Mike Newlin: The Resident Thinker, 1976

[Mike Newlin spent 11 productive seasons in the NBA (1971–1982), mostly in Houston. This article, published in the magazine Cord Sportsfacts Pro Basketball Guide, 1976 and without a byline, picks up Newlin’s career in season five. It quotes him extensively on his interests after  basketball, and Newlin says he’s torn between training at the University of Utah Medical School to become a surgeon or a clinal psychologist.

Well, Newlin chose neither. Neither did he dive into medical school in Utah. Newlin retired to Texas and made a fortune with Camelot Desserts, a major distributor of desserts in the U.S., then made a bundle in real estate. He’s since formed several other small corporations, and put his intelligence and mental intensity to the test in a number of ways. That includes finding the time to learn German, Hebrew and Latin, though Newlin has never followed through on his wish to publish a novel, as far as I can tell.

But back in his NBA playing days, Newlin always took the floor with a hustling, but heady, zest for the game. He also was a knockdown jump shooter. This article captures well all of these signature qualities, and so does this longer piece from a 1974 issue of Texas Monthly. I would have copied it, too, but why? You can find it online. So, here we go, back to the great Mike Newlin, the resident thinker who wore a shark’s tooth around his neck.]


To define the slim distinction between the rational and the illogical is a puzzle that not even the brilliant Mike Newlin has mastered. One of the more intelligent and personable performers to grace the National Basketball Association, Newlin also is one of the most unpredictable.

For example, although he is a magna cum laude graduate in English, Newlin feels the positive way to get ahead on the basketball court is to react without thinking. For another, he is a headstrong, aggressive player who will deliberately go knocking into benches or flying into the stands if he feels it will shake up to his teammates.

A superstar Mike Newlin will never be. He’ll settle for his current role as an integral part of a young Houston team that has the look of being a winner this season. Without question, he also is the resident thinker on the Rockets’ squad.

As for his theory on the dangers of thinking, Newlin makes it all sounds so simple. “Take shooting a foul, for instance,” he explained. “If you think about the fact you have to make it to win the game, you’ll never make it. So, you think about the means to the end, the sum of the means adding up to the end. I would think about focusing my eyes on the rim or keeping my elbow in.

“Now I have eliminated the conscious thought of making a free throw and allowed my subconscious memory, which has made millions of free throws, to do it.”

He added, “I’ve always thought that the best natural ballplayers were the ones who did the least thinking. They are least affected in crucial situations.”

When it comes to running into solid obstacles, though, there is a degree of reasoning behind it. Newlin says if the situation arises, he will do the illogical “just to do something different—like zooming into the stands.” He explains, “I hope it will give the team a psychological lift. When things aren’t going your way, it’s an abyss out there, but one incident like that might give us a collective awareness.”

Newlin, principally a guard but also handy at forward, has been with the Rockets since 1971-72. Following a 7.6 scoring average as a rookie, he has been well into double figures each season, reaching a career high of 18.4 in 1973-74 and settling at 14.4 last season, when Houston sacrificed some offense and considerably tightened its defense. The 6-feet-4 scrapper also led the team in assists with 403, the only time he has been a team leader in any category other than personal fouls.

Of his tendency to attract the attention of referees, Newlin says, “I play aggressive basketball—not dirty—just real aggressive. When I see a loose ball, I take off.”

The one facet of basketball Newlin insists he enjoys most is the pressure, a situation he refers to as “mental intensity.”  “Anybody can play the first 45 minutes, but the real action happens in the last three when the pressure’s on,” he said. “That’s the type of situation I love. That’s when I want to have the ball and be able to make the clutch play.”

Pressure, of one degree or another, appears to be the quality on which Newlin thrives. He was a brilliant student at the University of Utah, attaining Academic All-America standing with a 3.7 scholastic average, and he was a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship.

Newlin already has been accepted by the University of Utah Medical School, and when his basketball career is over, he intends to pursue a specialty of either surgery or psychology. “I’m interested in surgery, because it demands a mental intensity,” he said, sounding much the same as he does when he discusses basketball. “I’ve got the physical intensity already, and a mental intensity added to my life would make for a wonderful equilibrium.

“Surgery also represents an individual matter—I would compare it to golf—but it is unlike basketball or football, which are team sports.”

Newlin’s interest in psychology would be natural, he says, “because I’m good at listening to people and to their problems. It’ll be that or surgery. I can’t make up my mind which it will be yet, but I’ve got four years to think it over because that’s how long I’ve got remaining on my contract.”

There is another future prospect for this ambitious young man of 26. He would like to write a book—but not about basketball. It will be a novel, preferably romantic and, if he can, in the style of James T. Farrell, the creator of Studs Lonigan.

Until these great plans for the future materialize, there is still the present to be lived, and the present means basketball. For an intellectual such as Newlin—as it is for any professional athlete who takes pride in his game—there is a pressing urge to change with maturity.

“One phase in which I’ve changed is defensive,” Newlin said. “I used to plan to make steals; I no longer do. If the split-second opportunity arises, okay; if you plan it, well, it just doesn’t work out. I used to incur a lot of fouls trying to prevent opponents’ shots, and I’ve gotten away from that, too.

“I’ve learned also that one of the most-important factors is discipline. Discipline wins the game.”

Newlin suffered through one major lapse in personal discipline two years ago when coach Johnny Egan asked him to move up to forward as a replacement for the injured Jack Marin. Newlin sulked, feeling, “The only real pressure in sports is responding to the pressure, and I wanted to be the guy in the backcourt handling the ball in the real-clutch situations.” His play declined and soon he found himself on the bench.

“I didn’t look at this situation in the proper perspective at the time,” Newlin said later. “It was the first bad experience of my career, and I hope it will be the last. I think I’m better off having gone through it, because now I can accept things better.”

Three years ago, during his second season with the Rockets, Newlin expressed a similar feeling about always wanting to be in a position where he could continue the learning process. “I always picture myself at the bottom rung of the ladder,” he said then. “I’m always reaching for the next rung. I’m never at the top, and I hope I always remain that way because I always want to desire improvement.

“There’s no end to a person’s development. The only time development stops is at death.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: