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Milt Newton’s sights are still set on NBA general management

The former Timberwolves GM may be down — but he’s certainly not out

Flip Saunders told Milt Newton several times that there were many people of color as qualified as their white male counterparts for positions as NBA general managers. Saunders would often point out Newton as an example of a qualified black man given an opportunity as the Minnesota Timberwolves general manager.

“He was always for putting the best person, the most qualified person in the position,” Newton told The Undefeated. “In Washington, he saw that I was qualified. When he left Washington, he said, ‘Milt, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, but if I ever get back with a team and we can work together again and see if that’s something you want to do.’ He kept his word and he did it.”

Saunders hired Newton as a general manager in 2013. But after Saunders died nearly a year ago, the Timberwolves’ front office and coaching staff was eventually overhauled, which led to Newton’s departure.

In a league that is 75 percent black, there are now only two African-American general managers, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Dell Demps and the New York Knicks’ Steve Mills, while the Toronto Raptors’ general manager is Nigerian Masai Ujiri. Doc Rivers is also head coach and president of the Los Angeles Clippers. Newton now joins an esteemed short list of black former NBA general managers who haven’t returned to the position, including 2003 NBA Executive of the Year Joe Dumars, Rod Higgins, Billy King and Billy Knight. Newton and King were fired last season from the Wolves and Brooklyn Nets, respectively.

“I would be naïve to think that it’s not a problem,” said Newton, on the lack of black general managers in the league. “At the end of the day, I don’t want to concern myself with that. I know it’s difficult for us African-Americans to have opportunities to interview for these jobs, to have opportunities to be part of these management teams.”

Newton, who was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and moved to the United States at age 13, believes having a “comfort level” between team owners and prospective front office executives is a key to being hired regardless of race. He said it was his relationship with Saunders that led to his hiring in Minnesota.

“A former GM who was successful and who once told me some years ago when I asked him, ‘Why is it difficult for minorities to get interviews for the top jobs?’ He told me that we have to be in a position where we can talk to owners,” he said. “They can sit down with us. Maybe have a beer with us. Get to know us to see that we’re capable and see that I can have a beer with this guy and relate to this guy.

“Those opportunities are few and far in-between. It’s very rare for a final decision-maker to feel comfortable that a person not like them is capable of running their team.”

Newton joined the Wolves on Sept. 6, 2013, after Saunders returned to the franchise as coach and president. Newton’s challenge as general manager was to try to revive one of the worst NBA rosters. He paid his dues after spending the previous 10 years with the Washington Wizards, primarily as vice president of player personnel. That is where the former Kansas guard connected with Saunders.

Newton thanked everyone from his family, friends and pastor at his introductory press conference for encouraging him “to not give up” on landing his dream job.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life, because that was a goal of mine when I graduated from grad school,” Newton said. “In the press conference I said it took me 24 years to get to that position. I was excited about it and to be working with Flip.”

Newton and Saunders wanted to build a “team first” atmosphere that the Wolves players would buy into. The slogan was, “We Over Me.” Newton’s biggest challenge was figuring out what to do with disgruntled star forward Kevin Love.

Despite trying to find a common ground between Love and Saunders, Newton said, he was convinced the power forward wanted out. He planned on accommodating a Love trade to the benefit of the Wolves. And on Aug. 23, 2014, Minnesota dealt Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-way trade that brought in return talented rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins averaged 20.7 points in his second season with Minnesota last season and was the 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 30: General Manager Milt Newton speaks while Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is presented with the 2014- 2015 Kia NBA Rookie of the Year Award on April 30, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 30: General Manager Milt Newton speaks while Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is presented with the 2014- 2015 Kia NBA Rookie of the Year Award on April 30, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Newton also drafted the 2016 NBA Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, along with two-time NBA dunk champion Zach Lavine, forward Shabazz Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng, all key players for Minnesota. He helped facilitate Saunders’ dream and vision of adding much-needed veterans by acquiring Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince. The young Timberwolves won 29 last season, 13 more than the season before.

Newton felt like he did a “great job” under the circumstances and is proud of the “very competitive” Wolves roster he played a strong role in building.

“The young guys were buying into being the type of players that saw what the true meaning of the word ‘team’ is about,” Newton said. “They were young guys who had to go through their lumps and learn as they go on in this league. I felt really happy about what we were able to establish and put in place to be successful in the near future.”

As a fellow member of the small club of former black general managers, Dumars said he was very impressed with Newton’s work in Minnesota.

“A young guy like Milt should have teams calling him if not to be a GM, to be a part of their organization,” Dumars told The Undefeated. “He did a great job in Minnesota. He built a young team. He’s a great dude. He works well. He’s one of the best young talents in the league. What more can you ask for?”

With the Detroit Pistons, Dumars was the first African-American general manager to lead a team to an NBA championship. The Hall of Famer also guided the franchise to six-straight Eastern Conference Finals and two Finals appearances.

“Milt has done an excellent job with helping to build the young talent base in Minnesota. He’s a stand-up, very professional guy. He’s proven that he can help build a team.”

Newton steered the Timberwolves last season after the tragic death of Saunders just as the season began.

It was announced that Saunders would miss the 2015-16 season a month after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Aug. 11, 2015. On Oct. 25, Saunders died at the age of 60. Newton assumed primary responsibility of running the franchise after Saunders died.

“I took it very hard,” Newton said. “He was a true friend. We used to go to lunch every day. We would talk on the phone at 12:30 at night, chatting about the game or something else like family. We did everything together.

“I knew when he was sick. I knew when he was in the hospital. I was one of the people that the family let in the inner circle to really let know what was going on. To go through that whole thing when he was gravely ill with the family was really, really tough. You actually miss a friend.”

After Saunders died, the Timberwolves replaced interim head coach Sam Mitchell by hiring a new coach and president in Tom Thibodeau on April 20. The Timberwolves also hired Scott Layden as their new general manager. A month later, Newton was relieved of his duties with the Timberwolves, along with several other staff members.

Newton said in a statement that he was “proud of the core that Flip and I built” and wished the players, Thibodeau and Layden the best. Newton said it’s “a little disheartening” to lose the job that he’s confident he would still have if Saunders were alive.

“He brought me in, he said, ‘We’re a team. We’re going to do this together,’ ” Newton said. “He gave me a lot of responsibility. When he started coaching, he said, ‘It’s on you now as far as the day-to-day duties. I can’t really think about that while I’m coaching.’ We were a team and he said, ‘Milt, you will leave here when you leave to run your own team by yourself. But as long as I’m here, we make a pretty good team.’ ”

After departing from the Wolves, Newton spent six weeks going back to his basketball “roots” in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He accepted a job from renowned athletic trainer Frank Matrisciano working out NBA players in preparation for the season. He said he enjoyed going back to the basics, teaching the game of basketball to NBA hopefuls.

“I was working out guys before they go to NBA training camps. I am trying to stay busy. I am trying to stay relevant to the game itself,” Newton said. “I am spending time with my family … I’m doing the skill training for the clients that [Matrisciano] had. I thought that it was a good opportunity to kind of get back to the roots of how I got back into the game. But also, helping some guys improve themselves as basketball players.”

Newton now has more time to concentrate on his charitable foundation and a prayer group he started. He and his wife, Shalaun, spearhead the Emerald Gems Foundation, which gives back to youth in his hometown in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Children in the program participated in a free basketball camp in August and took a trip to Minneapolis last year.

“I am doing a lot personally for myself and my family. With my foundation, I’m giving back to my community in the Virgin Islands and I did that early in the summer,” said Newton, who has a young daughter and son.

He also started a Bible study conference call last spring with a group of NBA executives and agents to discuss the Scriptures and their meaning.

“There is a lot we see and experience on a daily basis that counter to our beliefs as Christian men and to have Christian brothers who can be transparent with and hold you accountable in this daily struggle to live godly lives,” he said. “Learning to deal with the life’s daily trials and finding some strength through Christ is something we all strive and pray for daily. Treating others with love and compassion is something that I strive for daily, but would be impossible for me without the strength and grace of God …”

Since his dismissal from the Timberwolves, Newton hasn’t been approached by an NBA team for any executive positions. He said he is not opposed to being an assistant general manager and is open-minded in search for a comfort level and good fit with his next job.

While he knows the statistics for black NBA general managers aren’t favorable, he is remaining optimistic that his dream job will one day become a reality again.

“Joe Dumars won when he was in management,” Newton said. “Billy Knight won when he was in management. You want to believe that when you do a good job and you’re successful that it’s all that really matters. But it may not necessarily be like that 100 percent. I don’t know what they’re doing to try to get back in.

“It might sound funny when people hear this, but I believe my fate rests in God. And if it’s to be, then I’m going to be back in management. I am going to get back in management. Maybe my fate is to move into another avenue in sports to have an impact on people I’m supposed to have an impact on. Until that happens, I’m going to continue to work on people that I can continue to have an impact on, to keep my faith in the person who has the world in [his] hands.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated there was only one African-American GM in the NBA. It has been corrected.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.