Greg Newton is getting an education—and a reputation—at Duke
JAMES DEACON in DurhamJanuary171994
THE BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
Greg Newton is getting an education—and a reputation—at Duke
Greg Newton began university last fall with a lot on his mind. The 19-year-old from Niagara Falls, Ont., had been accepted at Duke University in Durham, N.C., a school with demanding academic standards. No less daunting for Newton was the task of measuring up after class—working out with the Duke Blue Devils basketball team at fabled Cameron Indoor Stadium. Gothic, stone and subdued, Cameron looks more like a chapel than a basketball arena—which is fitting enough in a state where college hoops are embraced with fundamentalist fervor. That zealous support, along with the tradition of Blue Devils success, has been known to put pressure on blue-chip recruits like Newton. But just as he has learned his way around the school’s pastoral campus, the Canadian—all six feet, 11 inches of him—has found a niche at Cameron. “If anything, the atmosphere in there works for me,” he said with a broad grin. “I kind of thrive on their enthusiasm, and it makes me want to go as hard as I can. It’s fun to play in that atmosphere.”
By earning a place in one of America’s preeminent college programs, Newton has risen to the head of Canada’s class of outstanding basketball prospects. But he is not alone. Basketball Canada is charting a growing number of top-flight Canadian players who have graduated to university programs on both sides of the border. Although there are only two Canadians currently playing in the National Basketball Association—forward Rick Fox in Boston and centre Bill Wennington in Chicago—grassroots participation in
Canada is booming. Fuelling the surge are the higher costs of other sports, the high-speed, hip-hop appeal of the NBA—and now the expected arrival of NBA franchises in Toronto and perhaps Vancouver. “In a sense,” says Dan Malamet, program manager for Basketball Canada, “it has become the sport of the times.”
For Newton, widely touted as a future pro, basketball was not a tough choice. He was already six feet, four inches when he started Grade 9 at A. N. Myer High School in Niagara Falls, and had arms that extended like construction cranes. By Grade 10, he was receiving dozens of letters a week from recruiters for big U.S. colleges. He chose Duke, he says, because its recruiters were not pushy and stressed the scholar as well as the athlete. Duke, meanwhile, loved his attitude. “The quality that I liked right away was that he loved to play,” says his coach, Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced she-SHEF-ski), the high priest of Duke basketball who is known simply as Coach K.
That unbridled exuberance has made New-
ton a favorite of the Cameron “crazies,” the Duke fans whose deafening cheers cascade from the bleachers each time the crew-cut blond is called upon to spell one of the starting Blue Devil forwards. Last month against South Carolina State, when he soared above the rim to score a thunderous alley-oop dunk, Cameron shook with euphoric chants of “Newt! Newt! Newt!” From the front row, 19-year-old Kevin McGinnis, a second-year student from Chicago, explained how a rookie second-stringer had become so popular: “He has fun out there. Besides, he’s a bit of a bad boy, and the team needs a guy like that.” Bad boy? Sure, he wears a gold hoop earring. But that is hardly news on campus these days, and it disappears whenever he nears Cameron—his coach does not allow them. And Newton’s hero is his mother, Margaret, a language arts and phys ed teacher in Niagara Falls who was a basketball star in high school. “I got my basketball talent from her,” he says proudly. But he did not eam his full scholarship to Duke—where undergraduate expenses are estimated to run about
$32,000 annually—for being a nice guy. He is expected to have an impact on a team that captured back-to-back national championships in 1991 and 1992, and last week was ranked third in the nation. “He is a gifted athlete,” says Krzyzewski. ‘There are not many guys over six feet, 10 inches who can run the floor and handle the ball the way he can.” Newton is also prized for his aggressive play—a trait he inherited from his late father, a onetime major-league pitcher with the Milwaukee Braves. “You’re not supposed to hit people in basketball,” says Newton. “But my Dad always said to hit them anyway, to make them think twice when they come near me.”
Newton has been hitting the books, as well, although he has yet to decide on a major. “I was kind of scared at first, because the reputation is right there with the Ivy League schools,” he says. On the other hand, the newcomer who says “eh” instead of “huh” still has not acquired an ear for the North Carolina accent. Teammate Jeff Capel, a guard from nearby Fayetteville, “says things to me that, even after he repeats it, I can’t understand,” Newton says. More confounding is his infant celebrity, boosted by the Blue Devils’ repeated appearances on network television. “Tie odd person wants to meet you just because you’re a basketball player,” he says. “There are guys who, you know, suck up, and there was this girl who wanted me to get her tickets to the Michigan game. I didn’t even know her.”
Although he has played well off the bench, Newton is a long way from starting. The starstudded Devils have talented big men in juniors Cherokee Parks, a six-foot, 11-inch centre, and six-foot, 10-inch forward Erik Meek. But teammates say that Newton does more than simply fill in occasionally. “We were too tense in our first two games, but we loosened up and started to play better,” says Grant Hill, the team’s all-American senior guard who starred on both of Duke’s national championship teams. “Greg brings a lot of that relaxed attitude.” Krzyzewski, meanwhile, says that Newton is a quick study. “The only things that keep Greg from being a great player are the things he doesn’t know yet,” Krzyzewski says. “It’s up to us to teach him those things, and it’s up to him to learn them. I’m sure he will.” Whatever Newton achieves, he will not likely forget playing at Cameron. It is a unique fan experience where the crowd transforms itself into a 10,000-headed monster with one voice and a sometimes cruel sense of humor. It chants, it taunts, it ridicules opposing players. The only thing it does not do is sit. That atmosphere just adds fuel to Newton’s fire. After his crushing alley-oop against South Carolina State, as the arena shook, he roared back to his defensive position with a big I’m-in-heaven grin on his face. His heart was pounding, he said afterward. That moment was... he did not have the words. “Listen, it’s exciting coming in and playing in front of 10,000 people—I’m still not used to that” he explained. “But hey, I’m young. I get excited.” Who says youth is wasted on the young.
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