The Japan Times features periodic interviews with players in the bj-league. Jeff Newton of the Ryukyu Golden Kings is the subject of this week’s profile.
Position: Power forward
Ht: 205 cm; Wt: 95 kg
Noteworthy: Newton has played in all seven bj-league Final Fours; no one else can say that. He helped the Osaka Evessa win three championships before joining the Ryukyu Golden Kings in 2008. Newton’s 50-point game against Osaka in the 2008-09 Western Conference final is greatest individual accomplishment in league history. The Golden Kings captured their first title in the next game, and added a second championship in May. Newton is the only five-time title winner in league history. He was the 2008-09 regular season and playoff MVP and led the league in blocked shots in each of the first three seasons.
Before beginning his pro career in 2003, Newton helped Indiana reach the 2002 NCAA Tournament title game against Maryland. In the Hoosiers’ semifinal against Oklahoma, Newton had 19 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals in 23 minutes, prompting St. Petersburg (Florida) Times columnist Gary Shelton to write, “In perhaps the finest understudy role in the history of college basketball, Newton came off the bench to save Indiana’s bacon Saturday.” Shelton also described Newton this way: “The blossoming of Newton was an amazing sight. One minute he was just another soldier and the next he was Braveheart, leading the attack. He had a night that Jared Jeffries, the team’s star, would have been proud of. Heck, he had a night that (legend) Isiah Thomas or Scottie May would have been proud of. … It has always been difficult to explain Newton. He is the unemotional, unflappable, unreadable guy in the locker room.” … Newton and the Golden Kings open their 2012-13 season on the road on Saturday against the Kyoto Hannaryz.
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With the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, the Eastern Conference’s elite team since defecting from the JBL in 2008, moving to the Western Conference this season, what are your thoughts on the changes within the conference?
The West has always been strong these past few years. And then you add a team that is a proven champion that has already been in the playoffs every year, and it just makes it that much tougher.
How do you feel about the defending champion Golden Kings’ chances of winning another title this season?
I like our chances. We have a lot of experience on this team mixed with a lot of young talent. So we’ve definitely got everything it takes to get to that next level again. It’s about what we put in. It’s going to be a tougher road this season with Hamamatsu joining our conference. But I’m confident in our chances of being on top at the end.
What’s similar and different about the way ex-Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani, the current Iwate Big Bulls bench boss, and new Kings coach Koto Toyama, who led the Miyazaki Shining Suns the past two seasons, go about doing their jobs?
We just started out, so I really can’t give you too much about Toyama’s strengths at this point. He seems to be a great motivator. He is a high-energy guy, even in practice. He has just as much energy as us, I think, at times. That’s a great thing to have for our young players.
Is Toyama very different in the way he communicates with players?
Not really. Nah, I wouldn’t say that at all. They are both calm, speak naturally, nice people, and they both allow you to make suggestions and talk to them as men, and talk to them and ask questions. In that area, there’s not too big of a difference.
Physically, are you smarter about preparation and taking care of your body than you were in 2008, when the league first instituted the 52-game format?
I have a good little routine that allows me to get enough rest in to treat my body the way I need to for the bulk of the grind. I’ll be all right.
Last spring, guard Morihisa Yamauchi, still only 22, really started to impress many people around the league with his athleticism and skills. What are your thoughts on his abilities?
Mark my words, he will be a star in this league. I was just telling somebody about him the other day.
Why do you think he’ll be a star?
From the first time he played with us as a practice player, he had no fear. . . . His confidence and his competitiveness, even at a young age, stood out, and he still has that edge, and he’s gotten better and better every year.
In addition to Yamauchi, All-Star guard Narito Namizato made a strong impression as a first-year player in this league last season. Besides his athletic skills, what pushes him to succeed?
Every day I see it. He’s another one of those guys who have no fear. You can talk trash to him, and he’ll talk right back to you. You’ve got to love it.
Which current or past NBA player do you think you are most similar to?
(People say) I’m a more laid-back version of Kevin Garnett. That’s what I get a lot.
Do you like being compared to the 14-time NBA All-Star?
Yeah, I like that. I’ll be honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. A lot of things he does, I can see that I can be one of those guys that does whatever it takes for the team: rebounds, being there for help defense, a lot of the little things to help the team win. I can definitely see that in him and myself.
Why did you start wearing jersey No. 50? Is there something special about that number to you?
Right now, it’s just my number. I’ve had it so long, it’s mine. I started out wearing it when I was like 12 or 13. I used to like (Hall of Fame center) David Robinson; that’s where it originally came from.
Was the Kings’ second championship more special than the first title because of the three-year gap between them? Or was it as special to you?
They are all special to me, man. I just love being in that spotlight. It is different because of the gap of a few years there. But it definitely makes it a little sweeter because of the gap, and it took us a few more years to get back (as champions).
Dillion Sneed, an imposing force in the low post who now plays for Iwate, and new Kyoto Hannaryz forward Palmer, one of the premier perimeter shooters in league history, have left the Kings. How has the team adjusted to their departures?
You can’t really replace those guys. They were specialists, they put the ball in the hole if you needed a bucket. Those guys you can give them the ball at any time. So, it’s really hard to replace them. It’s going to have to be an effort by all five players on the court. We don’t have a Sneed or a David Palmer this time around, so we are going to make it happen another way.
Every team made changes in the offseason, but Ryukyu brought back versatile forward Anthony McHenry, the playoff MVP. Can having him back help the Kings compensate for the loss of Sneed and Palmer?
There’s really not too many people that can match up well against him, and he can match up with anyone. He can be on the court in any position. That’s hard to find. Not too many people in this league can juggle all the responsibilities that he can.
Looking back, who was the most influential person in preparing you to be a professional basketball player?
I was fortunate to have great coaches my whole childhood. .. I was always a tall kid, and actually one of my coaches knew my dad. My dad was 6-foot-8.
(The late) Wallace Prather was definitely my most influential coach. He was with me from age 10 until through high school as my AAU coach for the Atlanta Celtics as well.
How did Prather make a positive impact on your career?
He wasn’t one of those coaches that told you stuff you liked to hear. He told it like it was and got in your face.
People assume tough-as-nails coaching legend Bob Knight, who recruited you to Indiana, was as tough as they come. So did your years with Prather serve as ideal preparation before you enrolled at Indiana?
Well, I’ve been playing for a Coach Knight since I was 10 years old. (he laughs)
Somebody that was worse, more vocal. Take a look at the history of our AAU program. We’ve been known for being the toughest team in the country.
If you weren’t a pro basketball player what job or career would you have pursued?
It’s been basketball for so long, man, that if I didn’t do it, I would’ve been a coach or someone behind the scenes. It’s been in my life for so long that it would’ve had to do something with basketball.
Some guys like to distance themselves from visual memories of their own accomplishments by not having rings or jewelry around. So, do you keep all of your championship memorabilia, from your time in Osaka and Okinawa, here in Japan?
My mom keeps all that stuff. I give it to her. She likes to show it off and wear it around sometimes. I let her have all that kind of stuff.
Having played basketball in arenas all around Japan since 2005, do you feel like a legend whenever you step onto the court here? And how different is the fans’ connection to you and your team in Okinawa, where the Golden Kings are the only pro franchise?
In some of those other big cities, it just depends on who you run into. It definitely has to be a fan of the league. In some of the smaller towns, where you are like the only American and you are walking around, yeah they know. … It’s different in Okinawa. We know most of our fans by their first names. We are like a close-knit group anyway…. So we see each other all the time. It’s all good, it’s all love.