Is it kismet? Serendipity? Whatever you might call it, watching Penn State’s D.J. Newbill walk a path that began in Philadelphia — a path blazed by many before him — has been a special treat.
It’s been like watching a movie you already know the ending to.
You see, the words on this page were authored by the son of a man who, decades ago, used basketball as a vehicle to educate himself and simultaneously transcend the harsh realities of Philadelphia’s streets, so that years later his son wouldn’t have to.
In some ways, I am the end of the movie, or maybe the beginning of a new one.
When Penn State hosts Iowa on Thursday, it won’t just be Valentine’s Day for me; it will also be my dad’s 68th birthday. A day geographic distance won’t allow us to celebrate, but one I can commemorate by covering another son of Philadelphia.
I’ve always rejected the notion of things happening for a reason, but being a sports writer on this day — after a car accident and it’s aftermath nearly destroyed my life years ago — it’s hard not to re-evaluate.
Fred Carter, my dad and a man I affectionately call, “Pops,” was the first African-American student to live on the campus of Mt. St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., in 1965.
Later, he was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets in the third round of the 1969 NBA draft and enjoyed a long NBA playing and coaching career that he eventually parlayed into a career as an analyst with ESPN and NBATV.
In 2008, a Time magazine article about the shared fist bump between then-presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama, mentioned Pops as one of the athletes who may have originated the maneuver.
But before any of that he was simply young, black and trying to survive in Philadelphia.
The son of an alcoholic, wife-abusing father, Pops grew up in North Philadelphia living in a house without indoor plumbing and only one bedroom for six children.
His mother, Catherine Carter, was a woman of uncommon strength, working as many jobs as possible to provide for her children and protect them from the streets.
Pops once told me he saw a man stab a woman in the chest outside a bar where he stationed himself as a shoeshine boy at 11 years old. The attacker fled but returned soon after to find the woman still alive. Galled by her audacity, the assailant said smugly, “you’re not dead yet?” Then he finished the job he’d started.
Hearing a story like that makes it hard to believe any one person could survive an environment replete with such violence, poverty and crime. But to hear those from that era tell it, they didn’t know another life was possible because that life was all they knew.
Ask Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
“Obviously, the areas were not the best areas, but I always tell people that we were in the ghetto, but we didn’t realize it because we didn’t have anything to (compare) it to,” Monroe said, his deep baritone unmistakable.
Growing up in the city, Monroe said he didn’t feel deprived because he had just as much, or as little, as anyone else in his circle.
“For the most part, they were the same problems as most of those communities,” Monroe said. “We had a lot of gang warfare and whatnot … but for me, it was cool on our block … it was a real community thing and when I look back on it I smile because for the most part they were happy times.”
Monroe grew up in South Philadelphia and went to John Bartram High School. The two played against each other when Pops was at Ben Franklin High School. They would later become teammates on the Bullets and even went to the NBA Finals together in 1971.
It was in Baltimore that Pops earned the nickname, “Mad Dog,” the etymology of which I finally learned last summer.
In 1969, then-Bullets coach Gene Shue used a one-on-one drill to test a player’s desire to play defense. One defender stood at the foul line while the team lined up, single file along the sideline.
One offensive player at a time tried to score; if the defensive player got a stop he remained on the court. It was a source of pride for the defender to stay as long as possible.
Pops made it through the entire roster twice without anyone scoring. But the nickname was born during round three when Ray Scott, a 6-foot-9 forward from Philadelphia, backed down Pops, who was just 6-foot-4.
“I’m pushing, fighting, hitting, elbowing, forearming and finally I bit him on his shoulder,” Pops said, howling with laughter as he recounted the tale.
“Ray didn’t score, so he goes back to the end of the line and said ‘that guy’s worse than a mad dog,”’ Pops said still laughing.
That’s Philadelphia basketball. Long before the first unfortunate utterance of “Philly swagger,” basketball in the city was simply about survival.
It’s a concept D.J. Newbill is familiar with.
The young man from Philadelphia who grew up on 33rd and Cumberland streets about three miles from where my dad grew up eons ago — has endured hardship like few at 20 years old should have to.
He lost his mentor and father figure, John Hardnett, in May 2010 when the Philadelphia basketball legend died at age 56 from complications with diabetes. A month later, Marquette rescinded Newbill’s scholarship offer to make room for an incoming transfer from Oregon. Then, this past September, he lost his mother, Tawanda Roach, to cancer, a woman he describes as his “everything.”
But he’s survived to become Penn State’s leading scorer this season. And while his story is yet to be written in full, he sounds like a young man who just seems to get it.
“I just want to be able to make a difference to the kids who come from where I came from because I can kind of relate to what they’re going through and the obstacles they have to overcome,” Newbill said.
It’s a mentality Newbill said he learned from guys like Aaron McKie, who in turn learned it from Hardnett.
“It makes me feel great,” McKie, now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers, said of Newbill paying it forward. “Because I don’t think we seek attention for the things we do for the program because it was done for us by the guys who came before us that gave back.”
“The only thing we ever asked those guys was you grab one of these other young guys when you’re in this situation and able to give back to them or able to spend some time and teach them some of your life lessons.”
Newbill is entering a fraternity of men who have rewritten the typical script of poverty and despair in Philadelphia, breaking a cycle that generations continue to spin around in hopelessly, endlessly.
And as sure as you’re reading these words — I am a product of that fraternal order.
That bloodline isn’t lost on Newbill.
“I think about the future a lot,” Newbill said. “I have a little sister that I think about a lot. I just want to make it so all she has to focus on is whatever she wants to dream about.”
“Someday I want to have kids too,” he continued. “I think about setting the tone for my kids and my little sister, so I always keep that in mind.”
Has to be fate, right?
In 2004, I was in a car accident that left me with debilitating chronic pain in both of my legs and dashed my hopes of playing basketball overseas. Doctors surgically implanted electrodes into my spinal column to help block the pain messages sent to my brain.
Crestfallen and dangerously depressed, I couldn’t bear the sight of a basketball and swore off the game for good, choosing instead to pour my broken heart into academia. I pursued a PhD in psychology until my health improved and my love for basketball resurfaced with a vengeance.
I always loved to write, so I decided to switch paths and pursue a masters in journalism at the University of Maryland. I thought sports journalism would be the perfect way to consummate the marriage between my two greatest loves, not knowing I’d wind up covering a player like Newbill on a day like today.
Yeah, definitely fate. Thanks Pops, happy birthday.
Aaron Carter covers Penn State men's basketball for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.