at Loyola Marymount were an outgrowth of one-on-one skull sessions Newell had held seven years ago with an awkward neophyte forward named Kermit Washington. Now Newell's "camp" is the place to be for instruction on balance, timing, footwork and other nuances of the frontcourt game.
The 16 players who attended this year's two-week camp comprised Newell's largest class ever. Bill Walton stopped by, but it was mainly young bucks (and Kings and Trail Blazers) who came to Newell for help. The session attracted players from eight NBA teams—for example, Rickey Brown of the Warriors—as well as New Jersey Player Personnel Director Al Menendez, coaches Al Attles of Golden State and Stan Albeck of San Antonio and Portland Assistant Coach Jim Lynam.
"There are a lot of paintings but only one Mona Lisa," Menendez says. "With other coaches something gets lost before it gets to the canvas."
"Pro coaches just don't have enough time to do the things that Pete does," Albeck says. "This fall we'll start training camp on October first, and our first exhibition will be about a week later, with the first regular season game on the 29th. If we spent two and a half hours the first day working on footwork, there wouldn't be time to get to everything else."
After 21 years of college coaching, including a national championship at Cal in 1959 and guiding the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in 1960, Newell has no illusions about how much one man can teach players with bad or no habits. "Players today are overcoached and undertaught," Newell says. "Many NBA coaches have come into coaching straight from playing, and they're not into teaching. The old NBA wasn't exactly a coaching-teaching league, either."
What Newell does isn't very innovative, just repetitive. Old habits are uprooted, new ones are planted. "Everything is based on movement, and that comes from the feet," Newell says. "If you played 48 minutes you would handle the ball for only about four minutes total but you're on your feet the entire time."
According to Newell, a player has a dominant foot, just as he has a dominant hand. Therefore, each drill is done on both sides of the court, switching pivot and take-off feet. Sounds simple, but it's not. For many players, the camp represents the first time they've been asked to adopt an intellectual approach to the game: why this move will elicit that reaction. And some things that Newell teaches, like the reverse spin, may be commonplace to guards; however, they're new to big men.
Just ask Denver's Kiki Vandeweghe, who's been attending Newell's camp since 1976, before his first season at UCLA, which made him, with the recent retirement of Washington, the senior student of this year's class. Though Vandeweghe became an All-America at UCLA, he was supposedly too slow to make it in the pros. But last year, in his first full NBA season, he averaged 21.5 points a game.
"Kiki's like a junkball pitcher in a world of Nolan Ryans," Menendez says. "He knows how to get from there to there on offense, and it's because of Newell. Now if you taught those things to someone with superior physical abilities, he'd be on another level."