Penn State basketball: After losing his mother, Coaches vs. Cancer game has deep meaning for Nittany Lions' Newbill

acarter@centredaily.comJanuary 26, 2013 

— On the morning of Sept. 15, D.J. Newbill's eyes opened before his alarm could howl.

Something woke him up. He's not sure what. So with a few hours left until practice, he went back to sleep.

When he woke up a second time, his phone revealed two-missed calls — one from a cousin, one from an uncle.

The redshirt sophomore from Philadelphia knew his mother was diagnosed with cancer just weeks prior and sensed what the calls meant.

"Then, I just remember a pit in my stomach," Newbill said. "I just thought this can't be good."

When Penn State takes on No. 14 Ohio State on Saturday at noon, it will be Coaches versus Cancer Band Together Day at the Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State will donate $3 from every single-game ticket sold to Coaches vs. Cancer.

Cancer is a disease whose reach has affected millions the world over. Before this season began Newbill felt its touch, losing his mother, Tawanda Roach, just weeks after she was diagnosed, making what has already been a challenging life even more difficult.

In May 2010, Newbill lost his mentor when Philadelphia basketball legend John Hardnett died at age 56 from complications of diabetes. A month later, Marquette rescinded his scholarship offer and made room for Jamil Wilson, an incoming transfer from Oregon. Then, this past September, Newbill got the call that cancer had taken his mother.

Having suffered profound loss, Newbill has had ups and downs, but has tried to keep a positive outlook; one he eventually hopes will reach kids that grew up as he did.

"He's been through so much," said Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers. "I don't know if many 20-year-olds could handle what he's going through."

When Newbill saw the missed calls that day, he froze. He knew his mom was sick, though he didn’t know exactly to what extent, because his family didn't want to worry him.

He already planned to visit her in the city that day since the team had the following day off, but somehow he knew it was too late.

"I didn't even want to pick up the phone," Newbill said as he leaned forward in his chair inside a half-lit media room in the Bryce Jordan Center. "I didn't even want to call them back."

His cousin made the decision for him with another call. Newbill said he immediately hung up after being told his mother passed earlier that morning. He called his grandmother for confirmation.

"I asked her was it true," he said, his voice now soft and hesitant. "When she told me, I couldn't breath, I was gasping for air, I just couldn't believe it.

"Still to this day I get that pit in my stomach from when I found out," he continued, touching his hand to his mid-section just below the logo on his navy-blue Penn State sweatshirt. "It's something that's going to carry with me forever."

He felt that kind of loss when Hardnett passed.

Without his father in his life, Newbill, the third of four children, relied heavily on his mother. Tawanda Roach — or "Meme," as everyone called her and Newbill has tattooed on his neck – played several roles in her son’s life.

"Mother, father, best friend," Newbill said. "Anything I needed, I came to her. She was my everything."

Devonte Jerrell Newbill, or "Simba," as his mother called him after the "Lion King" character, grew up near 33rd and Cumberland streets in Philadelphia, an area rife with drugs and violence.

Newbill saw family and friends succumb to that life, but didn't want to be an added burden to his mother.

He took up boxing at 10 years old because, "when you lose a few, something has to give," he said with a chuckle.

But ultimately he found basketball and Hardnett after Chuck Ellis, a former assistant coach of Hardnett's, noticed him in seventh grade and connected the two.

Newbill saw Hardnett as a father, as did many growing up in Philadelphia. He has mentored several NBA players that came from the city.

His funeral was who's who, attended by former Temple coach John Chaney and former Sixers coach Larry Brown, to name a few.

The surrogate father and son became inseparable. Their families even met and became close.

"It just came to a point where I was with John every day," Newbill said. "I was with him all day until it was time for me to go home to school the next day."

Instead of being exposed to the streets during those hours, Hardnett taught him about life and about what basketball could do for him.

Newbill flourished. As a senior at Strawberry Mansion, he led the Knights to the 2010 PIAA state championship game at the Bryce Jordan Center and was also named Pennsylvania Class AA Player-of-the-Year and Public League Player-of-the-Year.

"Basketball means a lot to me; I could say it definitely saved my life," Newbill said. "Coming from where I come from you don't see a lot of guys with an opportunity to go to college."

Hardnett preached that basketball was a tool that could lead to a better life for Newbill and his family. It's a message the Penn State captain wants to embody, not just verbalize to others.

"Not only for me and my family, but for young kids growing up in my neighborhood where all they see is drugs and violence and negativity," Newbill said. "(In me) they'll see some positive coming out of public school."

Another Philadelphia guard who was mentored by Hardnett can attest.

"John Hardnett gave his life to basketball," said Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Aaron McKie. "I'm proud to say that I looked to him as a mentor and he looked to me as a son."

McKie, who went to Temple, grew up along 10th street and Susquehanna avenue, a different area of the city from Newbill but one with similar challenges.

"Different areas, same environment — it's all the same," McKie said. "It's dark. It's dark. I won't say there's no hope, but there's a lot of kids having babies, a lot of violence, lack of education. I could go down the list."

But as the discipline Hardnett instilled in him more than 20 years ago continues to help him today, the 40-year-old McKie said it will also stay with Newbill and hopefully inspire others.

"It helped me, it's helping D.J. not only on the court but it helps us off the court," McKie said. "Just to be able to come out of that environment and get an education, those are the things that shine a light on that environment."

McKie said there is still some good that comes from the inner city and hopes others believe they can transcend as he did.

"For guys like myself, for guys like D.J. who were able to rise above all of that, there is some light in those places."

Newbill found a new light back in Pennsylvania. After things dissolved at Marquette, he landed at Southern Mississippi, where he excelled on the court as a freshman, even earning Conference USA All-Freshman Team honors.

But after one season, he decided he wanted to be closer to home and his mother. So he contacted Chambers, who he knew from the recruiting trail.

"I really liked his character," Chambers said of Newbill. "I'm not just talking in basketball terms I'm talking about as a man."

After transferring from Southern Miss, Newbill had to sit out a year per NCAA rules. Chambers thought so much of the young man and his work ethic that he made him a captain even before this season began.

"He had that it factor," Chambers said. "He had that confidence about him, that aurora, that one day this kid is going to be a great leader. I may have thrown him to the wolves a little too early, but sometimes learning on the job is the best thing."

Newbill leads the Nittany Lions in scoring this season. A natural wing player, he was forced to play point guard after Tim Frazier's season-ending Achilles tendon injury.

He has struggled at times and been stellar in others. He scored a career-high 27 points against No. 18 Michigan State earlier this month. He is also sixth in scoring in the Big Ten and the only player to rank in the Top 15 in conference scoring, assists and rebounds.

With today's game against the Buckeyes, Chambers knows his guard's heart will be heavy.

"I still think about my mom and she's been gone almost five years now and I think about her every day," Chambers said. "Your heart goes out to him, but he's handled himself so well. He really has grown up. He's the leader of his family."

Newbill's siblings are scattered across the state. His oldest brother Dante, 25, is in Philadelphia. His middle brother Dominic, 22, lives in Lancaster. His sister Diamond, 12, whose name he has tattooed on the inside of his right forearm, lives in Harrisburg with family.

Over the holidays, Newbill didn't get to hug his siblings but got to see their faces via FaceTime on his cell phone. Just one in a list of difficulties he faces without his mother.

"Now it's like, where do we go?" he said. "I just don't like not having a place for all of us to gather up and share stories."

He fondly remembers bonding with his mother in the kitchen while singing Luther Vandross songs, laughing when older people in the neighborhood asked incredulously, "What you know about Luther?"

He still keeps her text messages and laughs at the funny conversations they had. He even made a slide show of family pictures on his phone set to music.

He also remembers his mom as a jokester. Like the time Dante desperately wanted black leather Timberland boots for Christmas.

She bought the boots but removed them from the box and filled it with rocks. Then, when it was time to open gifts she just watched, waiting to make her move.

After Dante excitedly rifled through the wrapping paper, his happy face turned to surprise when he saw the rocks.

"She snapped a picture of his face, that shocked face," Newbill said. "It was crazy."

That's how he remembers his mom. Just like the photo that hangs above his bed.

"It's just her smiling," he said with his head down as if he was looking at the photo. "Her great smile.

"When she smiled, I smiled," he continued, as a smiled curved around his mouth. "That's the kind of effect she had on me. When she was happy I was happy."

Newbill has played in Coaches versus Cancer tournaments in the past, but he said this one will of course have special meaning.

The disease also struck his grandfather, but Newbill said he was too young to really comprehend.

"But now it happened to my mom, my everything, so now there's a whole different feel to it," he said. "It gets that much more personal and in depth and I feel for all the patients and the families that are going through it."

It hasn't been easy, but for now, the young man who has endured so much seems to put things into perspective.

"Going through a situation like that, it's like man, what's next? Sometimes you sit there and think, all right, I lost John then my mom ... death is a real part of this life.

"So I cherish moments with all my loved ones now. I try to take as many pictures as I can. Try to keep as many memories as I can."

One thought seems to give him at least some comfort.

"Just knowing that she was proud of what I'm doing," Newbill said. That's something that just sticks with me."

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