Fifth-grade phenom balances basketball fame
MAR 01, 2013 2:31p ET
ORLANDO, Fla. — He sat on a set of aluminum bleachers, mature and composed, his soft voice sharing the life of a prodigy. It was early Tuesday afternoon, about six hours before he played another varsity game against boys much older and taller than him, and Julian Newman — all of 4-foot-5, 70 pounds — spoke about a game that has granted fame.
Before him, a tile basketball court at Downey Christian stood empty. For more than two months, the fascination with the 11-year-old has spread across the country, thanks to viral videos of his advanced shooting and ball-handling skills, and media have traveled to the small, independent private high school in east Orlando to learn his story.
In a time when budding stars are never too young to enter the national consciousness, in an era when football powerhouses such as LSU and Alabama receive notoriety for offering scholarships to an eighth-grader, Newman’s attention reveals the fragile reality of living in the spotlight at an early age: How will it affect him as he grows older? Will the pressure become a positive? Will he live up to the hype?
“I don’t feel any different,” Newman said. “I’m still working hard at basketball. It doesn’t make me any different. I’m not acting any different.”
His composure is striking for someone so young, for someone in the fifth grade who routinely competes against others two feet taller than him. His favorite player is Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, because “he can shoot, pass, dribble. He has good defense too.” Someday, he wants to attend Kentucky, because coach John Calipari “gets the best point guard every year.” He has visions of playing in the NBA, for the Los Angeles Lakers, because of “Kobe and Magic Johnson, and because they have the second-most championships.”
As he sat on the bleachers, dressed in a yellow-collared shirt with cropped black hair and a small freckle on the right side of his face below his nose, Newman shared his dreams. He was asked what goes through his mind when he watches a major college basketball game, what he thinks about when he studies the best.
Soon, the stage could be his.
“One day,” he said, “I’m going to be there.”
Later Tuesday afternoon, Jamie Newman lounged behind his desk in a Downey Christian classroom with a smile. He's a proud father who’s confident his son will handle the attention. He enrolled Julian and daughter Jaden, 8, also a fine player, at the school this year after being hired to coach basketball and teach history.
“I think it’s something he’s born with, maybe a God-given talent,” said Jamie, whose team is 21-6 (eight by forfeit). “It’s something that he’s born with — to love the game.”
Julian’s love began at age 3, when he started to shoot and dribble with tireless focus. Since, family vacations have been planned around access to a basketball goal, and Julian has carried a ball most everywhere he goes: bed, the grocery store, even to restrooms.
The young player has developed a strict training regimen of 100 free throws, 200 floaters and 200 jump shots each day. Julian’s room is painted red and black, in honor of Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, and it includes about 30 jerseys hanging on the walls. The family’s dog is named, fittingly, “Hoops.”
Jamie knew promoting Julian to the varsity team would happen in time. Jamie placed his son on the middle school squad last fall, to test the boy’s talent, and Julian answered with eye-popping scoring totals of 69 and 91 points. By varsity tryouts, held before the season’s start in early December, Julian shot 3-point attempts from NBA range.
“We needed somebody who could spread the floor, because with his long-range ability with his jump shot, he spreads the floor for everybody else,” Jamie said. “He didn’t start the first game, but he has started every game since.”
Julian’s mother, Vivian, who, like her husband, is a former high school guard from Orlando, had early reservations about placing her son on the varsity team. She said she thought he would be squished by bigger bodies. But once she saw Julian could become an all-around player, she stepped back and thought, “Wow.”
Julian, who Jamie says is a straight-A student, has been able to develop his game as part of the varsity team. He is averaging 11.7 points per game — a figure that ranks fourth on the team. He leads the Patriots in 3-point field goals made, converting 31-of-81 attempts.
“He’s gifted, because ever since we put a ball in his hand, he’s been dribbling,” Vivian said. “He’s just a gifted kid. It’s in him.”
Julian’s story began spreading in December, and the speed with which it occurred shows how his tale is appealing for a high-speed visual age. During a Saturday practice, Downey Christian assistant Brian-Marc Whittaker saw the young player dribbling with unusual command. The coach thought to himself, “You know what? Let me record this,” and filmed Julian with an iPhone.
The videos, later packaged by ScoutsFocus.com, a Greenville, N.C., based national scouting service, became an Internet sensation. They reveal Julian bouncing two balls between his legs and behind his back near mid-court. They also share game footage that includes Julian scoring on a fastbreak, driving through the lane and spotting up for deep 3-point tries.
The video — titled “11-Year-Old 4’5” Prodigy Julian Newman Stars for Downey Christian Varsity Team in Florida” — has received more than 3.14 million views. Julian has been featured in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, “Conan,” “NBC Nightly News,” “ABC World News,” and “Inside Edition,” among others. He also has received notice from press in Norway, Japan, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
“At first, I thought it was too much and too soon for him to get all the media attention,” Whittaker said. “He’s only 11, and the pressure was getting to him. You could tell he wasn’t himself. But now he’s comfortable with it. He’s playing like himself. He’s playing loose. He’s happy. He’s smiling again. Before, he was so serious when it first happened. … I think it will prepare him so things won’t faze him, and he’ll just focus on his game. He won’t worry about the criticism, because when something goes national or international like this, you don’t get filtered.”
Jamie has considered effects of the attention too. At an age when most kids’ time is spent in front of a Wii or an Xbox, Julian’s gather dust at home.
Free throws, jumpers, floaters, repeat. Through it all, an 11-year-old has become a worldwide star.
Is there a worry that it will become too big?
“Of course, it’s always a thought, especially for a parent,” Jamie said. “Someone that young is getting so much attention and going everywhere. But I think it’s a good thing, in a sense, because when he lives his dream . . . this will be nothing to him.”
Watching Julian play feels like observing an unfinished piece of art. He catches passes in the triple-threat position. He whips the ball around the perimeter with his right palm, and he has a seasoned eye for the game that makes you wonder how good he can be when he finishes high school. He’s collected, a self-starter, confident — all traits that show maturity and his high potential.
There are moments that reveal his experiment remains early in development, though. On Tuesday night, in Downey Christian’s 72-60 home triumph over Victory Christian, Julian struggled at times against defensive pressure. In the second quarter, a defender stripped him, and a teammate — junior forward Shadai Pinto — rubbed Julian’s head to console him before the young player lightly pushed Pinto’s hand away. Julian finished with seven points.
“He just has to relax and stay calm,” Pinto said. “It’s just like you’re talking to someone else. Just relax and speak the truth and be humble about it. He is.”
For Julian, the game’s atmosphere was a sign of sights to come. It was held in a dimly lit gymnasium with two sets of bleachers and extra booths moved from the cafeteria for seating. In a short time, the space became standing-room-only, with his mother and other family members seated in a section in line with mid-court. Five men with cameras stood perched behind Downey Christian’s basket, following his every move. One television crew approached the team’s bench during timeouts.
Those close to Julian say he won’t let the static affect him, because he’s grounded beyond his years. They credit his family environment. This will be Julian's largest task moving forward: Let his rising fame become an inspiration, not a distraction.
Once, in mid-January, Vivian asked her son if his growing profile would be an issue. Julian had already given the topic thought.
“I just want to play ball,” Vivian recalls Julian saying then. “You take care of that.”
“It’s exciting,” Victory Christian coach Hank Morgan said. “To see anybody that young competing on such a high level — I mean, he’s in the fifth grade. He’s 11. He’s competing with high school kids. Some of my kids will be in college next year. So it’s just exciting to see. Just imagine what he’s going to be like five years from now.”
Added Dennis Green, a Victory Christian sophomore guard: “Seeing him on TV, we were like, ‘We’re going to play him.’ We were just waiting for all the hype. Everybody has been telling me, ‘Man, you better not get crossed. He’s got a good handle.’ I’m like, ‘Wow,’ I’m just going to have to see when I get out there. I’m not going to say we totally locked him down because he did get a shot on us, but it was a good game.”
After the game, Jamie and Julian met in the locker room to pose for a quick photo. Julian had changed out of his jersey, back into the yellow-collared shirt. He looked tired. Outside, the crowd dispersed.
Jamie glanced at Julian and complimented his son on his play.
“You had a good runner tonight,” Jamie said.
Soon after, it was time to leave, another day over in the life of a prodigy. The court stood empty once more. In less than 12 hours, Julian and his family were scheduled to fly to Los Angeles. Another interview awaited.