To coincide with Friday’s release of “The Flyin’ Illini: The Untold Story of One of College Basketball’s Elite Teams,” author Stephen Bardo will attend a book signing from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Illini Union Bookstore as well as an “After Party” at Killarney’s Meeting Room at Urbana’s Holiday Inn from 8:30 to 11 p.m. Friday.
The book also is available at www.stephenbardo.com.
Flyin’ high again
Stephen Bardo’s book on the ’89 Illini comes out Friday. For the next three days, we’ll run excerpts from his look back at Lou Henson’s Final Four crew. Today: New meets old.
The recruiting class for the University of Illinois in 1986 might have been the biggest ever! There were 7 of us. Nick Anderson, Jeff Finke, Kendall Gill, Phil Kunz, Ervin Small, Larry Smith, and I all descended upon campus at the same time. Unfortunately, all of us weren’t able to play. Ervin and Nick couldn’t compete due to Proposition 48, new legislation designed to raise academic achievement among NCAA student-athletes.
Kenny Battle transferred in from Northern Illinois where he enjoyed an outstanding two-year stint. He would have to sit out due to transfer rules, but was able to practice.
As a whole, our team was fractured, making it a challenging year from the start. The upperclassmen, Doug Altenberger, Ken (Snake) Norman, and Tony Wysinger weren’t on the same page. Doug and Tony — both talented players and strong leaders — had simply had enough of playing with Snake. And Snake was ready to go to the NBA — and wasn’t too invested in what was going on with the team, good or bad. With all of these freshmen and Glynn Blackwell as the only junior, we desperately needed sound leadership.
Challenging team dynamics aside, I loved Doug, Ken, and Tony. They saw how hungry and talented we were as freshmen and they tried to lead us in the right way, mostly by example. Doug was a tough, hard-nosed guard that could shoot with range and loved to lock people up on the defensive end. Whether he was facing an opponent’s best player or standing up to Snake during one of the many altercations during practice, Doug loved a challenge. He didn’t say a whole lot, but if something went down, you knew he had your back.
Tony was a two-guard in a point guard’s body, Tony was a quick, long-range shooter. He was similar to Doug in his long range shooting ability. He could get his shot off the bounce, which made him difficult to defend. His nickname was “Puff The Magic Dragon”. It was an obvious reference to his fire-breathing breath. I often wondered how he kept a girlfriend throughout his days at Illinois.
Ken “Snake” Norman was a piece of work! A future NBA first round draft pick, Ken was — to put it mildly — a complicated individual.
He grew up on the west side of Chicago and rumor has it he almost killed a guy in a fight back in high school. Another Snake story: he briefly changed his name to Ken Colliers in order to avoid legal prosecution. In addition to the rumored Snake, there was the physical Snake: he was built like a brick. The guy had muscles everywhere and used them to intimidate anyone that crossed him.
I had the “pleasure” (I’m saying this oozing with sarcasm) of staying with Snake’s brother Rick during the summer before my freshman year. Rick was not a good guy, and really didn’t go out of his way to make me feel the least bit comfortable. But somehow, we managed to live together in Snake’s apartment that summer without killing each other. Snake would drop in occasionally to check on things, so I only had sporadic contact with him and in my mind, he seemed cool.
Once we got into pre-season conditioning, however, Snake changed. He became surly and combative with anyone who disagreed with him. On the court, he would do what was asked. He was especially adept at helping me get over picks set by opposing big men that were allowed to elbow the crap out of you. He would hold up Dennis Hopson (Big Ten’s leading scorer) for a second or so, allowing me to recover and fight through the pick and deny Dennis a direct pass to score. It was obvious Snake knew what to do in every situation, he just didn’t give a damn half the time or was bothered by something else deep inside that he refused to let others know about.
No one worked harder in the weight room than Ken and he still has the body to this day to show for it. He was very competitive in everything we did, but at times, his temper would get the best of him. One of those times was with me at a practice in Michigan the day before we were scheduled to play the Wolverines.
During one of our shooting drills, Snake, for whatever reason, was his usual surly self. During these drills, we kept score because the losers sometimes had to run a sprint or two. Upset that I beat him, Snake tried to punk me and demand he won. I wasn’t having it and stood up to him. I’d dealt with his bully-like behavior for almost three months and I was tired of it. Practice stopped as we squared off. I was scared, but willing to take a beating just for the chance to hit him repeatedly and let him know I wasn’t backing down. Like most team altercations, outsiders stepped in and broke it up.
But Snake didn’t stop there. Back in the locker room, Snake was still pissed off and he challenged me again. So we squared off once more and I was ready to do battle. No blows were ever exchanged that night, but this confrontation between Snake and me happened two more times. Our relationship changed forever after that night: he knew I wasn’t going to back down anymore. And to this day, we are still cool.