Saint Joseph’s trailed George Washington, 35-29, with two seconds remaining in the first half in a game on December 30, 2016. Then-junior Shavar Newkirk, who had begun to lead his Hawks back from a deep deficit with 10 points of his own, stole the ball and had what seemed to be a fast break layup lined up to end the half before an energized crowd.
But instead, the half ended with silence as Newkirk lay on the floor in pain.
“What went through my head was, ‘I tweaked my knee,’ and I would be able to play,” Newkirk remembers. “But when the doctor told me I tore my ACL…I cried because I’ve never been injured before. I didn’t know how to react.”
The Hawks went on to win the game, 68-63, but lost their shining guard for the remainder of the season.
At the time of the injury, Newkirk was averaging 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, and likely on the path to an All-Conference selection – a path that began in the fall of 2014.
“Freshman year, I thought I was better than college,” Newkirk said. “What I was doing in high school I thought it would translate to college. Then when I got to college, it was a completely different game.”
Newkirk played in all 31 games for SJU during his first season on Hawk Hill, never starting but still averaging 20 minutes and 3.3 points per game.
“Freshman year was really a learning curve,” Newkirk said. “After my first year, I just knew what I had to work on and get better at so I could be able to produce at the college level.”
In the offseason between his freshman and sophomore year, Newkirk mostly focused on his strength. Now listed at 185 pounds, the New York City native has added about 15 pounds since first stepping on campus.
“When I came in I was a toothpick,” Newkirk said. “I just had to bulk up.”
The rest of Newkirk’s game seemed to be college-ready, but the added strength allowed for his style of play to thrive at this level.
“Before I wasn’t strong enough to take the hits, so I might be moving fast and the bump might push me over a little faster, but I still move at the same speed,” Newkirk said.
In his sophomore season, Newkirk played a larger role on the team, starting in each of the team’s 36 games, averaging 8.0 points per game in a magical Hawks season. SJU finished with a 28-8 record, an Atlantic 10 championship, and a First Round NCAA tournament win.
“It kind of fell into place because we had the pieces, so all I had to do was just run the team,” Newkirk said of his new role. “I’d get my offense here and there, but I didn’t really need to step outside of that. If I put my teammates in position to score easy layups, we were going to win easily because we had the pieces.”
By his junior year, Newkirk became a primary option on offense and developed more into a star and leader for the Hawks. In the early parts of the season, Newkirk and then-sophomore Lamarr Kimble *quickly became largely regarded as the best backcourt in the conference.
“They say everybody in college gets a chance to show what they can do, and it’s normally upperclassmen,” Newkirk said. “You learn for two years, then your junior and senior year is your time. It was my time and I was ready for it.”
Unfortunately, his time was cut short by 19 games due to the injury, but while Newkirk was no longer able to produce on the court, his role as a leader remained.
“Instead of me being another player, I had to become a teacher, like another coach,” Newkirk said.
After a long recovery and intense rehab, Newkirk worked his way back into the starting lineup in time for the season opener of his senior year and played his heart out, scoring 21 points in 20 minutes against Toledo.
“It was a joy [to be back on the court],” Newkirk said. “I got to do something I love doing, playing basketball. Being out for that long just felt weird. Everything I was doing was just emotional. I was just so happy.”
Newkirk knew all along that he would return to the hardwood. At the time of the injury, Newkirk’s father met him at the trainer’s table to impart comfort and wisdom.
“Once I got the tears out of the way, I just had to focus mentally and take the right steps to be able to play this year,” Newkirk said. “[My father] told me, ‘Don’t worry. Everything happens for a reason. Everybody goes through something. This will just be your story.’”