By Mike Pearson
In the mid-to-late 1980s, Big Ten basketball rosters were filled with a galaxy of stars—Steve Alford from Indiana, Michigan State's Scott Skiles, and Gary Grant from Michigan—just to name a few. But when it came to premier combination scorer-rebounders, one name consistently rose to the top of the list: Illinois' Ken Norman.
The 6-foot-8-inch jumping jack that Fighting Illini knew more intimately as "Snake" was the guy that every conference coach coveted. In his sensational junior and senior seasons—1985-86 and '86-87—Norman was a double-double machine, compiling at least 10 points and 10 rebounds on 25 occasions. He was one rebound shy of the feat eight other times.
Norman grew up on Chicago's West Side, playing on the courts at Touhy-Herbert Park, then performing as a prep at Chicago's Crane High School alongside future Wisconsin Badger star Cory Blackwell. Norman first collegiate stop was Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill., playing for future Illini assistant coach Mark Coomes. Averages of 20 points and 13 rebounds per game in 1983-84 attracted the attention of bigger schools and Lou Henson's Illini were fortunate to secure Norman's services for three letter-winning seasons in '84-85, '85-86 and '86-87.
Snake's Illini career began slowly, averaging just 7.8 points and 3.7 rebounds through 29 appearances as a sophomore. Those numbers ballooned to 16.4 points and 7.1 rebounds as a junior, then 20.7 and 9.8 his senior year. Norman's senior points average ranked second only Don Freeman's 27.8 points per game in 1966, while his rebounds average also was among Illinois' all-time single-season top ten.
Said Henson about Norman, "In all my years of coaching, I never saw a player improve from one season to another like that."
Norman was the 19th overall pick in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, chosen behind future all-stars David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller. During his 11-year, 646-game stay in the NBA, including brief stops in Milwaukee and Atlanta, Norman totaled 8,717 points and 3,949 rebounds.
He maintains that his honor-filled basketball career "was really never about me."
"It's always been about family and friends and people that I care about and that care about me," Norman said.
His now 95-year-old mother and Henson taught Norman to treat people with respect.
"Coach taught me the same things that my mother taught me my whole life and I truly appreciate him for that," Norman said.
In 2005, his banner was raised to the rafters of the State Farm Center.
"It says Ken Norman up there on that banner but the credit goes to all of us," he said, "... my mother, my brothers and sisters, my wife, my daughters, my grandboys, my coaches, my teammates ... everybody."
Norman, who now resides in Las Vegas, Nev., received a surprise call from Illini athletic Director Josh Whitman a year ago, telling him that he'd been chosen to be a member of the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame.
"I actually paused and didn't know what to say," Norman said. "I was super elated, super honored. It was a great moment. It took me back to when I signed to come to Illinois. It was an amazing experience. I had worked hard and earned a college scholarship...and now I'm going to be inducted into the University of Illinois Hall of Fame."
During his Hall of Fame induction speech last September, Norman was particularly emotional. He bet his youngest sister 20 push-ups that he wouldn't cry. We're not certain if Snake paid his debt.
Nowadays, Ken Norman makes frequent trips back to Chicagoland to watch his three grandsons—Nathaniel, Nolan and Noah—in their young athletic careers. Nathaniel is a sophomore at Oak Park's Fenwick High School, where he stars in football and basketball.
"The good Lord did not bless me with a son," Norman said, "so to have my grandboys getting active into sports means the world to me."