Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008 | San Diego sports fans are angry these days and for good reason.

What’s wrong with the Chargers? The short answer is injuries, but they’re also failing to play together like a Super Bowl contender. They’re not living up to a franchise legacy built on the innovative passing games of Sid Gillman and Don Coryell.

How did San Diego State sink so low? The short answer is injuries and the long answer is their junior and senior classes are represented by only four scholarship recruited athletes among the offensive and defensive linemen. That’s why Utah’s 63-14 win Saturday looked like men against boys. Don Coryell and Claude Gilbert never would have had a roster with such gaping holes to develop.

What’s Padres owner John Moores doing creating fire-sale conditions? What happened to the John Moores that saved the Padres from the 1993 fire sale when he bought the team? Moores should emerge from another one of his self-imposed exiles with an explanation. The late Buzzie Bavasi, the man responsible for bringing Major League Baseball to San Diego, is rolling over in his grave.

But you know what else we should be lamenting today?

That the obituaries for basketball giant Pete Newell don’t include mention of the championships he brought to San Diego with the NBA’s San Diego Rockets.

Newell, who made Rancho Santa Fe his home since the days he served the Rockets as their general manager from 1967 to 1971, died Monday at the age of 93.

What championships, you ask? Those would be championships the Rockets won in Houston after they left San Diego based on the foundation Newell established.

The Rockets were struggling over politics and money with city government (sound familiar, Chargers fans?) and an unfavorable lease at the Sports Arena, where the Rockets played for team owner Bob Breitbard, founder of the Hall of Champions (my day job).

The Rockets were eventually sold to a Houston group, and Newell was still lamenting the loss nearly 40 years later. I asked Newell about the Rockets’ departure last year before he entered the Breitbard Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2008 at the Hall of Champions.

“Bob was a good owner to work for,” Newell said. “I considered him a mentor. He got the arena built. But he had people around him that wanted to take the money and run.”

Then, after San Diego was given an NBA reprieve with the arrival of the Clippers in 1978-79, Don Sterling later bought the team and purposely ran the franchise into the ground so he had an excuse to move it to Los Angeles.

If you don’t know how popular the Clippers were in town that season of 1978-79 with World B. Free lighting up the Sports Arena, well, then you don’t know your San Diego basketball history.

Newell’s health had been declining for several months in large part due to having a lung removed in 2005 from his years as a smoker. It’s too bad he wasn’t better able to enjoy the basketball revivals going on at San Diego State and the University of San Diego on both the men’s and women’s sides.

Yes, I said women’s basketball. Pete Newell, unlike many men of his generation, enjoyed the women’s game, too.

After his Big Man’s Camps were such a success — with alums such as Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson and Shaquille O’Neal — he started a Tall Women’s Camp that included camps in San Diego directed by Newell and women’s basketball legend Ann Meyers-Drysdale.

Last winter when Newell went into the Breitbard Hall of Fame, legendary college coach Bob Knight made a special trip to San Diego at his own expense to introduce Newell. Knight coached with the Newell model: patient offense and tenacious defense.

Knight choked up during the introduction. He mentioned the 1984 Olympic gold medal team he coached and the 1960 Olympic gold medal team Newell coached.

“I never received a bigger compliment as a coach than when Jerry West compared the 1960 Olympic gold medal team with Jerry West to the 1984 Olympic medal team I coached with Michael Jordan,” Knight said. “He said watching the 1984 team was like watching the 1960 team.”

Knight also talked about how the game can pass by a coach and how modern-day coaches still come to Newell for advice.

“The game has never caught up to Pete Newell,” Knight said.

Newell passed away quietly doing what he loved — talking basketball. He was at the home of Dr. Earl Shultz, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and thoroughbred horse owner that played for Newell’s 1959 NCAA championship team at Cal.

They were waiting for Jerry West and a writer to arrive as part of a project for a book on West.

“Pete’s son, Roger, and I were saying this might be his last interview,” Shultz said. “We got him ready for the interview because he was excited about it. At least he was able to die with dignity.”

Pete Newell’s basketball legacy with the Rockets was a story stolen from San Diego’s history books by greedy city politics.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.