Best in the city: A desired title

The newest ascendant to the throne as Philadelphia's best is Neumann-Goretti's Ja'Quan Newton, who led his team to its third state championship in four years. RON CORTES / Staff
The newest ascendant to the throne as Philadelphia's best is Neumann-Goretti's Ja'Quan Newton, who led his team to its third state championship in four years. RON CORTES / Staff
Posted: April 07, 2014

Ja'Quan Newton arrived at the Markward Club banquet to claim his award as the area's player of the year, and was asked to pose for pictures.

Before venturing in front of the camera, the Neumann-Goretti senior walked up to the trophy he was about to receive. Newton's name was etched into a small, silver rectangular plaque and nailed into a wood base.

Dedications to the senior seasons of Rasheed Wallace, Rasual Butler, Guy Rodgers, and Gene Banks - top city players of lore - surrounded Newton's name. Tom Gola and Wilt Chamberlain were listed twice.

A silver basketball topped the trophy with an inscription: When by his unselfish devotion and inspiring leadership has brought to the youth of the city of Philadelphia the ideal of sportsmanship and to himself everlasting credit.

Newton owned the role as Philadelphia's best player all season. During games, he even was prone to yell, "This is my city."

The trophy merely made that all official. It was his coronation as Philadelphia's best player, a title that has been cherished for decades.

"To be the best player in the city of Philadelphia, with the basketball tradition that Philadelphia has, it's a great honor," Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale said.

"I think it takes a guy with his personality and his mettle to be able to stay up there and enjoy it. . . . There was never a doubt. In important games, everybody always knew who the best player on the court was."

That was true. Newton lifted Neumann-Goretti to its third state title in four years by scoring a career-high 33 points in the Class AAA final one day after his mother died.

Newton had taken his place among the greats.

Gene Banks never made it a point to become the best player in the city, but he knew he was and he knew the responsibility that role held.

Banks won the Markward Player of the Year award in 1977. In 1978, he helped Duke reach the national championship game after the Blue Devils finished in the bottom two of the Atlantic Coast Conference the four seasons before his arrival.

His West Philadelphia team went 30-0 in 1977 and was the top-ranked team in the nation, according to Basketball Weekly. He knew that his role as the best player was to make his teams as successful as possible.

"With the responsibility that you have, what makes you an even greater player is how you get everybody else involved," said Banks, who had a six-year NBA career with San Antonio and Chicago. "The main key is having the attitude of winning. It's not just trying to win to impress people, but when you win, it opens up so much for everybody around you."

While Banks was not as demonstrative on the court as Newton, he valued confidence.

"Most guys, when they're that good, they know how good they are," Banks said. "You have to have an internal cockiness or a strong confidence in yourself so that when you go out, you do feel that you're the best."

Bill Ellerbee coached Simon Gratz to six Public League titles in 20 seasons, wrapping up his high school career in 2002. He remembers when Marvin O'Connor explained why he traveled from South Philadelphia to the North Philadelphia school: "I want to play with the best because I want to be the best."

While Newton, like Banks, didn't set out to become the city's best, some players do.

Samir Doughty shares O'Connor's approach.

Newton would not say for whom he took over when he emerged as the best player in the city, but he said Doughty is next.

"Doughty just does everything," Newton said. "He's 6-foot-5, skilled, athletic, and he has heart."

The Math, Civics and Sciences junior guard wants the title as the best player in Philadelphia.

"That does carry weight," Doughty said. "You know the basketball history here is good. If you're the best in the city, it means a lot."

Doughty should expect a more difficult season as he enters the limelight. According to Arrigale, Newton's reputation brought him box-and-one defenses even when Neumann-Goretti played in a tournament in Florida.

"It's definitely harder," Newton said. "When you're the best player, every game, you have to come play. Every big game, you have to show up. Every game, the focus is all on you. The whole scouting report is to shut you down."

Part of the reason Doughty cares about becoming the best player in the city is the history and what that says about his place in Philadelphia lore.

"Any time a Philadelphia basketball player is mentioned across the country, the first thing that comes to mind for people is that these guys have some toughness," said Aaron McKie, who graduated from Simon Gratz in 1991 and had a 13-year NBA career. "They play with pride. That says a lot. I take pride in being a Philadelphia player."

Even with more attention being paid to AAU ball and summer travel teams, there is still a prestige that comes with being Philadelphia's best high school player.

"I think it's kind of diminishing a little bit, but I think it's still there," Banks said "The guys still compete.

"Philadelphia basketball players never threw the white flag up. Philadelphia basketball was big for me and my success. . . . If I don't take Philadelphia basketball with me to Duke, I don't become successful at Duke, and Duke doesn't become successful."


ncarroll@phillynews.com

@NickJCarroll

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