Apodaca: Let's pause and recall the influence of Jerry Norman

With the NCAA tournament underway, it's worth remembering that March Madness hasn't always been around to turn us into a nation of obsessed college basketball fans.

Back in more provincial times, one man contributed as much as anyone to raising the profile of college hoops. But outside of the most knowledgeable basketball insiders, his role has largely gone overlooked.

Perhaps that will change with the recent publication of "In the Shadow of a Legend," which chronicles the story of Jerry Norman, John Wooden's assistant coach during UCLA's first four championship seasons.

Norman, author Steve Bisheff contends, was arguably the greatest assistant coach of all time. He was Wooden's chief recruiter and a visionary strategist whose contributions reverberated long after he departed the basketball arena.

"The passing years have conspired to slowly rub away the image of this fierce competitor who could be, and probably should be, remembered as the most important college assistant coach in the history of the sport," Bisheff writes.

Norman's story is also of particular interest to Daily Pilot readers because of his local ties. Bisheff is a veteran sports journalist from Irvine. Norman's daughter, my friend Sherry Stinehart, lives in Corona del Mar. Most significantly, all proceeds from the book go to a pediatric cancer charity favored by John Vallely of Newport Beach, who attended Corona del Mar High School and Orange Coast College before playing for UCLA.

The idea for the book was brought to Norman by his old buddy, former UCLA player Eddie Sheldrake, who convinced the unassuming onetime coach that his story would not detract from Wooden's legendary stature.

Now 84, Norman, who lives in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, played for UCLA in the late 1940s and became Wooden's assistant in 1957.

"It was so different in those days," Norman said in a phone interview last week. "There was not a lot of revenue or money. Television changed the whole thing."

"In the Shadow of a Legend" illustrates how the outgoing and charismatic Norman was the perfect counterpoint to Wooden's discipline and reserve. He was instrumental in taking UCLA's recruitment efforts nationwide to sign top players, including Walt Hazzard, Lucius Allen and the biggest catch of all, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Norman also greatly influenced UCLA's strategies on the court. Bisheff tells of Norman convincing an initially reluctant Wooden to use the famous zone press defense "that literally took college basketball by a blur of a storm in the mid-1960s and ignited the UCLA dynasty..." The switch was credited with overcoming UCLA's relative height disadvantage at the time, raising the tempo of the game and flustering opponents.

The result was an historic undefeated season and the first of Wooden's 10 national championships.

But back then, as Norman observed, college basketball wasn't the big-money, media-saturated business that it is now. A pivotal change occurred in 1968, when defending national champ UCLA took on Houston at the cavernous Houston Astrodome in an event hyped as "The Game of the Century," which garnered college basketball's biggest crowd at 50,000 and its first prime-time TV broadcast.

"It was the game that turned America on to college basketball, the game that kick-started what eventually would become March Madness," Bisheff writes.

UCLA, playing with an injured Alcindor, suffered its first defeat in two years. That's when Norman, figuring a new strategy was needed, proposed a "diamond and one" defense, which I barely understand but was key to helping UCLA demolish Houston in the NCAA semifinals and go on to capture another national championship.

But 1968 was also the year that Norman decided to pack it in. The father of three — and now grandfather to four — was above all a family man. He was working atrocious hours, spending little time with his wife and children, and making just $14,000 a year. (Wooden's salary was a meager $32,000 when he retired in 1975.) The book reveals that Norman was promised the top job after Wooden's retirement, but he declined.

He went on to a highly successful career in the investment world, and never regretted his decision to walk away. Yet Bisheff notes that Norman's influence continued even after his departure from UCLA, through his recruitment of top players such as Sidney Wicks.

Even now, Norman remains friends with most of the players he once mentored. Among them is Vallely, one of Norman's last recruits who played on UCLA's 1969 and 1970 championship teams. A cancer survivor himself, Vallely lost his daughter Erin to cancer in 1991 when she was just 12. He is now a board member of the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation.

Norman and Sheldrake "knew how passionate I was about trying to change the world for children stricken with this disease," Vallely said. "They get it. We support each other when we go through difficult times."

"In the Shadow of a Legend" isn't being sold through traditional sources, but it can be obtained from the foundation, which requests a minimum donation of $20.

About $30,000 has been raised from the book so far. Norman plans to give a matching amount up to $50,000 to the foundation. That's his motivation, but perhaps, as Bisheff writes, the book will also, at long last, give the onetime shadow "the recognition he so richly deserves."

This former Bruin hopes that it does.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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