Pete Newell: An Inspiration to Us All
Whenever the Pete Newell Challenge appears on the schedule – Dec. 21 at The Arena in Oakland this year – Newell gets sincere accolades from the coaches in the event.
“When people ask me how we get top teams from other parts of the country to play here,” said tournament organizer Jeff Fellenzer, “I tell them there are several reasons, including California in December. But the overwhelming reason is Pete.”
The local coaches involved this year, Ben Braun of Cal and Trent Johnson of Stanford, both spoke glowingly of Newell at a luncheon this week.
“When I was trying to get the program running at Nevada,” said Johnson, who took over a bad program at Nevada Reno and brought it back to a 25-9 record in his final year, “one of the things I did was to start a coaching clinic. Coach Newell was gracious enough to participate and, though we offered to pay his expenses, he paid his own way to come. Having him in the clinic made it a success.”
Braun speaks often with Newell on the phone, and he marvels at Newell’s endurance. “We (coaches) got together in Pete’s room after that clinic and talked basketball for hours,” he remembered. “By the end, I could hardly stay awake. Finally, when it was 2 a.m. we broke up, and Pete said, ‘Now, don’t forget. I want all of you to join me in the coffee shop at 8.”
Of course, that was seven years ago, so Newell was only 83. Though he had a malignant tumor removed from his lung in March, he celebrated his 90th birthday in August – as usual, with many of the players from his championship teams at Cal – and he’s still very active, having recently returned from the annual Maui tournament.
Newell’s coaching career ended in 1960, after his Bears had been runnerup in the NCAA tournament, losing to Ohio State. The year before, Cal had won the tournament, so Newell’s teams won both of the major college basketball tournaments; his USF team won the NIT, then the more important of the tournaments, in 1949. Success had taken its toll. He could not eat on game days and had become a chain smoker. Retiring from coaching was literally a life-saving decision.
He did not leave basketball, though. He became a pro scout, part of the time with the Warriors, part of the time with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He started his famed Big Man camps, teaching footwork and techniques to big men, which were so successful that pro and college head coaches sent players to the camps. Now, with former player Bill McClintock, he also runs a Big Woman Camp. He has participated in innumerable clinics, such as the one described above in Reno, and has been a tireless ambassador for the sport.
NEWELL HAS also lent his name, and his presence, to the Pete Newell Challenge, now in its ninth year. In addition to the games, Stanford-Princeton in the opener and Cal-DePaul in the second game, this year’s event will also have a postgame concert featuring “American Idol” winner Carrie Underwood.
This event has always been a favorite of mine because it takes me back to my high school days when I saw a college basketball doubleheader at the Cow Palace when we visited San Francisco. Ken Flower was a star for USC, which tells you how long ago that was.
The first game this year matches two teams from schools which are very similar, though a continent apart, and it presents the opportunity to present former Princeton coach Pete Carrill with the “Career Achievement” award. The 75-year-old Carrill is the winningest coach in Ivy League history, and he’s still coaching, as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings. Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie, who played for Carrill at Princeton, will be with Carrill as he gets the award from Newell.
The economic success of the night, though, is dependent on the participation of the Bears, who will be playing their first game in 11 days, after a break for finals.
That’s the way it’s always been for this event. Though there have been some memorable games in the Newell Challenge – Stanford’s win over Duke, the eventual NCAA champion that season, in 2000, with Tiger Woods cheering from the sidelines is the one that sticks out in my mind – the event has been best-attended when a Cal team has been involved.
No surprise there because interest in college basketball in the Bay Area is keyed to two schools, Cal and USF. Cal has a huge alumni base in the area, and USF alumni are dominant in the San Francisco power structure. Stanford has had more success in the last 20 years but even their best teams don’t have the allure of the good Cal and USF teams.
This year, Cal could be very good, with Leon Powe’s return as the key. Braun can rotate his big men, Powe, Rod Benson and the much-improved sophomore, DeVon Hardin, though Powe will get the most minutes. Junior point guard Ayinde Ubaka also seems to have a much better grip on running the offense. With the threat of the big men inside, guards Ubaka and Richard Midgley are open for outside shots.
The Bears should be serious contenders for the Pac-10 title this year. Though they may be a little rusty when they play in the Newell Challenge, that tuneup is vital to them because they’ll start conference play the next week, with Dec. 29 and 31 games in Los Angeles, against USC and UCLA.
WHATEVER HAPPENS in the games, it’s nice to know that Newell has been honored locally by this event, and by the naming of the court at Haas Pavilion after him.
He’s an inspiration to us all.
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