To define true greatness in pro sports, there’s no greater measuring stick than championships.
Which is why Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell remains the quintessential winner in North American pro sports. He starred on 11 NBA championship squads in 13 seasons.
In the bj-league, Jeff Newton will always have that label since this is the circuit’s 11th and final season. He won six titles in nine seasons, playing his final game in May 2014 as the Ryukyu Golden Kings wrapped up their third championship in his sixth seasons with the club. For Newton, it marked the end of a magnificent career.
Last weekend, the Golden Kings paid tribute to Newton, retiring his No. 50 jersey at a post-game ceremony on Sunday in Okinawa City after a victory — what else? — over the Rizing Fukuoka. He became the first player in league history to have their jersey retired. (He also took home a jersey signed by his former teammates as a special memento.)
“It’s a great honor just to be considered,” Newton said by phone from Atlanta on Thursday, two days after his departure from Japan. “I just want to reiterate the fact that all this stuff came because I had great teammates and great coaches, and they let me be great. Without a great team, great coaches and great fans, I don’t think I’m that special really . . .”
Ryukyu assistant coach Keith Richardson, whose tenure with the club began in 2008 like Newton’s, was thrilled that the legendary center received this once-in-a-lifetime tribute.
“It was very special to bring back someone who has given so much to basketball in Japan, the bj-league and to Okinawa and see them honored in this way,” Richardson told Hoop Scoop. “It was the very least the team could do for Jeff after all he has given to the Kings organization. He created the winning culture in the Kings.”
The post-game ceremony lasted nearly an hour, with team president Tatsuro Kimura, coach Tsutomu Isa, star forward Anthony McHenry and Newton speaking in succession.
Newton, 34, described it as “an unbelievable experience.”
And what was the trip like?
“Up until the ceremony, I was just laid back and easygoing,” Newton told me.
“I was just planning on going and hanging out with some old friends . . . and all the way up until the ceremony, it was pretty laid back, having a good time, watching the games and stuff . . .
“The magnitude of the experience didn’t really set in until I was watching them raise it (the jersey) into the rafters.”
Overtaken with emotion, Newton’s remarks were short and to the point in Okinawa City. “I didn’t really prepare nothing,” he pointed out. “I was just saying whatever came to mind really.
“By the time I got up there, it was hard to get any words out. Surprisingly, I got emotional up there,” he admitted, including a few tears.
He just wanted to thank his teammates, coaches, the Kings organization and the fans.
To have the spotlight one last time in Okinawa after his amazing pro career there was “a great honor. I just felt really honored to be there,” he said.
The soft-spoken Newton always let his play speak for itself. Similarly, he didn’t walk around with a megaphone letting people know the Kings were going to retire his jersey. But his proud mother and wife spread the word in his hometown and beyond.
What’s more, the Indiana University athletics department sent a congratulatory letter to him. “I was surprised to get that, and that was a humbling experience,” he stated.
Newton got his start in the upstart circuit in 2005, then a six-team league, as an integral part of the Osaka Evessa. Playing alongside fellow Indiana University alum Lynn Washington, sharpshooter David Palmer, formerly of Southern Utah, and ex-Stanford floor leader Matt Lottich, the Evessa clicked under head coach Kensaku Tennichi, who meshed his team’s Japanese talent with the supreme skills of its foreign players.
Two-time MVP Washington, also a league legend, recently reflected on what it was like playing with Newton.
“Jeff was the most selfless person I ever met,” Washington told Hoop Scoop. “Great competitor and the best defensive player the league has ever seen. The retirement of his jersey is well deserved.”
From the bj-league’s inception in 2005 until the spring of 2008, Newton was coached by one man, Tennichi, who guided the Evessa to a three-peat, an unprecedented feat in the league.
After Newton’s departure for Okinawa, the balance of power in the league shifted, too. The Evessa remained a powerhouse team until Washington left Osaka and pro basketball in the spring of 2012, but the Golden Kings had gained the one player no team could regularly conquer.
Exhibit A: A performance that will remain forever etched in the memories of those who witnessed it, aka Newton’s 50-point performance, including 20 in the fourth quarter, against the Evessa in the Western Conference final on May 16, 2009, that ended Osaka’s quest for a fourth straight title.
Newton’s heroics paved the way for his fourth title in as many seasons and the first in Ryukyu history.
This week, Washington recalled that epic performance.
“My biggest memory of Jeff Newton is when he lit us up for 50 points,” he said. “Surreal.”
Tennichi referred to Newton as Osaka’s “pillar of strength.”
“He worked very hard on both ends (of the floor) for games and practices,” Tennichi said. “He was a good teammate, just a great guy. He is one of the reasons why we could achieve those wins. I was very lucky to be with him.”
When the Kings dethroned the Evessa in 2009 during that showdown at Ariake Colosseum, Newton was at the top of his game.
“It was very difficult to stop him because he was a very smart, high basketball IQ player who can cover his weak point,” Tennichi recalled.
Tennichi’s best memory of his frontcourt star?
He revealed it was “his effort for our team in our third year when Lynn Washington got a serious knee injury. After it happened, Jeff step up and led team with other guys and kept us on track” en route to a championship.
In recent days, several former teammates spoke candidly about Newton’s defensive smarts, impressive rebounding skills, all-around presence on the court and special legacy.
Here is Palmer’s analysis:
“He is the best screener I have ever played with and it is not even close. He had wonderful vision of the court and its spacing, and he had textbook form when setting screens. He created so many open shots for myself and other teammates. That is a very selfless act that often goes unobserved by the average fan.
“Jeff had a knack for stepping up and providing great performances when the lights got brighter and the stage got bigger. If his team needed points, he could score. If they needed rebounding, he would get on the glass. If they needed defense he would come up with a deflection or blocked shot. He just understood how to win games. He always knew where and when to give maximum effort, yet also when to back off and let someone else step up and take advantage of opportunities.
“On top of all that, and perhaps most importantly, he was a great teammate. You could see true enjoyment and pleasure on his face when witnessing the success of his fellow teammates…”
Meanwhile, Reggie Geary, former Yokohama B-Corsairs bench boss, recognizes the significance of Newton’s contributions to Ryukyu and Japan basketball as a whole.
“I think it’s pretty cool Ryukyu is retiring his jersey,” Geary, who now coaches the NBL’s Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins, told Hoop Scoop. “Jeff had a storied career in the bj-league and for the Kings. Having a jersey hang from your arena shows a level of commitment and stability to a community and to a player.
“Things like this are greatly needed, especially with ever changing basketball landscape that is Japanese professional basketball.
“For me, it’s no surprise that the front office for Ryukyu has made this move, as they’re one of the more forward-thinking organization around.”
John “Helicopter” Humphrey, one of the most electrifying scorers in the league’s 11 seasons, recalled his numerous meetings with Newton on the court over the years.
“It was an honor playing against him,” Humphrey, who previously starred for the Tokyo Apache, Saitama Broncos and Rizing Fukuoka. “It’s been a lot of battles. He was just a winner, he made everyone around him better.
“The one thing I admire about Jeff was, he never got rattled …. trust me we tried. Dray (Dameion) Baker was like (Dennis) Rodman he could get anyone out of their game, but not Jeff. He always stayed cool and did his job. That’s why he is the greatest player in bj league history. Great ball player but even better person.”
Aomori Wat’s guard Nile Murry, who competed against Newton from 2006-14, including a stint with Osaka (2008-10), also offered his views on No. 50’s career and legacy in Japan.
Murry said: “Jeff Newton’s retirement jersey is huge. He brought much success to the Kings franchise. He is a competitor and his teams also competed and he only cared about winning.
“I’ll never forget the 50 he dropped on Osaka in Ariake, I shake my head still to this day.”
Palmer believes Newton’s success during his time at Osaka and Ryukyu provides the perfect blueprint for team looking to build a winning foundation for years to come.
“I think it is amazing that the Golden Kings decided to retire Jeff’s jersey,” Palmer commented. “Obviously, with six championships, Jeff is the most decorated player to have participated in the bj-league. I think it is great for the league because it inspires other teams to build championship-caliber teams that are based on continuity and player development…”
Well-traveled power forward Reggie Warren, another top star in the league for years, gave his thoughts on Newton’s unique place in bj-league history and the final chapter to his career in Japan.
“I think it’s well deserved and I was very happy for Newton when I heard that the Kings would be retiring his jersey,” said Warren, who now plays for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix. “I always said even when Jeff was with Osaka that he was the reason for them winning. He never got the MVPs, but i always thought he was the most valuable player to those teams as everybody (has) seen once he joined the Kings.
“Great player, great teammate, great person It’s great to see him get honored like that. Nothing but respect for him and the way he played the game.”
McHenry, his Ryukyu teammate on three title teams and a jaw-dropping five Final Fours, insisted that the Golden Kings have, ahem, set the gold standard for how Japan pro hoop teams should honor their most historic accomplishments.
“By the Kings organization stepping up and retiring (Jeff’s jersey), I feel they have truly set themselves apart from any other basketball organization in Japan,” McHenry said. “It shows not only import players but also Japanese players that if you truly make an impact you can be remembered for all time.”
And remember this: The Kings posted a 232-78 regular-season record during Newton and McHenry’s six seasons as teammates.
“He was the ultimate winner,” McHenry said.