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KU champs aim to ‘take over’ NBA

Members of 1988 basketball team rising as executives in league

February 13, 2008

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Coming Saturday

"A title turns 20," a special section looking back at Kansas University's march to the 1988 basketball national title.

Kevin Pritchard is convinced one of his teammates will join him atop an NBA franchise's front office.

That would make three players or staffers from Kansas University's 1988 NCAA championship team to ascend to the top rung of an NBA team's executive ladder.

"Milt (Newton) will be an NBA GM, no doubt about it," said Pritchard, general manager for the Portland Trail Blazers. "He will be a great GM."

And then, he said with a laugh, "we'll be taking over 10 percent of the league."

Newton, vice president of player personnel for the Washington Wizards, is working to join Pritchard and one of their former assistant coaches - R.C. Buford, longtime general manager for the San Antonio Spurs - in an executive suite for one of the league's 30 teams.

Newton, 42, essentially works as an assistant general manager in Washington, overseeing scouting operations and helping with salary-cap issues and trade proposals.

"Actually, I came pretty close - but close only counts in horseshoes - for the Cleveland general manager job, back about three years ago," Newton said. "And so, obviously, it wasn't the right fit. But everyone who's ambitious aspires to be a general manager, and it's no different with me."

The Wizards, Newton notes proudly, are under the NBA's current salary cap of $55.6 million, and well under the limit of $67.8 million that would trigger luxury-tax payments. He's happy learning from Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, whose experience spans 28 years as an NBA player - including several seasons with the old Kansas City Kings - broadcaster, coach and executive.

Newton, after a brief professional playing career, started working in an NBA office with the Denver Nuggets, then went to USA Basketball, where he was assistant director of the men's program. He helped establish the NBA's developmental league after working as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, under his onetime KU coach, Larry Brown.

Turns out Brown coached both Newton and Pritchard, and had Buford on his last KU staff before leaving the college ranks for a return to coaching and personnel jobs in the pros.

Newton counts himself among his college teammates in building successful careers, in part, by leaning on lessons learned, leadership skills enhanced and connections made while playing at a KU.

Twenty years ago, he said, the Jayhawks shared a feeling they would be successful after winning an NCAA title, but they just didn't know it yet.

"It was in the cards," Newton said. "You just didn't turn the card yet. But if the building block is there, then that is something that you're going to lean back on and pull up when the situations present themselves, in whatever business you're in."

Manning or Oden: Who's no. 1 now?

As general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, Kevin Pritchard had the enviable responsibility of having to choose between two can't-miss collegians - Greg Oden (Ohio State center) and Kevin Durant (Texas forward) - for the first pick in the NBA Draft.

He took Oden, the latest building block for a team on the rise.

But what if Pritchard had to choose between taking Oden or Pritchard's Kansas University teammate Danny Manning, who went No. 1 in 1988 to the Los Angeles Clippers?

"You know, Danny was the best teammate I ever had, and so it's really comparing apples to oranges," Pritchard said. "Greg is the best pick in that (2007) draft, and I think it's really comparing apples to oranges. But everybody likes to speculate on what would happen."

"It's too hard for me, because it's talking about two generations, two different generations, two different players that hopefully transcended the game."

Translation: Pritchard, like any good general manager, doesn't deal in hypotheticals.

- Mark Fagan

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