Jeff Newton, the winningest player in league history, has quietly retired.
He made the decision two months ago, without any fanfare.
And so, it turns out that six-time title-winning big man Jeff Newton has played his final pro game. Fittingly, Newton will go out a winner, having last taken the court wearing his trademark No. 50 in the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ championship victory over the Akita Northern Happinets in May 2014.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, the 34-year-old looked back on his remarkably successful pro career and the memories he made along the way here.
“My decision was really impromptu,” Newton told The Japan Times from Atlanta. “I was planning to go for a few more years at least to be honest. I didn’t really feel like starting over again.”
“I like to win. . . . I’m addicted to winning . . . all that really matters to me — that and having a good time.
“I feel like I did both those to the fullest in my time in Japan,” he added. “But when you get let go two times, both after winning championships, it put things in perspective for me. Like if I don’t have job security, am I gonna have to prove myself every night, even if the team is winning?
“We’re not getting paid enough for all that stress. So for right now I’m putting my talents to the second thing I do best: having a good time. But now I’m doing it with my family and friends back home.”
Newton, who played college ball at Indiana University before turning pro, said he isn’t angry with Ryukyu management.
“I actually have great respect for Kim (team president Tatsuro Kimura) and the Kings organization,” he said. “They are about winning games and making sure the fans get a great show every event. It’s not about one individual with them, so you got to respect that.”
Newton manned the middle for the Osaka Evessa’s three-peat dynasty in the league’s infancy, then joined the Golden Kings in a move that shifted the balance of power before the 2008-09 season. The Okinawan club went 10-34 in its inaugural season before making wholesale changes, including the addition of then-new coach Dai Oketani and versatile forward Anthony McHenry.
Throughout his nine seasons in Japan, Newton was teammates with fellow Indiana University product Lynn Washington (2005-08) and Georgia Tech alum McHenry (2008-14). They are widely recognized as two of the best (if not Nos. 1 and 2) all-around players in bj-league history.
Last season, Newton had career-low averages in scoring (6.4) and rebounding (4.2), but his leadership and winning attitude were again on display throughout the season and in the Final Four.
A longtime starter, he came off the bench in all 52 games in the final season of his career as Ryukyu went 43-9, establishing a record for regular-season wins that was broken by Kyoto this season.
What future employment options is Newton considering?
He said that remains to be seen, adding, “I’m just focused on enjoying myself right now. I don’t think I will work in basketball. I don’t like coaching, and I’m not going to play the politics it takes for any other job in the industry.”
Reflecting on his legacy as the only six-time champion in league history, Newton summed up his thoughts this way: “I came, I win. At least in my mind that’s what it is. And (I’m) one of the few ultimate win/team-first guys.
“My boy Mac (McHenry) is the same way. I think that’s why we get along the way we do.”
Newton recognizes that his final pro game provided the appropriate conclusion.
“I’m so happy to go out with a winner for Okinawa,” Newton said. “That’s a great, great city with some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. I love every single teammate I’ve had, and that’s sincere. I don’t have to be politically correct anymore. . . . I know I have lifelong friends over there if/when I get back over there.”
Now away from the daily grind of a season that stretches from training camp in September to the playoffs in May, Newton said he didn’t pay close attention to the bj-league this season.
“But yeah,” he revealed, “I miss the competition. I still play all time, still winning most of the time.”
In the Western Conference final on May 16, 2009, Newton scored a stunning 50 points against his former team, leading the Golden Kings into the title match and dethroning the Evessa dynasty by a six-point margin on the same night. He shot 20-for-32 from the floor, grabbed 19 rebounds, handed out six assists, blocked five shots and made a pair of steals. He earned league MVP honors for the regular season and playoffs that season.
He also had a monster 40-point, 30-rebound game on Nov. 22, 2008, a sign of glorious things to come for the Golden Kings.
Newton fondly recalls playing alongside two-time league MVP Washington, who left the Evessa in 2012, and McHenry.
“Lynn was my mentor in college, then again when I first came to Japan,” Newton noted. “Lynn helped make me the competitor I am today. He busted my ass every day in practice, then would take me out for beers. . . . He’s the most unstoppable player this league has ever seen thus far. As for Mac, I thought I was the ultimate team player until I played with this guy. Greatest overall player we’ve seen so far in this league.
“Both would make excellent coaches.”
Washington, in fact, has already started his coaching career. Since returning to his native California in 2012, he’s served on the San Jose City College men’s basketball team’s staff as an assistant under longtime mentor Percy Carr. Washington also coaches an AAU team, South Bay Mix, in San Jose.
Center George Leach, another Hoosier alum who competed with and against Newton in the bj-league for several years, received some acknowledgement from his ex-college teammate, too.
“George has the best left hand jump hook I’ve ever seen,” Newton declared. “The best barbecue I’ve ever had . . . and the worst right hand in all of sports history.”
Newton appeared in a league-record eight Final Fours. He led the circuit in blocked shots in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08.
Above all, he set a standard of excellence and commitment to his craft that will resonate with fans, teammates and foes in Japan for years to come.
Final Four schedule: On May 23, East Conference’s Nos. 1 and 2 seeds Akita and Iwate will square off at 5:10 p.m. for a spot in the next day’s final. In the earlier showdown, at 1:10 p.m., the West’s two conference final participants are No. 3 Hamamatsu and No. 4 Shiga.
The third-place game and final are scheduled for 1:10 and 5:10 p.m. next Sunday.
All games will be held at Ariake Colosseum.