Lung cancer has ravaged his body. The voice is raspy, quiet. But the mind that has influenced generations of players and coaches is as quick as an outlet pass.
"I think there's more centers in college basketball that are capable of being NBA centers than in the last 12 to 15 years," Pete Newell said. "The game has a way of kind of addressing its problems and finding out the answers, the lack of the big man in the game."
Only Dean Smith and Bob Knight can match Newell's coaching accomplishments: a Hall of Famer who has won the NIT (San Francisco, 1949), NCAA Tournament (Cal, 1959) and an Olympic gold medal (1960). Like the rest of us, he's a fan this weekend. He wants to see the Return of the True Post: Georgetown's 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert vs. Ohio State's 7-foot Greg Oden in one national semifinal.
"The center position in basketball is the most important position of all, and the most difficult," Newell said from his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "The center has to learn to throw a good bounce pass, cross-court pass, outlet pass. He's got to be able to read the defense, got to be able to screen, play without the ball."
Those basics were mostly vacant from college basketball in recent years. That's because there were no true big men to use them. From 1959 through 1980, post players who had starred in college were the NBA MVP in all but one year. In recent times, most good post players jumped straight to the pros. So, for that matter, did the developing ones.
Several of those who came from Europe favored the outside game. Few of them ventured down low to play with their back to the basket.
"A lot of big guys now are shying away from the post, which isn't necessarily a bad thing," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "But we have two guys here who like the fact that they're low-post players."
|Born: Aug. 3, 1915|
|College: Loyola of California (1939)|
|Coaching: San Francisco (1946-50)|
|Michigan State (1950-54)|
|U.S. Olympic Team (1960)|
|NBA GM and scout: (1968-present)|
Saturday's matchup might even overshadow two big guys who already have rings -- Florida's 6-11 Joakim Noah and 6-10 teammate Al Horford.
Good. The more the warier for the shorties going up against them.
"I think it's great to see the big man in college basketball," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "UCLA boasts possibly the two greatest big men at the college level in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Those were obviously special eras where players stayed for four years of college."
The NBA, in some small way, helped with its age restriction. Oden was forced to spend this season in college, and it helped Ohio State's freshman immensely. There is still a lot of kid in Oden. Plus, imagine how he would have developed in the NBA while nursing his surgically repaired right wrist back to health. In college, he was able to play fewer games, rely on his defense, shoot free throws left-handed and basically take things at his own pace.
"I really like the upside of him," Newell said. "I think he's got a lot to learn. The good part is he realizes that. He showed what a real shot blocker can give to a team's defense."
What would Newell teach him?
"The basics," he said. "Train him on how important footwork is. You play with the ball 10 percent of the game. You play with your feet 100 percent of the game."
Oden compares himself, without boasting, to Bill Russell and Tim Duncan, two defensive-minded post players who are able to dominate with their all-around games.
|Freshman Greg Oden 'showed what a real shot blocker can give to a team's defense,' Pete Newell says. (US Presswire)|
In Oden's case, one of those blocks -- against Tennessee's Ramar Smith -- preserved a one-point victory and got Ohio State to the regional semifinal.
Hibbert already made his point to Ohio State before Oden arrived. Last year, Hibbert scored 20 points and had 14 rebounds against the Buckeyes in helping hand Ohio State its worst NCAA loss, 70-52.
"I think it's going to get the game back to where it used to be," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said, "having that low-post threat."
Oden (15.5 points, 9.7 rebounds) has shown a nasty side since at least early March when he began to use his right hand more. Hibbert (12.7, 6.3) doesn't lead his team in scoring, but at Georgetown, it's more about attitude. The Hoyas look once again like Beasts of the East.
Get those TiVos ready. You might not see a matchup like this for a while. One NBA scout who did not want to be identified offered this analysis of the Oden-Hibbert matchup:
"Hibbert will be in the league 10 years. Oden will have 10 dominant years. The biggest difference is Oden will be the next great American inside player. Hibbert will be the next big player from Georgetown in the league. ...
"The good thing about both is that they understand they're centers. They're not trying to show you they can play a four (power forward)."
One of the biggest drawbacks for the giants, Newell says, is that they don't have an equal to practice against. Sophomore Kyle Madsen, at 6-10, is the next tallest Buckeye on the roster. Big East Player of the Year Jeff Green is one of three 6-9 players on the Georgetown's roster.
"We have so many coaches today at all levels, from high school to college, who have no background for teaching post play, the back-to-the-basket game," Newell said.
"Take Shaquille out of his spot. How many guys do you think -- American centers -- that would even be close to Shaq?"
Maybe the two best answers are playing on Saturday.