Expanding His Reach

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

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Spurs Coach Don Newman during Basketball without Borders Europe
Don Newman during Basketball without Borders Europe.
(Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE/Getty Images)
The book on Spurs assistant Don Newman reads like an around-the-world adventure, with a chapter that stirs memories of Bo Jackson.

For nearly a decade, Newman has visited more countries than a foreign diplomat. He’s coached youth in Lithuania and Italy, China and Brazil, Puerto Rico and India. In a few days, he heads to Singapore.

The one-time, multi-sport star is on a mission: to spread goodwill through Basketball without Borders (BWB), a global development program that uses hoops to improve education, health and wellness.

Communities in need receive computers, school supplies and instruction on HIV/AIDS awareness. Youth in those communities participate in basketball clinics and workshops from a contingent of NBA players and coaches.

"Who knows," Newman says, "but you might be working with the next Manu Ginobili or the next Tony Parker."

BWB has taken Newman to some of the most impoverished communities on earth. He’s worked with children from orphanages, kids who have almost nothing except the clothes on their backs.

"You feel like you want to take two or three of them home," he says, "and raise them and give them everything you have."

An assistant under Gregg Popovich for six seasons, Newman is San Antonio’s globetrotting coach, a mentor of international youth. He can tell you about working with kids in Beijing. About faces lighting up when NBA stars arrive bearing gifts. "It’s amazing," Newman says, "but a smile in America is the same as a smile in China."

Newman got his first taste of travel ball as a pre-teen point guard in New Orleans. His recreation team played a club from Puerto Rico for a trip to New York City. Newman’s team won and flew into The Big Apple to attend an epic contest – Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I got to see Willis Reed come limping onto the court," Newman says. "It was phenomenal. I remember the chills that went through me. I knew then that I was going to be in the NBA."

He wanted to play for the Knicks and win a championship like Reed. That was the plan, and there was an athlete in the family to emulate. Newman's father pitched in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization.

The son could play a little baseball, too. He starred in high school, played centerfield at LSU and batted cleanup after transferring to Idaho. But basketball was his game, and it showed. Newman and future NBA veteran Rick Robey led their New Orleans high school team to the Louisiana state championship.

At Idaho, Newman made All Big Sky Conference and turned heads.

The Indiana Pacers drafted him in the fourth round after his junior season. The Boston Celtics picked him in the third a year later. Newman played well in training camp as did another rookie, Kevin McHale. One became a Hall of Famer, the other became the Celtics last cut.

In a jaw-dropping twist, failure in Boston led to a future in pro football. Though he'd never played a down in high school or college, Newman's athleticism at Idaho impressed the Seattle Seahawks. Newman performed an extensive workout for the team and that was that until the Celtics released him.

Goodbye NBA. Hello NFL. The Seahawks offered a free agent contract. Newman signed and reported to camp. The scouting report after four preseason games: Good talent. Needs experience. "So I played in Canada for six years," Newman says.

He became a defensive back -- and occasionally a wide receiver -- for the Edmonton Eskimos, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders. In the off-season, he played for the Montana Golden Nuggets in the old Continental Basketball Association under George Karl.

"He was a guy who tried to win games with intensity and his attitude," Karl once told The Phoenix Times, "and he did win many games because of that." The CBA-CFL experience gave Newman one of the most exotic pro resumes on the planet. The two-sport gig continued with an invitation to the New York Jets training camp. Soon, it was time to follow the inevitable. "I knew I would be a coach," Newman says.

The two-sport athlete began coaching high school football and basketball while working on his bachelor's degree at Idaho. Over the next decade he established himself at four universities before joining the Milwaukee Bucks under Karl.

When he arrived in San Antonio five years later, Karl was calling Newman one of the league's best assistants. "There are tons of ways to skin a cat," Newman says. "My way is to motivate and encourage."

The Spurs have embraced that method. So have children in every country Newman has visited. His ability to connect, teach and inspire earn him return invitations from BWB every year.

The wide-eyed boy who watched Willis Reed lift the Knicks to a championship now lifts others. "Kids are kids all around the world," Newman says. "You always have interpreters with you and they bring the languages together. But the universal truth is, when you are playing the game of basketball, it has a language all its own."