Milt Newton’s new office at the Milwaukee Bucks’ downtown Sports Science Center is sparsely decorated. The few things in it, though, represent some of the people and things closest to the new assistant general manager’s heart.
Naturally, there are photos of his family, including his wife, Shaulaun, and their children, Shaniya and Miles. Perched on top of his cabinets, prominently displayed and visible from the hall, stands a framed article from the Virgin Islands Daily News.
That newspaper clipping comes from September 2014, when the Legislature of the Virgin Islands passed a bill celebrating Newton’s achievements and contributions to the U.S. Virgin Islands. That bill included renaming the Bordeaux Basketball Recreation Park in Estate Bordeaux on the island of St. Thomas, where Newton played before moving to the United States at 13, in his honor.
On Wednesday morning, Newton’s heart and mind were with his family and friends in the Virgin Islands as he absorbed the ongoing television reports of Hurricane Maria’s devastation in the eastern Caribbean.
Maria is just the latest in a parade of storms that have battered the Virgin Islands this summer, with Hurricane Irma slamming St. Thomas and St. John’s the hardest less than two weeks ago.
“It seems like we’ve been talking about hurricanes for the last two months,” Newton said. “This has been a really strange hurricane season because normally you would kind of have like one that drops a little rain, but these hurricanes are going straight for the islands and one of them happened to be where I was born and grew up.”
Newton, 52, has many family members — including aunts, uncles and cousins — as well as friends who still live in St. Thomas. He’s been overwhelmed by the texts he’s received about the destruction they’re living with. They say the once lush and beautiful island now looks like a third-world country. A lucky few have been spared significant damage, but many have been hit by massive property destruction.
“Hearing from them it’s like, ‘Hey, you can’t believe it, I just lost my roof,’ or ‘My house is inundated with water,’ just horrific stories,” Newton said.
This level of devastation has spurred Newton to action. He already is intimately involved with his birthplace – holding basketball camps there the past three years and using his resources to bring children and teens to the mainland for college visits and other positive experiences. Now Newton and his wife have activated their charitable foundation, Emerald Gems Foundation, Inc., toward providing needed funds for the relief effort in the Virgin Islands.
“I’m just trying to — my wife and I — we’re trying to do whatever we can to bring and keep awareness of what’s going on there and the help that the people need,” Newton said, noting that all donations to his foundation will go directly to the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, usvirecovery.org.
The fund-raising efforts of Emerald Gems are working parallel to those of St. Croix native Tim Duncan, the former NBA star who already has raised more than $2.5 million. Newton has engaged in communications with people around Duncan, but the two haven’t connected yet.
Due to the extensive damage to the U.S. mainland by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, islands like St. Thomas will have to compete for resources as they begin rebuilding efforts. Islands also face different cleanup and power challenges because of their size and relative isolation, making it harder for help to arrive and difficult to remove debris considering waste materials need boats and barges to be moved off the island.
“St. Thomas is a 32-square mile mass of land; in any direction you can only go so far until you’re going into the water,” Newton said. “It’s going to take more than a year — way more than a year — for people to get back to a sense of normalcy, if you can call it that. But then there’s another one coming that they’re going through right now. You just have to buckle down and persevere and we’re all praying and hoping for the best. It’s been a crazy, crazy summer.”
Stateside, that summer has included Newton’s path to Milwaukee, which started with a phone call that for all intents and purposes came from a stranger.
In June, Newton, the former general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves who carries 13 years of NBA front-office experience, received a call from new Bucks GM Jon Horst, who was days removed from receiving his promotion. While the two did not know each other outside of a possible passing introduction, Horst knew of Newton’s professional accomplishments and wanted to set up a meeting.
That led to a get-together in Las Vegas during summer league followed by a formal interview in Milwaukee that led to Newton getting the Bucks’ assistant GM job.
“We hit it off in regards to who we are as people,” Newton said, “but (also) what he was looking for in terms of being new in his position and at this level, looking for someone that can kind of assist him. …
“Normally in the NBA, people hire people that they know, so for me being a Christian man, I can just say that everything was meant to happen like this, that someone I didn’t really know thought enough of me to be a part of this journey that we’re taking now.”
As he continues to settle into Milwaukee, Newton has high ambitions for the Bucks and what he can help the organization accomplish. Understandably, his focus also remains on the Virgin Islands, where he again hopes the influence of strangers can play a major, positive role in his life and the lives of those he cares about on St. Thomas.
“I believe that we’re all here on this earth to serve and when people are in need that’s what you have to do,” Newton said. “This is just our little part to do something for that.”