History is filled with “what ifs,” events that if they had gone this way or that might have changed the world. And so are our personal lives where some seemingly small occurrence might have totally changed our futures. There are a number of intriguing “what ifs” in a wonderful book, “In the Shadow of a Legend,” by longtime Southern California sportswriter Steve Bisheff.
Shadow documents the UCLA men’s basketball dynasty from 1964-1975 coached by the legendary John Wooden. In page-turning fashion it highlights the indispensable contribution of the Bruins’ Assistant Coach, Jerry Norman, whose story until now has been untold.
One “what if” was in 1948. Wooden had been hotly pursued for the head coaching position at the University of Minnesota but a major storm prevented him from receiving a scheduled phone call. Thinking they’d lost interest, Wooden accepted the Bruins’ offer. There are 10 NCAA Championship banners hanging proudly in Pauley Pavilion that might not be there if it weren’t for that storm.
And what if, in 1958, Wooden hadn’t boldly hired Jerry Norman as his Assistant Coach? Movie-star handsome and free spirited, Norman lettered on Wooden’s teams from 1950-52 and was co-captain on the ’52 squad. But in the early days, however, he was so rebellious that Wooden once suspended him for two weeks.
Wooden, having grown up on an Indiana farm with no running water or electricity and having lost his life savings in a Depression era bank failure, was hardly free spirited or rebellious. And, as he admitted years later, he knew Norman was not going to be a “yes man.” Wooden gave his players unshakable confidence stemming from his Pyramid of Success and enhanced by tremendous conditioning. And Norman’s energy and innovative ideas made the two a perfect pairing.
In recruiting, for example, the ever-humble Wooden was hardly enthusiastic. In 27 years at UCLA he rarely visited homes of recruits. When Norman recruited he was charming, organized and relentless. But with the entire UCLA men’s basketball recruiting budget at $500 a year, Norman was often forced to catch rides with friends to meet recruits. Whereas Wooden’s recruiting extended as far as a tank of gas, Norman’s took him to Philadelphia. A ball-handling and passing magician, Philly’s Walt Hazzard changed UCLA basketball forever. In his first 14 seasons, Wooden’s record far exceeded his predecessors but the Bruins had minimal success in the NCAA tournament. That was to change in historic proportions.
First Norman convinced Wooden that their exceptionally athletic and highly conditioned 1964 team needed a radical approach to offset their lack of height. (No player was over 6’5″.) Winning depended on spreading the court by speeding up the game. But how? Norman devised a 2-2-1 full court zone press. In the book is the original sketch of Norman’s that included the players’ names, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Fred Slaughter, Jack Hirsch and Keith Erickson. It diagramed their positions on the floor and roles that helped persuade Wooden to give it a try.
Shocking the college basketball world, 1964 was the first of four undefeated seasons for UCLA. Norman would go on to recruit Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Lucius Allen, Sidney Wicks, and John Vallely, among many others. And the rest is history.
In 1968, Norman also devised the diamond-and-one zone against Elvin Hayes. As a result the Bruins got revenge for the “Game of the Century” Astrodome loss by thoroughly trouncing Houston in the NCAA Semi-Final at the L.A. Sports Arena on their way to their 4th Championship. In bringing Norman from the shadow into the spotlight, Bisheff’s book takes nothing away from Wooden’s genius but does raise another “what if.” Despite the championships, the ever-humble Wooden’s salary was $32,000. Why? Years later, Athletic Director J.D. Morgan replied, “Because he never asked for a raise.” Norman’s salary was $14,000 hardly enough for a married man with kids.
In one of Shadow’s bombshells, we discover Morgan promised Norman that if he waited seven seasons he would succeed Wooden. “If he’d paid Coach $100,000 like he deserved, and if I had gotten $50,000 I would have stayed.”
With a heavy heart, Norman replaced his basketball passion for stock brokering in Beverly Hills. With his dynamic personality, in his first year he earned $60,000 and went on to tremendous business success. With no regrets, he’s had a wonderful life: married to his beautiful wife, June, for 63 years with whom he had three children and four grandchildren. Sadly, June recently passed away. Her November 22 memorial was at St. Monica’s here in town.
After reading Shadow it’s clear that John Wooden, teacher, lover of poetry and Lincoln, who never once mentioned “win” to his players but rather “being prepared and doing your best,” was the greatest college basketball coach of all-time. It’s also clear that Jerry Norman was the greatest Assistant Coach.
The reader can’t help but wonder if Norman, with his enthusiasm, charm and basketball I.Q., had followed Wooden, how many more championships might the Bruins have won? I suppose it’s just another of life’s intriguing “what ifs.”
Originally commissioned by class of ’51 UCLA Hall of Famer, Eddie Sheldrake, “In The Shadow of a Legend” is available at: www.intheshadowofalegend.com. Or write Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, which will receive all proceeds from the book, at 9272 Jeronimo Road, Suite 122, Irvine, CA 92618.
Jack Neworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org