There’s a meticulousness to everything Milt Newton does, from the way he dresses to the way he keeps his office.
Photo Credit: KYNDELL HARKNESS • KYNDELL.HARKNESS@STARTRIBUNE.COM
CREDIT: Jim Souhan, Star Tribune
He had no shoes to fill, no footsteps to follow. Maybe that’s why owning his own Pro-Keds became so important, why as an adult he would fill his closet with immaculate pairs of wearable art.
Milt Newton, general manager of the Timberwolves, grew up in the Virgin Islands. He owned one pair of what the kids called “bobos” — cheap, all-purpose shoes he wore to church, school, work and on his daily trek to the island’s basketball courts.
Even as he dribbled the orange right off the one, cheap basketball he owned, Newton as a grade schooler coveted a pair of white Pro-Keds, “the best basketball shoes you could buy back then,” he said. So he went to work.
He’d buy newspapers for about 15 cents apiece and sell them for a quarter. A month later he was wearing Pro-Keds everywhere he went, wearing down the tread during long, solitary practices that made him late for so many of his mother’s dinners and curfews.
Long before he became a high school star, a college champion, a professional player and executive, Newton knew how to work for what he wanted, and what he wants now is to build the Wolves into a championship team.
“Not having my biological father in my life, I always yearned for something more,” he said. “There were things I wanted that I couldn’t get. We grew up on welfare. Early on I realized if I wanted something I was going to have to go and get it.”
Before Flip Saunders passed away this fall, Saunders was the do-everything team president and Newton his consigliere. Now Newton holds the top basketball job for the franchise with the one of the league’s most promising rosters and is instilling concepts of team building he developed playing basketball all over the world.
Finding a home
He grew up in Savan, “one of the toughest parts of the Island,” he said. As a seventh-grader he’d cut classes and skip homework to play basketball. His mother and uncle would frequently “tighten me up,” he said, using slang for corporal punishment. Finally his mother told him he needed a male role model in his life. She sent him to live with relatives in New Jersey.
The cousin was married and had a son. The living arrangement lasted a year.
Newton was given a choice: Go back to the Islands, or join Aunt Sheila in Washington, D.C.
“I felt like there was nothing for me on the Islands,” Newton said. “It wasn’t a tough decision.”
Sheila Benjamin, an Air Force lifer, took him in.
“He thought I worked at the White House,” Benjamin said, chuckling.
In D.C., Newton befriended Wesley Harvey, who offered Newton rides to and from school in his beat-up Datsun with the hole in the floorboards, and soon began bringing Newton home.
That’s where Newton met Kent Amos, the head of Harvey’s household.
Today Newton describes Benjamin and Amos as two of the most important figures in his life. Benjamin would become his on-site mother; Amos, then a Xerox executive, would become his de facto father.
“I couldn’t have children of my own,” Amos said. “Agent Orange took care of that in Vietnam. We were down on the ground getting sprayed and shot at and bombed. But God had a plan.”
Amos was strong enough to discipline Newton not by imposition but example.
“You’ve got a 6-5, very strong young man standing in front of you,” Amos said. “I’m certainly not going to take him on mano-a-mano. But that’s not what we do. What we do is demonstrate a lifestyle, and they have to choose it if that’s what they want.”
Amos and Benjamin insisted Newton do his schoolwork and adhere to curfews.
“He was still a kid when I left the Islands, so I don’t know what he was like there,” Benjamin said. “Here, with me, we had a great time. Everything I remember about him being here is good. I didn’t have a kid of my own, but I looked at Milton like he was my son and I brought him up that way.
“He was easy because if I ever needed to find him, all I had to do was check at the basketball court.”
One of the ‘Miracles’
Newton excelled at Coolidge High in D.C., attracting college recruiters. He chose Kansas, where Larry Brown was looking for rangy athletes to play his up-tempo style.
In 1988, when Newton was a junior, the Jayhawks won the national title. They were called “Danny and the Miracles” because of Danny Manning’s wondrous play. Newton’s life was trending toward miraculous.
He worked his way into the starting lineup and in the championship game made all six of his shots, including two three-pointers. Newton joined his roommate Manning on the all-tournament team.
Manning remembers Newton being fastidious about his clothes, “constantly ironing.” Manning also remembers Newton jumping clear over a Notre Dame player to dunk.
“He was always ahead of the game mentally, and he had a great understanding of people,” said Manning, now the coach at Wake Forest. “Athletically, he was as good as anybody I’ve seen, especially on the college level.
“He didn’t play much at first, but he always put the team first and kept working. In my eyes, he was always preparing himself to be an executive.”
Back to school
Milton went undrafted, then went to camp with the Los Angeles Lakers. He wound up playing in the CBA, and in Belgium and Australia.