He’s 78. His voice is deep, mature, sensible. His words reflect the syntax of a life lived well and thorough. His thoughts do not slip into idle meandering. He is old but he is young. Still.
Which helps to explain why my interview with Ned Averbuck on Tuesday night lasted four hours and 16 minutes. Yes, four hours and 16 minutes. A commute in rush hour on the San Diego Freeway doesn’t last this long, nor does a Thanksgiving dinner or the painting of a house.
In the course of what became a detailed journey through the dictionary, Averbuck roamed here, there and everywhere.
In the process, so many famous names came to light — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steve Kerr, Bob Knight, Steph Curry, Elgin Baylor, Joe Kapp, Adolph Rupp, Klay Thompson, Elvin Hayes, Mike Krzyzewski and Tara VanDerveer.
The how and why of it was simple. They all had Pete Newell running through them, either by direct contact or by comparison. Newell’s name didn’t pop up by accident.
This Sunday, at halftime of the Cal-Stanford basketball game, Averbuck will receive the eighth annual Pete Newell Award. Averbuck, a resident of Sebastopol for the past 49 years, will be honored for his career achievement of teaching both the sport as well as teaching English and history and sociology and speech and writing and communication (which would include a few of the previously mentioned). For more than 40 years Averbuck taught at high school and college, including Sonoma State.
Averbuck played on Cal’s 1959-60 national championship team. Newell, who died in 2008 at age 93, coached Averbuck and that may read as a simple and boring swipe. How would a twentysomething know of Newell? Averbuck understands.
“I don’t mind if you don’t know who Pete Newell is,” Averbuck said. “What he taught was good for the ages.”
How about this: After each Cal game, Newell would sit down with his Bears in the locker room and go over the game.
“Before he or his team would ever see the game film, Pete would go through every play by play, frame by frame, start to finish,” Averbuck said. “It was quite impressive.” What player, in any sport, wouldn’t relish being around such a mind?
How about this: “In my years at Cal, Pete raised his voice twice,” Averbuck said. All you kids in youth sports or in high school or in college, how remarkable would it be to learn your sport without being at the end of scream or a yell or a cuss?
How about this: Averbuck didn’t feel obscure and unwanted even though he averaged 0.2 points per game the year the Bears won the national title. “I felt as part of the team as much as the starters,” Averbuck said. “We called us (guys on the bench) Cannon Fodder and we loved it. Pete was all inclusive.” What bench player wouldn’t play for someone like that?
How about this: When Abdul-Jabbar signed a $2 million contract with the Lakers in 1983, he called Newell: “I feel my whole game is not improving the way I want it. I need help on my offensive and defensive rebounding.” Abdul-Jabbar called on a Saturday and wanted to start the next Monday. The greatest scorer in NBA history went to Pete Newell for help. How basketball-smart is THAT?