There may not be a more sizzling cauldron in high school basketball than standing on the foul line at the University of Pennsylvania's fabled Palestra in the waning seconds of a championship game. There's where Ja'Quan Newton
stood back in late February, a fourth-straight Philadelphia Catholic League title in his hands and the memory of the old guys in his head.
The 6-foot-3, 175-pound sophomore point guard nailed both free throws with 1.3 seconds hanging on the clock to give
another title with a 59-57 overtime victory over St. Joseph's Prep. Newton finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and a month later followed that up by leading Neumann-Goretti to its third-straight PIAA Class AAA state championship.
Simply put, nothing fazes Newton. Not pressure moments. Not crazed-out-of-their-mind fans screaming for him to miss. It explains why Newton is one of the top sophomores in the country, and why his poise on the court belies his age.
But Newton's mental fortitude was actually carved quite some time ago, back when his father, Joe, a former Division II National Player of the Year, would take his son to the country's most demanding basketball staging areas — the playgrounds of Southwest Philly. There in those pick-up games, Ja'Quan would get knocked around and battered by grown men who didn't care whether he was a slight little kid or not.
Step on those courts in "Southwest" and you better man-up.
"I got no breaks," laughed Newton, who's already received offers from Villanova, Penn State, Nebraska, Miami, Virginia, La Salle, St. Joseph's, Temple, Syracuse, Georgetown and Wake Forest, where former Neumann-Goretti star Tony Chennault plays. "I got banged around, knocked down, but I think what the older guys respected is that I kept getting up and going back at them. I never backed down. I'd stick with it. I don't know if I'd still be the same player I am today, but I'll say this, I don't think I'd have the heart as I do now."
Now, Newton destroys the old heads. He still gets shoved a little here and there, but they've labeled him "The Young Phenom," and "Young Durant," after Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant.
Newton is stirring a groundswell of supporters in Philadelphia that is rapidly growing beyond the area and he has an avid fan in Saints' coach Carl Arrigale.
"I remember Ja'Quan working out with Chennault and [current La Salle star and former Saint] Tyreek Duren when he was a freshman," Arrigale recalled. "That could be intimidating going up against those guys every day, but Ja'Quan kept coming back and staying with them. And this was when he was a freshman.
"He handled himself from Day One. What impresses me the most about Ja'Quan is his confidence. He has a lot of belief in his ability, and you see that on the court. He made two free throws to win the Catholic League championship. He led us last year as a freshman in the state title game, and then followed that back up with another great state championship game. It's his confidence in himself that makes him a great player."
It wasn't always like that. Just before he was about to enter high school, Newton was smacked with a heavy dose of reality. He played summer AAU for the first time and thought he would be the best player on any court he walked on. He found out quickly otherwise.
"I learned fast I wasn't as good as the other players there," Newton said. "It wasn't embarrassing, I just wasn't able to go past people, and was losing the ball, stuff like that. Doing things I normally didn't do. That taught me that I have to keep working on my game and I had to stay in the gym. I found out I wasn't as good as I thought I was. I'll be honest, it was a little tough to accept that. I had to work.
"But if I didn't go through that, I wouldn't be where I am. I'm my harshest critic. No one is going to demand more from me than I will from myself. I do push myself quite a bit. I'm never satisfied, I want more. Even if I score 100, I'm never satisfied, I want to score 130. I am pleased with what we did this past year at Neumann-Goretti, winning another league title and another state championship. I like winning. I think it comes from playing where I'm from, I grew up playing against older men in Southwest."
Newton plans on a big summer with the Tyreke Evans' supported Team Final AAU team, which also features another fantastic sophomore, Roman Catholic's Shep Garner.
"I got invited to a couple of big-time camps and I want to go there and play my game. I want to get better, and I want to actually win a national AAU championship," Newton said. "I think this past season, I learned I have to work on some things, which I'll do during AAU and in the gym. Coach Arrigale hollers at me about my defense, that motivates me. I think it's part of my game that's going to come. I definitely want to be a shut-down defender."
There's definitely no pushing around Ja'Quan Newton anymore.