It was midnight, not your typical time for action on the basketball court at the University of Richmond. So why were the lights on in the Robins Center? That was the question Dick Tarrant, head basketball coach, wanted answered after returning from a recruiting trip in the spring of 1984.
“It was Johnny shooting jump shots with the security guard sitting there watching,” recounts Tarrant. The former Richmond coach is talking about John S. Newman Jr., who became Richmond’s all-time leading scorer, a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame and a 16-year veteran of the NBA.
What Tarrant didn’t realize at the time was that the after-hours scene was more the norm than not. Greg Beckwith, who played point guard on Richmond’s team with Newman, knew about his teammate’s ritual. “Johnny had a sense of purpose for what he wanted to do. He wanted to get his degree and play pro basketball.”
Still finding the time to practice his on-court game every day, Newman, now 41, has accomplished what he set out to do and much more. He’s an entrepreneur, a mentor, a coach and a father. And in December, he took on yet another role, that of newlywed. Newman married actress Dawnn Lewis, and together they are establishing a new life together as well as new programs to broaden opportunities for disadvantaged high-school and college students.
Newman, who played forward, is a legend on Richmond’s campus — his No. 20 jersey was retired on Feb. 3, 1992, one of only two jerseys to be retired in the school’s history. His stock is also high in the city. Along with being the chairman and president of The Newman Group, a company representing his interests in real estate, sports and sports consulting that he started in 1993, Newman serves as a college scout for the Washington Wizards, runs Johnny Newman Basketball Camp, works with and plays in the Greater Richmond Pro Am summer league, and oversees the John F. Newman Foundation for Youth. The foundation raises funds for underprivileged children so they can participate in basketball camps on scholarship, go on special trips and have seasonally appropriate clothes [see box].
A 6-foot-7 tower of confidence, Newman has always gone after what he wants. At first glance, you might not sense that driving ambition. His dressed-down look — today, a loose-fitting navy sweater and navy plaid pants — and soft-spoken demeanor camouflage his gutsy attitude.
Basketball was Newman’s one-in-a-million payoff, producing financial rewards and instant recognition. It’s also his platform for helping to change the lives of others. He’s been cited by the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation for his charitable work and is well known for the basketball camps he holds for kids. Newman started putting on basketball camps when he was in the ninth grade in Danville to help him earn a membership to the YMCA.
“I was given an opportunity and I took advantage of it,” he says. Over the years, he’s parlayed that early experience into the Johnny Newman Basketball Camp, which he holds in Richmond and Danville every summer. The camps are part of who he is, says Newman. “I want to teach kids not only skills, but also attitude and professionalism of the game.” A grin crosses his face. “My mom tells me that I can’t stop doing the camps,” he adds.
“His camp is not about the money. It’s about the children being off the streets,” maintains Annie Dickerson, a family friend who lives in Danville and has known Newman most of his life. “He loves children and he always tries to give back to them. If a child doesn’t have money for camp, but they give John a good essay about why they need to come to camp, they get in. John is a very positive influence on the community.”
Newman started his Richmond basketball camp in 1986 at the YMCA. Today the camp, which serves around 110 kids between the ages of 7 and 18, is held at the Arthur Ashe Center. Newman foots the expense for those kids who can’t afford the experience. “It’s more than just giving back,” Newman explains. “It’s a connection for me. It’s always a treat.”
Dreaming in Danville
The connection, in one sense, hearkens back to Newman’s own basketball start when he was in the seventh grade in Danville. Raised in a strict household, Newman wasn’t allowed to shoot hoops in neighborhoods outside of his own. But that didn’t stop him from playing against the best on the courts. He would slip out on the sly. “There were some crazy things going on in some of those neighborhoods,” he admits.
The middle sibling in his family, Newman received support for his athletic passion from his mother, Betty. His father, John, who owned his own janitorial company, hoped his son would find work as intriguing as basketball. “My dad was behind me, but he wanted me to be behind work, not sports,” Newman recollects. Newman found another ally in his grandfather James Newman, one more entrepreneurial family member who owned a landscaping business. “He would always back whatever I wanted to do,” Newman confides. “I was my grandfather’s favorite, and it showed. He was a very important outlet for me.”
At George Washington High School, Newman was a star player. College scouts, including those from the University of Richmond, started showing up in the bleachers during Newman’s sophomore year. Following his junior year, he attended the highly touted Five Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh, making its all-star team. After that, offers started flooding in. Newman zeroed in on the University of Richmond. “It was academically a great school and it had great facilities,” he says.
Over the course of his four years at Richmond — from 1982 to 1986 — Newman scored 2,383 points, had a 0.532 career field-goal percentage and made 80 percent of his free throws. In the 1984 season, he scored 701 points — the second-most points scored by a U of R player in a season to date and all the more impressive given the fact that when Newman played, the three-point line wasn’t even in existence. “I was blessed with a good group of players around me,” he remarks, adding that he learned a valuable lesson during his time at Richmond. “You work hard and respect people, and people will respect you.”
The gifted player was a coach’s dream. Beckwith and Tarrant both remember Newman’s quick pace in the 1984 NCAA game with Auburn, the Southeast Conference Champions, who were led by future NBA great Charles Barkley.
“He really lit it up,” says Tarrant, speaking about Newman. “We were the first Richmond team to go to the NCAA [tournament],” Beckwith explains. “Our team was undersized, and when we went into the gym, people were chuckling because we were playing Auburn. But we beat them. It was an ESPN classic game.”
There was something else about Newman that Beckwith will always remember, and it didn’t relate to any type of hoop action. “He was very meticulous,” he says, noting that the two roomed together. “He would always keep his room and the apartment clean. Females who came to our apartment would compliment us on how clean it was.” Beckwith laughs when he thinks about getting into Newman’s orange Volvo. “He used Armor All on the floor mats to shine them up, and I would slide when I put my feet on them.”
A Player’s Player
NBA scouts started looking at Newman in his sophomore year at U of R — he was one of the top two scorers in the country. Tarrant knew that Newman wanted to play pro ball, but he wasn’t sure he would make it to the next level. “He wasn’t real brawny when he was drafted,” Tarrant recalls. Beckwith also wondered about his roommate’s chances for NBA success. “He could shoot. The only question was, could he play defense at the next level? We thought if he got his ball handling together and his defense, he had a good shot, but we weren’t sure.”
Newman, on the other hand, had no doubts. “I knew I could go to the next level,” he confides. Tarrant believes that Newman’s game improved in the pros. “He was playing with tremendously talented players. We were so proud of him.”
Likewise, Newman is proud of his alma mater, dropping by whenever he can to catch a basketball game. His connection, though, goes deeper. In 1992, he created the John S. Newman Jr. Scholarship Fund to help student-athletes at Richmond. To date, it has provided financial assistance for eight students.
For Newman, 1986 was a banner year. He graduated from Richmond with a degree in sociology and criminal justice, and he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. During his 16 years in the NBA, he played for seven teams and was a double-figure scorer. He cites the New York Knicks playoff game with the Boston Celtics in 1989 during which he scored a total of 35 points (24 points in 24 minutes) as his fondest NBA memory. The Knicks won the game, but lost the series. His last season of play was 2001-2002. The next year, he earned a master’s degree in recreation, parks and sports leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University’s SportsCenter.
Erik Rudolph, who represented Newman as his agent from 1997 to 2001, sees him as a leader. “John was a player representative when he was in the league. He’s the guy that the other guys respect from a leadership position to represent them, and that speaks volumes.”
Newman also gained the respect of the NBA Players Association. “Johnny was one of the individuals who participated in contract negotiations seven years ago when there was a lockout,” mentions Billy Hunter, the executive director of the NBA Players Association. “You have to have players who are highly respected and trusted by the rank and file. Johnny was one of those people.”
Ten years ago, the Players Association created a Rookie Transition Camp, a mandatory program that exposes new draft choices to life as a professional player. “We bring in players like John to talk about his experiences, the pitfalls, managing money, investments and more,” Hunter says. “We don’t invite players that we feel aren’t appropriate role models.”
Real-estate investment developer Seymour Daffeh, who attended Newman’s basketball camp in Danville as a child, never looked up to athletes when he was young — until he got to know Newman. He first met him at the YMCA in Danville when Daffeh was in the seventh grade and Newman was playing for the Charlotte Hornets. Daffeh subsequently attended Newman’s camp. “John was tangible. He practiced what he preached,” Daffeh remarks. “He stayed away from drugs and alcohol. He would always say that when much is given, much is expected. He is my role model. He just happened to be somebody who played basketball.”
Newman hopes to make the same impression on his own 14-year-old son, John Newman III, who lives in Yorktown but spends summers with his dad. Newman met his son’s mother in New York. The two never married. The younger Newman isn’t a stranger to the basketball court. “He’s going to be a real good player,” Newman maintains, adding that he goes to all of his son’s games. “He’s a great kid. He’s very mature for his age. I’m real proud of him.”
When it comes to basketball, Newman is a tough teacher. “He’s brutal,” Daffeh says, laughing. “If I would miss a shot, he would have me running suicides. If he messed up, he would run suicides.” Newman is his own toughest critic, Daffeh adds. “When he would come to Los Angeles [after I moved there] and he had a bad game, he’d say ‘Let’s go to the gym.’ He is the first to say that he wasn’t a superstar, but he lived the right way and trained.”
Daffeh won’t ever forget the day he learned that Newman was human. Daffeh and his high-school buddies were watching Newman and the New Jersey Nets play the Orlando Magic. “When I was growing up, Johnny told me that nobody could get by him, so I kept telling the guys that Johnny was going to shut Penny Hardaway of the Magic down. But Johnny fell down and couldn’t get up. Hardaway dunked it and Orlando won the game. I was the brunt of jokes. Johnny got his comeuppance on that one. It was a classic.”
A New Role
This past December, basketball was the last thing on Newman’s mind. He was in the middle of planning his marriage to Dawnn Lewis, an accomplished singer, songwriter and actress. A veteran of stage, film and television, Lewis played Jaleesa Vinson on the sitcom A Different World and Robin on another sitcom, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper. In 2000, she won the NAACP Theatre award for Best Lead Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Angelique in The Marriage, which was performed in Los Angeles at Stage 52.
Newman met Lewis in 1987 at a function in New York City. Both were dating other people at the time. Lewis, a huge NBA fan, had seen Newman on the court. “He was an incredible player, very consistent,” she remarks. “He was exciting to watch, without being flashy or pulling attention to himself.”
In 1995, a mutual friend encouraged Newman to contact Lewis, but she wasn’t interested in dating anyone in sports. “I let him know that I wasn’t interested in athletes,” recalls Lewis, who adds, “I had heard the legends about athletes on the road and I wasn’t interested in that.”
The two finally connected when they both attended a 2003 charity fund-raiser in St. Thomas. Through their conversation, they discovered they had a mutual passion: helping kids succeed in life. “We got to see ourselves up close and at a distance,” Lewis says.
Over time, Lewis and Newman found more common ground. They share a keen sense of business and a yen for a good challenge, as well as strong spiritual beliefs (they are both nondenominational Christians). Both also have a fondness for music and golf. “We love to laugh and tease,” Lewis adds. “He is very romantic, and so am I. We both love to travel and explore.”
“Dawnn is beautiful inside and out,” Newman comments. “She’s a very together woman.”
Newman’s proposal was matter-of-fact, Lewis recalls. “He asked me what it would take to get me in his life forever. I told him he would have to ask me to find out.” Newman popped the question a week later. The couple’s wedding took place at the Hollywood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve morning 2004. Before the wedding, Lewis recorded “The One He Kept for Me,” a song she wanted to play as Newman came down the aisle. “I heard the song at a friend’s wedding and said ‘When I get married, I am going to sing it,’ ” Lewis explains. “John didn’t know I had done it. When he was walking down the aisle, he realized it was me singing. It was one of my gifts to him.”
Recording artist Howard Hewitt sang as Lewis walked down the aisle with her three brothers, and Gladys Knight performed “The Lord’s Prayer” as the couple lit the unity candle. “My parents were divorced, and my brothers were the men in my life,” Lewis remarks. “My father initially walked me down the aisle and handed me off to each brother. John got to see that he had some shoes to fill. And he absolutely steps up to the challenge.”
The two now split their time between their homes in Los Angeles and Henrico’s far West End.
Lewis, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., considers Richmond a friendly small town. “Everybody knows everybody,” she concludes. “When Johnny drives down the street, people wave to him because he has touched their life. It’s really a nice feeling. Johnny speaks to everybody. It’s wonderful to know that he gets respect from the community because of what he has done for the community.”
Both husband and wife spend a large portion of their time working with various youth organizations. Lewis, who lends support to several causes, is a founding member and serves on the board of YES (Youth Entertainment Studios) in Chesapeake, a year-round arts mentorship program for inner-city schools. Newman soon will be opening Johnny’s Heroes, a youth home for underprivileged boys in Danville age 12 to 17. A home for young ladies is also in the works. The two are also planning a mentoring program called the Road to College that will help disadvantaged youth prepare for college entrance and studies.
There’s one other passion that the married couple share with one another: cars, especially antique cars. Sheldon McAlpin, who has known Newman for more than 15 years and is his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother, says Newman “would buy cars left and right. He once told someone ‘Instead of using drugs and drinking, I buy cars with my money.’ ”
Newman currently has five vehicles, including a 2001 Bentley Arange, a 1968 Pontiac Catalina and a 1969 Pontiac Bonneville.
He admits that he would one day like to be in a “front office somewhere” with an NBA team, and Newman still plays basketball every day. Those late-night practices at the Robins Center are past history, though. “There are a lot of guys who are trying to make a name for themselves,” Newman comments, explaining that he has to pick and choose his practice locations. “They want to see what you are made of.”
If they get to meet Newman, those would-be stars will quickly learn what the legend is all about. “John is someone who will tell you what’s on his mind,” McAlpin says. “If he disagrees with you, he’ll tell you. If he thinks you are trying to take advantage of him, he will cut you loose. He doesn’t want to be bothered with you anymore. If you are a sincere person, trying to help yourself, he will do anything possible to help you.”