Vahe Gregorian

'Finding Malik Newman': Kansas' emerging star soul-searched to breakthrough

Malik Newman on coach Bill Self: 'He definitely knows the different buttons to push'

Jayhawks guard Malik Newman answered questions during a news conference at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. Kansas plays Villanova in the Final Four on March 31, 2018.
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Jayhawks guard Malik Newman answered questions during a news conference at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. Kansas plays Villanova in the Final Four on March 31, 2018.

If you don’t count that he had to dribble in dirt and that the venue was in his back yard in Mississippi … if you paid no attention to the fact that the makeshift hoop actually was a bicycle tire frame with the spokes plucked out and then MacGyvered to a tree …

Malik Newman’s first basketball court was exactly like the Staples Center, his father says with a laugh.

In fact, this was improvisation in every way, his father crafting “a way out of no way, again,” as Newman put it.

And that was almost a necessity in this case, since the child was smitten with basketball and the big kids at the nearby court wouldn’t let him play with them and usually sent him home crying.

Newman’s father, Horatio Webster, will playfully tell you that this was all the start of a brilliant design, that this stroke of genius was the reason the basket looks like open prairie to Newman these last few weeks as he’s helped stoke Kansas to the Final Four and its matchup Saturday against Villanova in the national semifinals.

And that it helps explain why the Midwest Regional most outstanding player was at his best in the most dazzling spotlight in the Elite Eight game against Duke, scoring 32 points and all 13 of KU’s in overtime in the 85-81 victory.

Just like it was all supposed to go from the start.

“That’s what I wanted, for him to feel like he was shooting into the ocean,” Webster said in a phone interview Friday before laughing harder yet at the original contrived hoop scheme. “It worked out; I’m a genius.”

The truth is that Newman’s path wasn’t quite as simple as that.

“Actually, growing up, I wasn’t that good of a shooter,” Newman said, smiling. “And the big tire (rim) probably was the reason why, now that I think about it.”

KU coach Bill Self spent much of the season talking about how soft his team was playing. Not anymore, and here's Jayhawks guard Malik Newman to tell you why. Kansas plays Villanova in the Final Four on March 31, 2018.

Dealing with adversity

Anyone following KU this season knows that Newman grappled to find his place and even himself — not to mention disappointing Self, who benched him and cajoled him in every way before he could crack the code and engage him defensively.

Never mind that he’s ultra-talented and was coveted by Self out of high school before originally choosing Mississippi State.

“I have Facetimed more with Malik than anybody else in the world combined out of high school. And we didn't even get a visit, I mean, come on, God almighty,” Self said Friday before smiling and turning to Newman alongside him on a podium.

When Self finally got him playing this season, well, Webster said that he was waiting for Self to call and say, “Come get him.”

Because before Newman arrived in February at a place he described as letting go and “just let Coach have his way, just let him coach me,” Newman had to do a lot of soul-searching and put out an APB:

“It was just a lot,” he said, “about finding Malik Newman.”

That meant a few things, like reflecting on his childhood love for the game and the fact this hardly was his first confrontation with hardship.

“So I knew better days were coming ahead,” he said, adding that without past adversities, “I probably would have thought life was just all about nothing but good things.

“So I’m glad I went through it; I’m glad I was able to get through it.”

KU’s Malik Newman praised teammates when he struggled earlier in the season and talked about playing Duke in the Elite Eight in the Midwest Regional championship game for a spot in the Final Four.

Passion for the game

Newman, a sophomore, says he was 3 when he started dabbling in basketball. He probably started really meaning it within days.

That’s why he disdained those pesky toys his parents would give him, and that’s why his father, who also played at Mississippi State and professionally around the world, recognized this was a passion to be cultivated.

So much so that he even sculpted some punishments towards basketball.

When Newman got in trouble for, say, not taking out the garbage or neglecting other chores, his father would make him put on slacks, formal shirt, tie and dress shoes and step into the living room to undergo a sort of postgame interview with him about his trespasses.

“What could you have done differently?” his father would ask.

At least to hear him tell it, this was done with a sense of humor.

But maybe the coaxing was a bit too vigorous at times from the man Newman now calls “my cheerleader, my critic, my trainer, my dad, my brother, my friend.”

“Tough love,” Webster said. “ … He couldn’t do anything right; I was just on him.”

That perhaps helps explain why Webster was fired as Newman’s church-league coach around fifth grade, because of some combination of colorfully berating his players and constantly yelling at them to pass to his son — another tale he tells with a laugh now.

Meanwhile, though, they could always play against each other.

The father insists to this day the son still can’t beat him one-on-one, even since his son started taking what he estimated was around 1,000 shots a day as of seventh grade.

That wasn’t the only thing they’d compete in.

“Literally everything,” Newman said. “Who’s going to wake up first in the morning? Who (will) finish their food first?”

Go inside the Alamodome on March 30, 2018 and see the KU Jayhawks practicing in preparation for a Final Four semifinal against Villanova.The KU pep band provides the music and you see Bill Self and the team go through a spirited workout.

The mention of food, though, reminds that not much was assumed beyond the basics for Newman.

The first part of his life, Newman said, was spent with his mother, LaKeyshia Newman-Myles, and grandmother.

His mom worked two jobs, so he barely saw her beyond waking up. Even though she always found a way to provide — and “she always made sure Christmas was great for me” — he knew it was a struggle.

He had the same sense when he moved in with his father, who said he now has a business training children, and his father’s mother among several others in a two-bedroom house with one bathroom.

From Newman’s perspective, his father “made sure the bills were always paid, Grandma made sure food was always on the table and they just gave me the best life I could ask for. … They did a great job of camouflaging” reality.

He had plenty of reality checks ahead.

At odds with his father’s discipline at times, he’d call his mother seeing if he could move back in with her.

But she was in harmony with Malik's father’s plan, he said.

Then came the broader plan that seemed to go awry as Newman became one of the nation’s most-sought recruits, being instrumental on four straight Mississippi state title teams and the MVP of the 2014 FIBA Under-17 World Championship team.

Newman was going to be a one-and-done for the NBA, and he wanted to go to Kansas, while his father hoped he’d go to Kentucky.

“I indirectly influenced the situation,” Webster said. “And maybe I shouldn’t have.”

Next thing you know, Ben Howland is taking over at Mississippi State and Newman ended up there.

It became a regrettable injury-tinged season (that included a back injury that one doctor suggested may keep Newman from running and jumping again) that led to a transfer to where he wanted to be all along.

After, that is, “seeing if Coach Self still wanted me or not.”

Turns out he sure did.

And after sitting out a season under transfer rules and “multiple wake-up calls” from Self that included some rough man-to-man talks, Newman has emerged as a key to KU’s season.

“I think Newman is the final piece now towards the end of the year,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said “ … He’s become arguably as scary as (Devonte’ Graham.) And that’s why they’re here.”

Like it had been planned all along — starting with a bike rim for a hoop.

“You write that up,” Webster said, “and I’ll get it patented and give you some residuals.”

The Kansas City Star's Jesse Newell and Vahe Gregorian preview the Kansas vs. Villanova NCAA Tournament semifinal game courtside in the Alamodome during the NCAA Final Four practice day on March 30, 2018.