Hometown Report

Don Newman, who coached at Sac State in 1990s before rising to NBA, dies at 60

San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Don Newman takes to the court Nov. 16, 2008 at Arco Arena.
San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Don Newman takes to the court Nov. 16, 2008 at Arco Arena. Sacramento Bee file

Rob Richards has coached high school basketball in the region for 15 years, the last 10 seasons at Antelope.

He got his start at Sacramento State in the early 1990s, by sheer happenstance. He came on as a volunteer under a man who he previously knew nothing about. But once he met Don Newman, Richards was hooked. Hooked on Newman’s charm and vision, hooked on how to deal with student athletes, and hooked on the very idea of coaching.

“I’m not where I am as a teacher and a coach and a person if Don Newman hadn’t kick-started me down this path,” Richards said, his emotions heavy as he thought of his friend.

A former head coach of Sac State’s men’s basketball who went on to have a long career as an NBA assistant, Newman died on Tuesday from cancer, surrounded by wife Michelle and daughters Chandi and Devan, in his native New Orleans. He was 60.

Newman was Sac State’s coach from 1992-97, tasked with the brutal chore of transitioning the Hornets from Division II status to Division I. With limited resources and difficulties recruiting big-name talent, the Hornets sputtered and wheezed to a 20-114 showing under Newman.

Players and coaches appreciated his straight-forward approach, and also his kindly ways. Newman was never ashamed of losing. He said Sac State helped mold him, and it helped him appreciate just how sweet victory can be.

Newman told The Bee years ago while an assistant with the Spurs, “That was a great opportunity to grow as a coach (at Sac State), to grow as a man, to learn about real work ethic. And you always learn through adversity. You find out who you are. It wasn’t easy, all the losing, but I learned a great deal.”

Said Richards this week, “Don was infectious, just a great guy, as old-school and gritty as they get. Anyone who gets invited to an NFL training camp without playing college football ... that’s a different dude. He was just a grinder.”

Richards added, “I did whatever he needed me to do when I was at Sac State with him. Stats? Did it. Fund-raising? Ran around doing all of that. Learned a ton, became good friends, hired me full time at Sac State. We worked for free for the longest time, using borrowed computer, old offices. We’d never trade that for anything. Taught me work ethic and a passion for players and the game.”

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Newman showed that he could succeed with Division I talent, winning 18 games in one season as coach at Arizona State in 1997-98 before embarking on an NBA tour. He had assistant-coaching stints with Milwaukee (1999-2003), New Jersey (2003-04), San Antonio (2004-12 with two NBA championships) and Washington (2012-16).

In his final season with Washington, Newman wore a patch as cancer was ravaging his eye and beyond. He rolled with it, reveling in an image of barrel-chested pirate. He also enjoyed his nickname of “Duck.”

“Always fear the Duck,” Newman used to joke.

Newman played basketball at LSU and at Idaho. He was a third-round pick of the Celtics in 1980. Newman was such a terrific athlete that he played centerfield for Idaho in 1979 and had a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks as a cornerback in 1981, never mind that he didn’t play college football.

Newman spent six seasons in the Canadian Football League as a receiver before turning to basketball coaching, starting at the high school ranks in Idaho. He was an assistant at Washington State from 1987-92, leading to his Sac State time.

Newman once said coaching was the same at any level, regardless of age or salary. “A lot of people in the college game look at the NBA players as guys who don’t want to be coached, who just want to play and want the money.

“But you find that to be the opposite a lot of times. There are a lot of pros who want to be taught, need to be taught, who want to get it right, and I love that part of the game.”

In lieu of flowers, the Newman family requests memorial donations be sent to the Donald “Duck” Newman Foundation, in care of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. For more information: DonaldDuckNew3@gmail.com

Follow The Bee’s Joe Davidson: jdavidson@sacbee.com, @SacBee_JoeD, sacbee.com/high-school.