Newton rising to the top

Neumann-Goretti guard Ja'Quan Newton (left) and his father, Joe, who was also a basketball star. MATT BREEN / Staff
Neumann-Goretti guard Ja'Quan Newton (left) and his father, Joe, who was also a basketball star. MATT BREEN / Staff
Posted: March 10, 2014

Ja'Quan Newton cradled the basketball in his right hand and launched off one foot toward the hoop. His flashy green sneakers went soaring in the air as he extended the ball behind his head.

The Neumann-Goretti senior rocked his arm forward, crashing the rim with a mix of thunder and flair.

"Basket scored by No. 20, Ja-wan Newton," the Archbishop Ryan public address announcer bellowed.

It mattered little to those in the crowded gym Friday night that the announcer had mispronounced the name of the city's best basketball player. Part of the attraction of paying $6 at the door was a chance to see one of Newton's final high school games.

And he wasted little time giving them their money's worth.

Newton finished with 14 points and Neumann-Goretti eased into Tuesday's second round of the PIAA Class AAA state playoffs with the 62-46 win over Berks Catholic. His career points total increased to 1,879, 44 behind the Catholic League's all-time mark.

If Newton has his way, the Saints will play four more times. And the record likely will be his.

A points record coupled with his third state title would be the perfect finish to a fantastic career, which also includes four Catholic League and city titles.

The 6-foot-2 guard said he puts himself in the top 10 players of Philadelphia's high school basketball history. And each win in the state tournament will help his case.

"I'm a winner. That's everything you can say about me," said Newton, who signed a scholarship in November to play at Miami.

Joe Newton arrived near halftime Friday, sneaking into the bleachers just behind Neumann-Goretti's bench.

Ja'Quan Newton's father whistled twice to catch his son's attention before the third quarter began. The star player looked up and nodded.

Joe Newton had starred at West Philadelphia in the 1990s, but college choices were few because of his poor grades. He went to a Texas junior college and then landed at Central Oklahoma. The 6-foot guard averaged 27 points in 1998 and was the Division II national player of the year.

He believed the NBA was his next stop and had tryouts scheduled with three teams. But in July 1998, the league had a work stoppage, delaying the season. Joe Newton headed overseas and spent the better part of seven years playing professionally in Mexico, Colombia, Croatia, Greece, Poland, and other countries.

"Still, when I watch the NBA games to this day, it haunts me," Joe Newton said. "I had a chance. But I always say, 'Maybe it passed me to get to him.' And I'm fine with that."

Joe Newton said he never forced basketball on his son, but he always had his son around the game. Ja'Quan sat on the bench and watched his dad's summer-league games at Kingsessing and Myers, two of Southwest Philadelphia's toughest courts.

"There were no LeBrons or Durants when he was growing up," Joe Newton said. "There was only me."

Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale already had solidified himself as one of the city's top coaches when Ja'Quan Newton arrived in September 2010.

Arrigale won a state crown the season before, had captured six Catholic League titles, and guided nearly a dozen players to Division I colleges.

He never opened a season with a freshman in his starting lineup. That is, until he met Newton.

John Mosco, then Arrigale's top assistant, said Newton wanted to guard senior Lamin Fulton in every practice.

Newton saw matching up each day with the team's star senior as the best way to improve his defense. In turn, Mosco said, Fulton taught Newton how to win.

The coaches decided to plug him into the lineup for the Saints' first game that December on a team that was expected to struggle after losing four players to graduation.

"You have a 14-year-old kid and you throw him in there and he makes your team complete. I would have never dreamed of it," Arrigale said.

Newton averaged 15.5 points, helped the Saints clinch the Catholic League title, and was the leading scorer in the state-title win.

"He's not afraid of any moment. He's not afraid of any building. He's not afraid of any size crowd. He's willing to put himself out there," Arrigale said.

Before teaming at Neumann-Goretti, Newton and Troy Harper were eighth-grade backcourt mates at St. Ignatius school in West Philadelphia.

They led the Comets to a 41-0 season and were honored by City Council after capturing the CYO archdiocesan and state titles.

It was in the archdiocesan final that Newton cemented himself as a big-game player.

Harper fouled out with two minutes left against Bucks County's St. Jude, and said he sat on the bench with his head down.

St. Ignatius rallied, and Newton had the ball in his hands, trailing by a point with the clock winding down.

He dribbled at his defender, stopped suddenly, and faked a shot. It was Newton's signature move, but this time, the defender did not bite.

Newton improvised and hit a winning fadeaway jumper as time expired.

"I was so happy. I was the first person to run out and grab him," Harper said.

The team's four stars talked about playing together in high school and college. They thought it would be easy, Harper said.

They first looked at Archbishop Carroll in Radnor, Harper said, but playing time would have been a challenge because three of the four were guards. Termir Durham moved to Texas, and Basil Thompson went to a public school. Harper and Newton chose Neumann-Goretti.

And the championships kept coming.

Newton sat under the basket with a few of his teammates before Friday's game. He wore the khaki slacks he had worn to school, but Timberland boots subbed for his black dress shoes.

Jamal Custis, one of his closest friends, sat to his right, hood up and head against the bleachers. Newton pulled his headphones off his head whenever he had something to tell his pal.

"We joke a lot. That's what we do," Custis said. "But when it's game time, it's game time."

Newton controlled the game, failing to be startled by Berks Catholic's double-team defense.

He drove the lane in the second quarter, and two defenders applied bear hugs. Newton strong-armed his way to the basket, almost sinking a heaving shot before the referee whistled a foul. His wiry frame deceiving, Newton is strong.

With a little more than two minutes left, Newton recovered a rebound and sprinted for a fastbreak. Another big dunk seemed just ahead. But he slowed just above the lane and pounded the ball as the clock ticked down.

The Neumann-Goretti fans cheered, knowing Newton had just sealed the win. And their star player's final chapter is still to be written.


mbreen@phillynews.com

@matt_breen

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