First as a 7-year-old boy and finally as a six-foot-nine man, Bill Newton played the game of basketball for 36 years and was exceptionally good at it.

He was the star of his high school team, was most valuable player his senior year at Louisiana State University, was leading scorer of a U.S. amateur team that toured Russia, as a professional played with the Indiana Pacers' 1973 ABA championship team and twice tested European ball with Italian teams. He quit at age 43 after a few seasons in summer league play that was enjoyable but increasingly taxing.

Not bad for a kid from Rockville.

Nevertheless, the basketball accomplishment which gives him the most pride came in 1972 when he was invited to Colorado Springs for tryouts to determine the 12-member U.S. Olympic team. Competing with the 60 best amateur players of the nation for three grueling weeks, he was leading scorer and rebounder of his team that won the round-robin tryout tourney. No less an authority than Kentucky's then-coach Joe B. Hall thought his game was good enough to qualify for the 12-man team.

That did not happen, but Newton was chosen as the 14th best player of the 60, or second alternate to the Olympic 12. That still was significant recognition given the competition he faced. Ironically, three alternates later filled team vacancies but by then Newton had become a professional and was playing in Italy.

Among his fellow players at those Olympic trials were three who now are NBA coaches: George Karl of Denver, Greg Popovich of San Antonio and Mike D'Antoni of Phoenix.

Bill came here 24 years ago with his wife, the former Jody McClure of Rochester, and here they have raised sons Blake, 24, now in commercial real estate at Nashville, Tenn., and Billy, 22, a senior at Purdue University. As a certified financial examiner for the Indiana Department of Insurance, Bill travels to assignments from his Lake Manitou home. Jody is the RHS librarian.

While Newton's basketball achievements are impressive, they enhance in the details.

He comes from Rockville in west central Indiana's Parke County, where his father was a fuel oil distributor. At Rockville he began in Cub Scout games and went on to become the quintessential high school athletic hero: a 6-8 all-conference center who often scored 40 points or more, who averaged 25 points and 25 rebounds his senior season to lead the state in rebounding and in baseball pitched a couple of no-hitters.

In 1968 more than 100 colleges recruited him and he decided that he would go south. He visited and was wooed by Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Louisiana State, all with nationally strong basketball programs.

Louisiana State won the Newton lottery, mainly because LSU's All-American, Pete Maravich, took a personal interest in him. "Pistol Pete," a junior, wanted his senior season to be his best and needed good rebounders to help him achieve it. That was a specialty of Newton, who would be varsity eligible as a sophomore.

Maravich was a basketball marvel. He averaged an astonishing 44 points a game at LSU without the three-point goal, scored 50 points or more 28 times, (60 or more four times) and had 3,667 points in three years. All are NCAA records. Maravich, says Newton, turned the college game from a sport into entertainment with his flamboyant style and his dazzling scoring moves which he rarely duplicated. He has been called the game's greatest offensive talent.

"His senior year," said Newton, "LSU was the hottest ticket in college basketball; most everywhere we played in 1970 as many spectators were turned away as were seated." That season LSU had a 20-8 record and finished third in the National Invitation Tourney. Newton remained good friends with Pete until his death in 1988. Bill's relationship with the family continues, for earlier this year the four Newtons joined Pete's widow, Jackie, and her two sons for a Lousiana reunion.

Newton's own career flourished at LSU after Pete's departure. In three years as a 6-9 power forward, he averaged 18 points and nine rebounds a game. As a senior in 1972, he was voted most valuable player and had the distinction of scoring the first basket in the first game at the new LSU Assembly Center.

His invitation to the Olympic trials resulted from his outstanding play with the U.S. all-star team that toured Russia. The Americans won nine of 11 games including the finale against the Russian Olympic team before 25,000 people at Moscow. Bill had 27 points and 13 rebounds in that game and was leading U.S. scorer and rebounder during the tour.

After Olympic tryouts and Newton's play with the Asti team in Italy, the Indiana Pacers signed him after buying the rights from Denver. He played only a substitute role for two years (his first being the 1973 championship season) but once at San Diego scored 24 points. Without a no-cut contract, however, it was difficult to stay in the league so he returned to Italy and joined its best team at Milan, and afterward retired from the pro game. His two Italian experiences each lasted only one summer, ending because of his sense of isolation there.

Bill has taught some skills to boys and girls teams at RHS, where his two sons lettered in basketball. He still enjoys basketball, particularly the college game, but watches few pro games until playoff time.

The NBA does not promote teams as it once did, he says, just its highly paid, pampered players. The average NBA salary today is $4 million a year; Bill got $27,000 when he signed with the Pacers 33 years ago. The teamwork and camaraderie that Bill knew in his pro days seems to have vanished, he says; agents and marketing dominate players' off-hours. Additionally, because there now is so much rough contact between players, referees can control the outcome of games by the inconsistent manner in which they call fouls.

Bill relishes a discussion of his big-time playing days but has few regrets about how it turned out. He finished his degree at Indiana State University, went to work in Indianapolis and there met Jody, a Butler co-ed whose roommate was a girl from a Rockville family that knew Bill well.

That may have helped him with the introduction but afterward, just as in basketball, he took over the game himself and won her hand. Since then, he says, his life has been the olympian experience he thought he'd missed.

Published June 28, 2005