Struggling ex-UA star Coniel Norman eager to start new life in Detroitby Javier Morales on Jul. 17, 2010, under Sports
Unemployed and feeling disconnected, Coniel Norman needed some balance. His almost three decades away from normalcy, living the street life far from his hometown of Detroit, working from one low-paying job to the next, took its last toll.
“It got to a point where I was not sure I would ever come home to Detroit and see my family again,” Norman, a former University of Arizona and NBA basketball player, said Saturday. “I pretty much thought that was it.”
Depression forced him to seek help at a Los Angeles hospital in February. He never thought about giving up on his life; he needed reassurance of his place on Earth.
“It was a tough time for me,” Norman said. “With the recession, I couldn’t find a job. I needed some help, so that’s why I went (to the hospital).”
Norman, 56, was without money and insurance. The hospital asked him for names of his immediately family. It located one of his sisters, who alerted another sister — Renee Norman of Detroit — about his whereabouts. Renee’s daughter Cassie Norman, 28, reached out to media last summer for help locating her uncle, who she feared was homeless. She never had the chance to meet her uncle.
Norman said he became disconnected from Detroit and his family for more than 27 years.
“When my sister called me, I knew then that it was time to come home and they came out there right away and got me,” Norman said. “I feel truly blessed that we’re back together again.”
After declaring hardship after his sophomore season at Arizona, Norman, a lean 6-foot-3 guard, played for three seasons in the NBA (1974-76 with the Philadelphia 7ers and then briefly in 1978-79 with the San Diego Clippers). He also served in the Army for four years beginning in 1980 after his NBA career was over. Despite his affiliation with the NBA and the U.S. military, Norman struggled financially for the most part over the last two decades in Los Angeles.
Norman, the Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year and player of the year in 1972-73, never made more than $30,000 in a season in the NBA.
He was released as a rookie in training camp after he was selected in the third round of the 1974 draft by Philadelphia. He finally rejoined the 76ers three months into the season, earning close to the minimum of $15,000. After he was released by the 76ers the following season, he failed in a tryout for the Washington Bullets in 1977. He toiled in a Detroit recreational league before the Clippers gave him a chance again in 1978 (when the minimum salary in the NBA was $30,000).
“After the Clippers let me go, I decided to join the Army because I thought that would be for the best,” said Norman, whose defense and ball-handling skills were reportedly short of NBA caliber, although he let reporters know back then that he was confident in all facets of his game.
“I was stationed in Germany and I lived there for almost eight years before coming back. I spent only a couple of weeks in Detroit before going out to live in Los Angeles at the suggestion of a friend. I lived there until coming back to Detroit five months ago.”
Norman does not qualify for the NBA pension plan, but just barely. A player is vested for a pension after playing in the NBA for three seasons. Norman played in three different seasons, but not three total. He played in only parts of the 1974-75 and 1978-79 seasons, but he did play a full schedule in 1975-76.
The pension pays $306 for every month in the NBA. A player with only three years in the NBA would get $11,016 per year or $918 per month. Players start collecting the full pension at the age of 50. That money could come in handy for Norman.
“It would be nice if the NBA could take care of its own,” he said. “I know the NFL helps its alumni quite a bit.”
The NFL Player Care Foundation is an independent organization established to improve the quality of life for retired players through financial grants and research. Since its inception in 2007, the foundation has used a portion of its $17 million endowment to underwrite medical research and national health screenings. Monetary grants are also awarded to qualified NFL alumni who are experiencing financial hardships.
Despite never making his mark in the NBA, Norman said he does not regret leaving school early.
“I wouldn’t say that I made a mistake,” he said. “At that time, I thought it was the best thing for me to do.”
Norman’s military background has afforded him the opportunity to be housed at Piquette Square, the new $23 million apartment complex for homeless veterans in Detroit. Thousands of veterans share a similar background as Norman. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 20 percent of the homeless population are veterans.
A grand-opening ceremony was held at Piquette Square on Thursday. Norman shared the stage with former NBA player and current Detroit mayor Dave Bing.
“That was the first time I saw Mayor Bing since he was with the Washington Bullets (when Norman tried out for that team in 1977),” he said. “We exchanged phone numbers. He said he would look out for me and help me anyway he could.”
The general sentiment among Arizona followers who remember Norman and backcourt mate Eric Money, also a teammate at Detroit’s Kettering High School, is to help their fallen star any way they can. Some, including Arizona Sports Hall of Famer Ernie McCray, a former basketball standout, believe the university should welcome Norman back for a game to be honored in front of the McKale Center crowd.
“It is a great to hear that a member of the ‘family’ is alive and doing well,” McCray commented following a TucsonCitizen.com blog written Friday about Norman’s whereabouts. “Is there anything better than a story with a happy ending? It would be great to get him out to a game and let him feel the love of a modern-day Wildcat crowd.”
Norman broke McCray’s season scoring record with 576 points as a freshman in the 1972-73 season. McCray achieved the previous mark of 573 in 1959-60. Norman topped his own record with 618 points the following season before bolting to the NBA. Eight Wildcats have scored more since, led by Khalid Reeves’ 848 points in 1993-94.
Norman did not have the benefit of the three-point line and shot clock, which were instituted into the college game in the mid-1980s. He chuckled when asked about his scoring output if the three-point line and shot clock were in play when he was at Arizona.
“Something like 31 or 32 points a game,” he said.
Norman, nicknamed “Popcorn” since his high school days because of his ability to pop the ball into the hoop anywhere on the court, continues to hold the UA’s career scoring average record of 23.9 points a game. That record figures to stand for many years to come. The highest average since is Sean Elliott’s 19.2 mark from 1986-89.
“Having that record and being up there with some of the other records is unreal to me,” Norman said. “When you think about how great that program has become, with all the talented players they’ve had, you would think a lot of players would pass me.”
The sound of Norman’s voice became decidedly more upbeat when told of McCray’s suggestion to honor him before the McKale Center crowd.
“That would be something special,” Norman said. “I loved playing in Tucson. I loved the people there and the school. It was a great experience.
“I had the opportunity to meet Mr. McCray one time when I was out there in Arizona. He’s a great man. It means a lot to me that he would say that.”
Norman said that since his sister and niece helped him move back to Detroit five months ago he is determined to start a new life.
He will take a significant step in that direction Monday, when he starts a 12-week training regimen with Southwest Solution’s Green Works program. The training recruits get the chance to learn job skills and a paycheck while preparing for future jobs in the work force.
“I’m excited about getting things started Monday morning,” Norman said. “This will help me get back on track.”
Norman became so derailed in Los Angeles that he became oblivious about losing touch with family and friends, some of whom were only a few miles away. Money, for example, lived close by in Harbor City, Calif., where he is a high school administrator.
Norman and Money, who comprise one of the UA’s best backcourts in school history, have not communicated in detail since they embarked on their NBA careers 36 years ago. Money found success at Detroit, where he averaged 74 games a season over his first four years. He played a total of six years in the NBA.
They were different since their Kettering days. Their UA teammate, Bob Elliott said Friday that, “Corn always did not have much to say. He was a soft-spoken guy.” Elliott told me last year that Money was a flamboyant player but the way he played backed up how he talked and presented himself.
Norman was depicted as not being envious of Money in a 1977 article published by the Tucson Daily Citizen.
“I think the difference is that Eric went into a good situation (with Detroit) and I went into a bad one (with Philadelphia), that’s all,” Norman said in 1977 while trying to find a spot on an NBA roster.
“I only learned about where Eric was recently,” Norman told me of his former high school friend. “I have not been in contact with him.”
Norman hopes that situation will also change for the better. Elliott said he will try to reach out to Norman now that his whereabouts are known.
“Knowing where I was five months ago to where I’m now … I have come a long way,” Norman said. “I know things can only get better and I will work hard to make sure that happens.
“The biggest thing is being back with my family. I am truly blessed for that to happen. I’ve been given another chance in life, and I’m ready to make the most out of it.”