“One day we’ll come face to face, and I hope I’m in grandpa mode. What Steve said about me is untrue ... it’s garbage.”
— Ken Norman, age 49.
Stephen Bardo, who moved from ESPN to cover games for BTN this year, has penned his “inside story” of the 1989 Flyin’ Illini.
For those interested in Lou Henson’s nationally acclaimed Final Four team, it revives memories of an extraordinary tournament run in an era, unlike today, when sophomores didn’t turn pro and most quality teams were packed with juniors and seniors.
When Bardo enrolled from Carbondale as a freshman, Norman was a senior, a returning All-Big Ten forward who would make second-team All-American in 1987. Norman led the Big Ten in rebounding that year, and his career shooting percentage (60.9) is second only to James Augustine (61.7).
In Bardo’s opening “Recruiting Class” chapter, we are presented with the perceptions of a freshman as he broke in with seniors Norman, Tony Wysinger and Doug Altenberger. If he had confrontations with Norman, that’s understandable and, considering their standup personalities, unsurprising. If he came to dislike Norman, that’s fine.
The problem arises 27 years later with the publishing of a rumor that wasn’t checked out and is false.
“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.”
Bardo’s justification, expressed Thursday, is that “this was a rumor at the time and I am simply reporting the rumor. It was out there.”
It didn’t happen in high school, and Norman wasn’t the perpetrator. The incident to which Bardo refers occurred when Norman was a freshman member of Mark Coomes’ team at Wabash Valley in downstate Mount Carmel. Coomes confirmed that, in a nighttime racial confrontation, one of his squad members struck a man in the head, requiring hospitalization. Ironically, the injured man’s last name was Norman. The matter was investigated by police and later dropped.
Coomes has remained close to Norman over the years, saying: “Ken is smart and private. I coached him at Wabash and we had our differences, but we came out with mutual respect. I would trust him 100 percent on anything.”
“Another Snake story: He briefly changed his name to Ken Colliers in order to avoid legal prosecution.”
Norman used Colliers as his last name throughout his young life and during high school. When Illini recruiter Tony Yates met with Ken’s mother to sign the National Letter of Intent, she brought out his birth certificate which, to her surprise, had his father’s name, Norman. So Ken signed as Norman and has been Norman ever since.
Said Norman: “Yates was in the living room when mother brought out the blue bag with my certificate. She had always registered me as Colliers. That’s when it changed. It is ridiculous to think a person, particularly one recruited by so many universities, could avoid prosecution simply by changing his name.”
Norman seemed distressed when he spoke from Los Angeles:
“I don’t know why Steve would say something like that. I don’t understand why he didn’t call and ask me about my name change.
“I couldn’t sleep the first night after I saw this. I had people texting me from Chicago. It makes me look unlike the person I try to be. I’m a father and a grandfather. I never drank or used drugs, and I probably haven’t been to five parties in my life. As a man, as a father, as a business partner, I don’t know why this has come up all these years later.”
Bardo described Norman as “surly” and frequently combative on the court. There’s no question that Snake, a nickname he earned because of his snakelike rebounding skills, was a hard-muscled, intimidating force. Even after 10 years in the NBA, he took up body building and traveled with a 12-inch softball team. He has maintained his wealth and travels between Chicago and Los Angeles.
One of the memorable aspects of practice in 1986-87 was the arrival of Kenny Battle, a transfer from Northern Illinois. Battle had to sit out that season, and he and Norman had fierce, give-and-take battles on the court. Norman was more aggressively challenged in practice than in many games. These are two of the greatest forwards in Illini history.
A confrontation between Norman and Bardo during a practice-ending shooting drill at Michigan sticks most deeply in Bardo’s craw. They had to be separated (no blows were struck) and Henson tossed Norman out of practice.
Bardo said he felt obliged to stand up to Norman as they barked at each other during a drill, Bardo indicating Norman was upset because he lost and had to run a sprint. Said Norman:
“I competed hard all the time but, if I lost, no problem. I didn’t mind running sprints. I often ran extra on my own. I remember the confrontation and we had words, nothing else. When Coach Henson ordered me to leave, I bumped into the Michigan women’s team waiting outside and talked to them. I remember it distinctly. When we returned to the locker room, nothing happened. I’m curious why Steve said I confronted him again there. I am 100 percent sure that didn’t happen.”
So here we are, 27 years later, with everyone having different recollections. Henson said Friday he doesn’t even remember asking Norman to leave the court. I do, and I recall asking Henson about it, and him tossing it off as though nothing had happened. It had been resolved in the locker room and Henson’s mind returned to more pressing matters: Michigan.
Another part of Bardo’s recollection is that the 1987 team “was fractured.”
This was a 23-8 team that went 13-5 in the Big Ten, losing three of those conference games in overtime. They served Indiana’s national champs their last defeat (69-67) and beat Michigan and Michigan State on the road before the devastating 68-67 loss to Austin Peay in the tournament.
“I’m disappointed that Steve said we were fractured. It’s news to me,” said Altenberger, who returned that season from knee surgery and took advantage of the new three-point shot (47.5 percent). Unknown to many, Altenberger tore his right rotator cuff at Michigan and was below par against Austin Peay.
As we look back, some of Henson’s best teams were hampered by injury problems right at tournament time ... Efrem Winters vs. Kentucky in 1984, George Montgomery in 1985, Alternberger in 1987, Battle and Lowell Hamilton in 1989.
“We weren’t predicted to do much in 1987, and I thought we overachieved,” said Altenberger. “Norman was intense, a man among boys. He was one of our hardest workers. When we ran a two-man game, I was in his corner. If the defense sank, I shot the three.
“Steve’s recollection is different from mine. Maybe he didn’t feel like he was totally accepted. There is a kind of initiation process for freshmen that we all go through, and Kenny was a tough guy to deal with. Neither Kenny nor Steve has the personality to back down. All those freshmen were still learning at that point.”
Wysinger had no recollection of the Norman-Bardo incident at Michigan, saying:
“What does he mean, fractured? No, not at all. I remember Snake and Reggie Woodward squaring off in the Varsity Room one time, but nothing happened.
“The freshmen were talented but they didn’t know how Coach Henson wanted them to play. In practice, with Battle on their side, their talent would take over for awhile, but there were other days when the veterans would cut them up.
“Snake was smart and he was edgy. He knew his role. I thought we had a cohesive team and we were playing well at the end of the season.”
But Austin Peay was a stunner. Norman scored 17 and Wysinger 16 in the 68-67 loss, but others were below par. Kendall Gill was scoreless as part of his rookie slump, and junior Glynn Blackwell, who racked 18 in the previous game at Michigan State, had 2. Bardo scored 6.
Norman still regrets missing the final shot from 15 feet after Henson called a quick timeout after a half-court pass.
“If No. 33 had just made that shot,” Norman said. “There were no tenths on the shot clock and I wasn’t sure how much time was remaining. I felt like I rushed it.”
Forgotten is how good Austin Peay was playing at the time, Providence needing an overtime to survive the Governors and proceed to the Final Four.
Of additional interest to readers of Bardo’s book are his revelations, interspersed throughout, that he never got along with Henson.
— “Lou and I didn’t like each other at all. It was a battle of wills. Lou’s way was old school.”
— “I took me a few years to work out all the negative thoughts I collected about Coach Henson.”
— “Luckily during the banquet (in Hawaii), Lou wasn’t asked to speak, seeing how he had bombed the year before.”
— “After scoring 20 in the home win over Georgia Tech, I couldn’t believe he wasn’t screaming at me to pass the ball like normal.”
— “If I could go back now, I wouldn’t listen to Coach as much and would shoot more because I knew I had the ability.”
— “Marcus (Liberty) chose the wrong school for his skill set. Coach Henson had these antiquated ideas of how guys were supposed to play due to their height. Lou couldn’t conceive a guy this tall (6-8) should play mostly on the perimeter.”
— In a reference to Gill, “Lou was not the kind of coach to instill confidence in his players.”
— “He (P.J. Bowman) was my roommate and kept me from plotting to kill Coach Henson numerous times.”
Bardo also related an incident after the UI’s extraordinary comeback win over Syracuse in Minneapolis in which the junior fouled out and drew Henson’s ire as he returned to the bench. He said assistant coaches had to step between them.
Henson said he does not recall the confrontation, nor does he remember a subsequent meeting during which Bardo said he would be asked to transfer if it happened again.
It makes sense to me that one person recalls, decades later, what is for him an important event and someone similarly involved as no recollection. I could tell several stories along those lines.
My other response is that successful coaches at the time — Bob Knight, Jud Heathcote, Gene Keady, Norm Stewart — were similar to Henson in their strict handling of their players. Their last concern was hurt feelings.
These battles of wills are inevitable. Coaches bring in high school stars and demand that they perform numerous functions that they would not necessarily prefer ... get up early, lift weights, play defense, be on time, attend classes, play defense, study film, work on fundamentals, play defense and accept a position that best fulfills the needs of the team. In addition, play defense.
In today’s world, these NBA hopefuls transfer colleges by the hundreds, in some cases play for themselves more than the team, and turn pro as soon as possible.
If a player dislikes his disciplinarian, it is undoubltedly more common than we can imagine.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org