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Big man Newton an integral part of Evessa’s run at third straight bj-league title

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The Japan Times will be featuring periodic interviews with players in the bj-league — Japan’s first professional basketball circuit — which is in its third season. Jeff Newton of the Osaka Evessa, who face the Rizing Fukuoka in Saturday’s semifinal showdown at Ariake Colosseum, is the subject of this week’s profile.

Position: Center
Age: 27
Ht: 205 cm
Wt: 102 kg
Hometown: Atlanta
College: Indiana University

The Evessa finished the regular season with the league’s best won-loss record (31-13) despite the loss of standout forward Lynn Washington for most of the season due to an injury. Are you pleased with what the team has accomplished?

Newton: I’m happy with it, but I’m not satisfied. We’ve still got two more games (to play).

Sunday, if you ask me that same question, I can give you a better answer.

Your team hasn’t played a game since its since regular-season finale against the Sendai 89ers on April 13. Do you think the long layoff has been good or bad?

Well, it can work both ways. We had some guys with some nagging injuries that had time to rest and that helped, but from a competitive standpoint you want to jump right out there and play.

As a standout player in Japan, you’ve earned the admiration of Kansai-area fans and basketball supporters around the country. From what I’ve observed, you have been showered with compliments and fan support wherever you ve played. Do you feel spoiled by the fans?

Yeah, I have (laughs). The fans are great. They are so supportive of me. I can’t even explain it. You’ve got to love the fans. I try to play as hard as I can and show my gratitude.

You’re still a young guy, Jeff. And at age 27, you have already accomplished great things on the basketball court: helping your team win back-to-back titles. Do you feel lucky to be a part of the bj-league’s first super success story?

It’s a blessing be a part of this team, a team with such great chemistry. The ultimate goal is to win, and to land in a place like this is just tremendous.

You are consistently among the bj-league’s top three rebounders and shot-blockers. In your opinion, are you a better rebounder or shot-blocker or, simply put, a solid all-around defender? Which of these labels do you prefer?

I’m a solid defender. I gravitate to the ball. I’ve got a nose for the ball. . . . I’m not a great rebounder, I’m not a great shot-blocker, so the key is just being in the right place at the right time.

You averaged 19.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game and had 33 double-doubles (the Evessa went 23-10 in those contests). That said, tell me what is your mind-set on the basketball court game after game?

I just try to stay consistent, play hard and do the things I know I can do.

How has the bj-league changed from its inaugural season to its third season?

I think the league is getting better — more fan support, a lot more competitive. I don t see nothing but good things coming from the league.

Who are some of your basketball role models now and when you were growing up?

When I was young, I used to look up to guys like (Michael) Jordan and (ex-Atlanta Hawks superstar) Dominique Wilkins — he’s a hometown hero for me.

Now that I’m a professional I look up to guys like (Boston Celtics power forward) Kevin Garnett. He s been one of the NBA’s best guys . . . for 10 years. He’s always working so hard.

Were there players in the Big Ten Conference, teammates or opponents, who helped your maturation as a player?

Guys like (ex-Michigan State standout) Mateen Cleaves that were just real veterans helped me. He was like a vet on the court and off the court. He’s always been a leader, very vocal.

Is it a confidence booster to see the phrase “Road to three-peat! 2007-08” on the team s Web site all season?

Exactly. That’s been the motto, that’s been the focus.

Tell me, Jeff, who came up with the idea for that slogan for this year’s Evessa team?

It was Lynn Washington, when he was speaking to the team president.

Do you consider the Evessa’s first or second championship more special?

Um, we’ve got an expression that you are only as good as your last game. I guess it’s the last one then, but it’s over now. We are not even thinking about last year anymore.