College is supposedly the time in people’s journeys when they experience the most change.
For Miami senior point guard Ja’Quan Newton, that’s certainly been true. Yet before he ever got to Coral Gables, the Neumann-Goretti High product was forced to grow up in a hurry.
His mother, Lisa Brown, lost her three-year battle with breast cancer on the day before a state-championship game, in which Newton would score 33 points in an overtime win.
“He’s had a lot to deal with,” Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga says. “That impacts a young man, to go through that kind of pain and sorrow. And then he was going away from home, basically starting over.
“He made some mistakes, learning to fit in and be part of something bigger than him. And he’s had to suffer through the consequences. I hope that he’s become better because of it. You have to make good choices.
“I remember his mom spoke to my wife just before she died. And she said, ‘Please take care of my son.’ This is someone you really want to see succeed.”
The Hurricanes are ranked 13th, the highest they’ve ever started the season. They have a lot back from a 21-12 team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And a recruiting class that includes prized Reading High shooting guard Lonnie Walker.
Newton is their top returning scorer. He averaged 13.5 points, 3.4 assists, and 3.5 rebounds. But now, he’s being counted on to provide even more. And not just with numbers. It’s a responsibility he’s planning to embrace.
“I have to do anything I can to help the rest of the team,” says Newton, who almost ended up at Villanova, which beat Miami in the Sweet 16 in 2016 en route to the national title, when he was one of the nation’s top sixth men. “I have to lead these guys, teach the younger ones what I didn’t know when I was a freshman. Whatever it takes. That’s my role. I have to be the voice. They’re going to be looking to me.”
Newton, whose father, Joe, was the Division II national player of the year at Central Oklahoma in 1998, has been suspended twice in the last two years for violating unspecified team rules. He sat out three games each time, all late in the season. He knows that can’t happen anymore.
“I definitely want to make this season one to remember, since it’s my last go-round,” he said. “This is how people are going to remember me. I want to go down as one of the best. People say to me all the positive things. I don’t know what they say behind closed doors, or when I’m not around. Either way, I just keep working hard … .
“I wanted to get out of Philadelphia. I just wanted something different. I got to meet new people, do other things. This has been another chapter for me. That’s what college is about. My dad said he wasn’t always the best student. I think about his story a lot. He’s told me he couldn’t be any prouder of me. That means everything.”
And he knows his mom will be watching over him forever.
“There were times when I just went to my room and started crying about it,” Newton recalled. “What else can you do? Some days, she couldn’t make it to watch me play, but she was still there on the court with me. I think about that.
“She said, ‘You know what to do.’ Those words kept me going. Before every game, I say a prayer: ‘Mom, I need you.’ It works … .
“I think we’re going to have a special season. We look good on paper. We still have to go out there and do it. Rankings are just a number next to your name.”
Sounds as though that learning curve is taking him to a good place.