Pete Newell: A Basketball Legend

Posted by rtmsf on November 18th, 2008

We felt bad giving such short shrift to Pete Newell yesterday in our ATB wrapup, so we wanted to take an opportunity to give our condolences to the Newell family and also educate young readers on just how influential a figure Coach Newell was in this game.  The vast majority of Newell’s career was before our time as well, but his sphere of influence reaches down through the decades to this very day.  Every time a young big man utilizes a drop step or seals his defender in the post, Newell’s innovations and techniques are showing their relevance and timelessness.

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Consider some of the interesting facts and highlights of this man’s career:

  • Like the founder of the game, Dr. James Naismith, Newell was Canadian by birth.
  • He won an NIT championship at University of San Francisco in 1949, when that tournament meant something.  He developed and instituted a successful zone-pressing defense at USF that was widely copied over the years.
  • He won four straight Pac-8 titles at Cal in the late 1950s (neat stat: the last eight times Newell faced legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, he was 8-0 against the Wizard of Westwood), culminating in trips to the championship game in 1959 and 1960, the former year of which he won the NCAA title against Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati.  In 1960, the Bears lost to John Havlicek/Jerry Lucas’ Ohio St. team, who employed a defense that Newell had taught OSU coach Fred Taylor the previous year.   It’s widely known that Newell’s Cal teams were vastly inferior in talent to their F4 opponents, which belies Newell’s ability as a teacher who can get the most from his players.
  • He was the NCAA COY in 1960 and also led the US Men’s National Team to the gold medal in the Summer Olympics in Rome, making him one of only three coaches to have won an NIT, NCAA and Olympic titles (Bob Knight and Dean Smith are the others).
  • To reduce the stress and demands of coaching on his body, he retired from Cal in 1960 (at a mere age of 44) with a 234-123 (.655) lifetime record.  He spent the next 16 years working as an AD at Cal, then as an NBA scout and later as a GM for the Lakers.
  • In 1976, he opened his Pete Newell Big Man Camp, which sought to provide training in footwork and fundamentals for professionals entering the NBA and others seeking to improve their post game.  The camp was free, and it worked with such notable HOFers (and future HOFers) as Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Shaquille O’Neal (who said, “he’s the best teacher there is”).
  • He was elected to the HOF himself in 1979, and his legacy is that coaches and players alike believe his contributions to the game to be at the highest possible level.  Bob Knight in particular has stated on the record that Newell had more influence on college basketball than any other person in history.

Since we never met Pete Newell, it would be an injustice for us to describe him, so we’ll leave you with a few of the better pieces we’ve found about his life and career in basketball.  RIP, Pete.

  • Ric Bucher from ESPN the Magazine writes about his visit to Newell’s camp in Hawaii a few years ago.
  • Newell’s biographer relates a great story about trying to get John Wooden to admit that Newell flat-out had his number in the late 1950s.
  • The LA Times questions whether UCLA would have become UCLA had Newell continued coaching through the 1960s.
  • Deadspin’s Rick Chandler had the privilege of learning techniques under Coach Newell.
  • Pete’s adopted hometown paper has a nice writeup on his life and influence.
rtmsf (3729 Posts)


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