Thursday, April 4, 2013

Julian Newman's Age and Size Stand Out, but So Does Talent – The New York Times

Big Talent, Tiny Point Guard: Julian Newman is a 70-pound, 4-foot-5 fifth grader who plays varsity basketball with high schoolers at Downey Christian School in Orlando, Fla

Julian Newman's Age and Size Stand Out, but So Does Talent
by Mike Tierney

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Downey Christian School varsity basketball team bursts from the locker room in single file, led by a boy 14 inches shorter than the next smallest player, four years younger than the next youngest.
Newman plays and practices with intensity, sinking 100 free throws,
200 floaters and 200 jump shots every day.
His jersey straps are twisted and bound with plastic ties to prevent them from slipping down his bony 4-foot-5, 70-pound frame. Tricolor socks with pastel waves cover his size 4 feet, conveying the notion that he might be a stylish student manager. 

At road games, the boy, point guard Julian Newman, is asked, “Are you on the team?” Here, in the Patriots’ gymnasium, there is no doubt. 

The grand marshal of the player parade, Julian, an 11-year-old fifth grader, guides his team into warm-ups, bouncing two balls at once. He glides into a pregame routine that shuffles through jab steps, hesitation moves and effortless dribbles — between his pipestem legs, behind his back, rapid crossovers. The scene is incongruous enough to seem computer-animated. 

Not long ago, Newman was a mere curio in the compact circle of sports programs at small Christian schools in Central Florida. But his age, his size and the wild contrast of his stature on the court with relative giants have brought global attention through Internet videos. The most-watched clip of Julian has generated more than 1.27 million views on YouTube. It has prompted a visit from “Inside Edition,” an appearance on “Steve Harvey,” comments on Twitter by Baltimore Ravens players, coverage by news agencies from as far as China and a performance at an Orlando Magic game. ScoutsFocus of Greenville, N.C., which evaluates and ranks high school players, helped put together the viral video that was filmed by a Patriots assistant.
So far, opponents have refrained from picking on Newman.
“He’s a very talented kid and comes from a great family,” Joe Davis, the national recruiting coordinator for ScoutsFocus, said of Julian. “He’s smaller, so that’s going to be his main obstacle, but he has a great future once he hits a growth spurt or two.” 

Two nights before his N.B.A. halftime performance, Julian said between bites of chicken tenders ordered from a children’s menu that he was working on a routine involving three basketballs. Despite his fame, he has maintained the same degree of obsession. There is little, if any, room for it to grow. 

Julian fills his days by spending time in a gym or at the hoop in his front yard, where his father, Jamie, the Downey Christian coach, has painted lines to approximate a college court. Julian sinks 100 free throws, 200 floaters and 200 jump shots every day. On 3-point attempts, he leans into the shots slightly, as if to guide the ball telepathically. 

The process, on a good day, requires three hours, not that he is in a hurry. The neighbors have complained, Jamie said, that the thwonk of the ball has awakened them as late as 1 a.m. 

Nor does bedtime necessarily close the book on his regimen. Lying on his bed, with 13 N.B.A. jerseys along with posters of Magic Johnson and LeBron James decorating the walls, with basketballs worn out within weeks scattered about, Julian soft-tosses a ball toward the ceiling, always perfecting his form, until nodding off. 

By Julian’s reckoning, he has never taken off longer than two straight days, and then only to mend a sprained ankle. Before the Newmans go on vacations, he insists that a park or recreation center with a rim be nearby. 

Newman's father, Jamie, is Downey Christian's coach.
He supplied Newman with regulation-size balls starting at 3.
His mother, Vivian, was almost asked to leave a department store because Julian could not resist fetching a ball from sporting goods and dribbling it down the aisle. His wish lists for gifts are basketball-centric. 

His scarce time on a computer is usually spent on the YouTube channel Superhandles. Operated by a former college player whose father exposed him at an early age to footage of Pete Maravich, as Julian was by his father, Superhandles features videos of dribbling drills and masterly moves. Julian commits them to memory, then goes to the closest court and mimics them. 

The Newmans portray him as self-driven, a prodigy of sorts, eager to meet their basic requirements in order to pursue his. He earns straight A’s, they say, motivated by a policy effective enough to be every parent’s dream: homework before hoops. That explains why Julian used to knock out assignments during recess so he could start knocking down shots immediately after school. 

His parents decline to impose time restrictions on basketball during weekends, holidays and summers. “People say don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Jamie said. “But it helps you.” 

Soon after Julian showed his inclination at age 3, his father placed him on an accelerated course. He supplied regulation-size balls, not the more age-appropriate miniatures. In recreation leagues, Julian played against older boys. 

For Julian, genes have proved a mixed blessing. Jamie and Vivian were point guards at rival Orlando high schools — the backdrop for their initial meeting. But Jamie is 5-6 and Vivian 5 feet, which suggests that Julian, who is a couple of inches shorter than the average 11-year-old, might be looking up at teammates and foes forever. 

His family tree — with Jewish, black and Hispanic roots — includes one relative who barely pushed past 6 feet. Jamie hopes Julian will grow to 5-10. 

For now, his being low to the ground is an asset. In Julian’s hands, the ball, a virtual yo-yo, becomes nearly impossible to steal. His lickety-split crossovers defy his age, if not belief. 

Newman, 11, is 4-foot-5 and 70 pounds.
In Newman's hands, the ball becomes nearly impossible to steal.
“You see more of him dribbling the ball than you’ll see watching an N.B.A. game,” Jamie said, allowing parental pride to get the better of him. 

Invoking two of Julian’s favorite players, Jamie added, “He can do stuff that Chris Paul and Derrick Rose can’t.” 

Jamie, who also runs basketball camps and clinics, sent Julian and his sister Jaden, 8, to Downey Christian after being hired to coach and to teach history. Enrollment is so small — 340 students, from preschool through 12th grade — that the Patriots play six-man football. 

Julian and Jaden began this season on their middle school teams. Tired of taking friendly ribbing from Jaden, who scored 63 points in a game, he hit for 69, then 91, earning a promotion to the varsity. 

Vivian’s reaction to the upgrade? “At first, I felt no, as a mother,” she said. “I was scared he would get squished.” 

Julian came off the bench, but not for long.

“If we wanted to win games, we’d have to play him right away,” Jamie said. 

The Patriots’ upperclassmen were skeptical. 

“But he definitely proved us wrong,” the junior Jonathan Ferrell said. “I look up to him now because he’s so much better than me.” 

Downey, a longtime doormat of its low-level league, now dominates with an 18-5 record. The role reversal has not sat well with some schools, Jamie said. Five have forfeited games. For some, he said, “the real reason is, they don’t want to lose.” 

The pattern of forfeits has strengthened Jamie’s resolve to shift next year into the mainstream Florida High School Athletic Association for the second of what will be Julian’s eight varsity seasons. 

Any resentment toward Julian has stayed hidden. Opponents have refrained from digging an elbow or a forearm into him or nudging him into the wall on drives to the rim. 

“It’s amazing to me that he hasn’t been hit harder,” Jamie said, hinting at a strategy he would use against his son. 

If the play becomes too physical for Julian, Ferrell said, “We’d have his back.”
The Patriots upperclassmen were skeptical at first of Newman’s
promotion to varsity. But he definitely proved us wrong,”
said Jonathan Ferrell, a junior. “I look up to him now
because he’s so much better than me.”
On a recent evening, the Patriots loosened up for nearly an hour until Jamie reached the visitors by cellphone to discover that they were not coming. (They later made up the game.) The Patriots resorted to an intrasquad scrimmage. During timeouts, Jaden, who at 4-1 has joined the girls’ varsity, dribbled and drilled short jumpers, free throws and, induced by a family acquaintance’s $1 reward, a 3-pointer. 

Jamie, sounding more like a father than a neutral observer, said, “They are the next Cheryl and Reggie Miller.” 

Miles and years separate Julian and the warehouselike Downey gym — with its scuffed tile floor, seven short rows of metal bleachers, two opened ladders on one sideline and file cabinets in a corner — from a spacious college or professional arena. 

To the longtime recruiting expert Dave Telep, now with ESPN, trying to project a fifth grader’s development is fruitless. “The best kid in my baseball Little League didn’t make the majors,” he said. 

Jamie has no plans to leave Downey Christian, saying he intends to build its program with Julian aboard. He said he had received inquiries from youngsters elsewhere about transferring to play for his team. 

“From a basketball standpoint, it may not be the best situation, but that’s O.K.,” Telep said of Julian’s growth. “If you can play, you can play. If it’s right for you academically and socially, by all means, stay there.

“Somewhere along the line, you’ll have to step out of that bubble and prove you can play." — The New York Times
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