Pete Newell: The Biggest Contributor in Basketball History

Steven ResnickSenior Writer IMarch 23, 2009

Pete Newell died in November of 2008 and it was one of the biggest losses in basketball history. He was 93.

Newell is renowned for his time as a top college coach, team executive for three different NBA clubs, General Manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, and of course, the camp he's so identified with: the Pete Newell Big Man's Camp.

Here's a look at what Newell has done throughout his time as college coach and in the NBA:

Newell started off in the college ranks, getting his first head coaching post at the University of San Francisco. There, he compiled a record of 70-37 in his four years.

He led the Dons to the 1949 NIT championship.

From 1950-1954, he was the head coach of Michigan State, managing a 45-42 mark.

In his last six years of coaching, he led the University of California Berkeley Golden Bears, compiling a sterling record of 119-44, before retiring in 1960.

During his time as Golden Bear head coach, the 1959 team won the NCAA Championship. First, they stopped Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati, 64-58.

The Bears had to get by a double-tough West Virginia team, led by Jerry West, 71-70 in a thriller, to win the title.  

In other words, Newell had to lead his team past two of basketball's undisputed best of all-time during the same tournament to earn the Golden Bears' first and only title in some 100 years of collegiate play.

In 1960, the Golden Bears faced yet another star-studded collection: Ohio State, led by the trio of Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, and Bobby Knight. This time the Bears lost by 20 points.

Despite the Buckeyes' star power, it could be argued that Newell defeated himself!

Could it be argued that Ohio State's head coach, Fred Taylor, was successful in defeating Newell's team because while at a basketball camp he attended with Newell that he picked Newell's brain for hours to learn the system that the Bears used so well? 

Even though in 1960 the Bears lost the championship, Newell was still named the national Coach of the Year.

Along the way Pete also coached the Bears to four consecutive Pac-8 conference titles.

Newell is known for employing what is called the reverse-action offense. Instead of trying to explain what that offense entails, here's a link that better describes what the reverse action offense does. Reverse Action offense link.

Another accomplishment for Newell was that he was asked to coach the 1960 US Olympic basketball team. The US won the gold medal that year behind such stars as Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West.

With the gold medal win, Newell became the first coach in college history to have won an NIT championship (which at the time was the most prestigious postseason title), an NCAA championship, and a gold medal in the Olympics.

None other than Bob Knight is quoted as saying, "I think Pete probably understands the game better than anybody, ever." This is a quote taken from an LA Times article dated Nov. 18, 2008.

Later in that same article, it is revealed that even the great John Wooden learned a thing or two from Newell. UCLA and Cal faced off 15 times while Wooden and Newell coached.

Newell had the edge over Wooden 8-7.

Wooden, in an LA Times article in 2005, said, "In his time, I think he was one of the better coaches the game has ever seen. When I think of the outstanding teachers of the game, he ranked up there with the very best."

Unfortunately for Bear fans, too many 'What Ifs?' are still in place, because after the 1960 season, Newell retired from coaching. The main reason was for his health. Additionally, he never was interested in being adored by media or fans.

From his retirement as coach until 1968, Newell was the athletic director for the Bears.

From 1972-1976, Newell was the General Manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. He was the man primarily responsible for bringing in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee. In the trade, the Lakers gave up Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Elmore Smith, and Dave Meyers.

The reason why Newell stayed just four years as general manager was to care for his sick wife.  

Newell also has served as a scout for the Lakers, as well as for Houston and Golden State.

He was also instrumental in leading the movement to have the Warriors change their moniker to "Golden State Warriors" after relocating from San Francisco to Oakland.

From the same LA Times article, Don Nelson is quoted as saying this about Newell after he had passed away: "This is obviously a very sad day for the game of basketball, whether you are associated with the NBA, college or high school ranks."

Yet, quite possibly the most important legacy that Newell will leave behind is the Big Man's camp he created in 1976. It all started by word of mouth after teams saw the dramatic improvement of Kermit Washington, whom Newell was working with Washington.

Just some of the names that have been through the camp include Andrew Bynum, Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Bill Walton, and countless others.

On a side note, when Newell was working with Bynum, he was the sprightly age of 89 years old.   

I recently read in an article (that I can't find at the moment) that Newell had ties to an estimated 250 NBA players. Think about that for a moment; 250 men that have played in the NBA!

That's an incredible amount of people that Newell has tutored.

From an article in 2000 by ESPN's Ric Bucher: "For the past 24 years, every big man of any significance has spent at least one summer week trying to get close enough to Pete."

For a coach in the NBA, the maximum roster size is 15, but only 12 play any given night. Even with that for an NBA consultabt to get to more than 250 players and teach them, it would be incredibly difficult.

It would take a lot of years, and due to the fact that many coaches are on short leashes if the team doesn't win, it implies an incredible level of trust.  

In 2001, 25 years after opening the Big Mans Camp, Newell opened what is called the Tall Women's camp. On top of teaching some of the NBA greats, Newell furthered his legacy by creating a camp for women to hone their skills.

So, the question that one might ask is: How much do these camps cost?

The answer is that it's absolutely free.

Newell leaves this powerful quote, "I owe it to the game. I can never repay what the game has given me."

Perhaps another quote by Don Nelson says it best about Newell: "Pete was a great coach and a great man who had the ability to relate to players and people on every level. A countless number of coaches and players benefited from Pete's tutelage over the years—including those who attended his specialized camps each summer—and will be indebted to him for the expertise and wisdom that he provided."


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