Cook jersey to hang in high school gym
CORRESPONDENT, Published Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thirty years after reaching his basketball zenith, Norman Cook will be honored on Saturday night in the place where his remarkable ascent to the National Basketball Association began: Roy S. Anderson Gymnasium.

Cook, a forward at Lincoln for three seasons from 1970-73, was drafted by the Boston Celtics as the final pick in the first round of the 1976 NBA Draft. Saturday's ceremony will commemorate that achievement as a replica of Cook's No. 52 Celtics jersey will be placed on the gym's eastern wall.

Duncan Reed, the Cook's coach at Lincoln, will be among those on hand.

It will be the sixth professional jersey to be placed on the wall, each representing an LCHS graduate. Cook's son, Brian, a 1999 grad and currently a forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, received the same honor in 2004.

"We're honoring Norman for playing at Lincoln and for what he accomplished after he left," current boys' basketball coach Neil Alexander said. "It's something that I think is long overdue.

"It's really been in the back of mind for awhile, since we started moving the jerseys from the trophy cases to where they are now. He certainly deserves it."

Cook went to Farragut High School in Chicago as a ninth-grader, but a quickly-deteriorating neighborhood created the conditions that brought him to Lincoln.

"Norman was a real trail blazer for his time," said Cook's older sister, Linda Cook-McGrady. "Our neighborhood started changing in a negative way, and he just didn't like it there anymore. He didn't understand all of the gang activity that was starting to happen. He wanted a way out.

"Norman had a friend that was at Lincoln College. And this friend would always tell Norman how great Lincoln was. So Norman went down to visit his friend and fell in love with Lincoln right away. He talked my mother into letting him stay down there. He stayed with Norma and Bill Smith for six months or so before the rest of the family came. The Smith family opened their home to Norman and treated him extremely well during that time."

Added Reed: "When he came, he was about 6-foot-5 and raw-boned. He wasn't the most skilled basketball player, but he was a tremendous athlete. We worked with him on the fundamentals of the game, and he worked really hard at them, along with all of his teammates."

After a solid sophomore campaign, Cook began to make a name for himself as a junior. In the 1971-72 season, he averaged 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds over 27 games. The Railers finished that season with a record of 24-3.

Things only got better the next season for both Norman his teammates. Averaging 22.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per contest the next season, Cook was named an All-American, and led the Railers to the No. 1 ranking in the state's final AP Poll with a record of 25-0. They advanced to the state tournament, but fell in the quarterfinal round to Lockport Central, losing 62-54, and finishing the 1972-73 season with a record of 30-1.

At the time his Railers career ended, Cook was the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. His 1,697 career point total today ranks him third all-time, while his 993 career rebounds ranks him second in Lincoln history.

"Norman was an exceptional post player," said Mike Swingle, a teammate of Cook's at Lincoln in his final two seasons. "Not only that, he could score outside too. He just didn't have a weakness."

Cook is a member of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame as an individual and also as a member of the 1972-73 team.

Soon after the 1972-73 season ended, Reed reached an agreement with University of Kansas coach Ted Owens to become an assistant coach. His star player soon followed.

Cook's transition to college basketball was a smooth one. He went 10-for-10 from the field in his first game as a Jayhawk, and wound up starting every game for a team that advanced to the NCAA's Final Four. He averaged 11.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and was named the Big Eight Conference's Freshman of the Year.

In the summer of 1975, Cook was selected to participate in the Pan American Games. According to Reed, following a successful sophomore season, he was offered a contract by the American Basketball Association's Utah Stars, but chose to return to Kansas for his junior season with the knowledge the league was having serious financial problems.

As a junior, Cook was a team co-captain and named to the All-Big 8 team.

Following that season, he petitioned the NCAA to allow him to enter the draft, becoming the first Kansas player to leave school early for the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain.

Cook received limited playing time on a talented Boston squad that included JoJo White, John Havlicek, and Dave Cowens. In 25 games, he averaged 2.5 points and 1.1 rebounds. While he signed a three-year contract after being drafted, the second year of the contract was not guaranteed. Boston declined to bring him back, and he became a free agent. Cook played in two games for the Denver Nuggets in the 1978 season, his last as a professional.

Cook then returned to Lincoln and hard times followed. As he entered his 30s, Cook began to publicly show signs of a mental illness. He is still a victim today at age 51.

For that reason, he will be unable to attend Saturday night's ceremony. Instead, according to McGrady, mother Lizzel Cook and most of Norman's siblings will accept the honor on his behalf. McGrady said there was a strong possibility that both Brian Cook and Norman's daughter, Kristina Cook, would attend the ceremony as well.

While choosing not to disclose the specific illness her brother suffers from, or the name or location of the facility where he receives treatment, McGrady did say that Cook's condition is improving. She is aware that he's being honored, and said the family plans on video taping the occasion for him to view at a later date.

"Norman is doing great, and he continues to improve," McGrady said. "He suffers from a sickness that many people suffer with. He is not in the state hospital, and our family is very pleased with the treatment and care he is receiving now, and will continue to receive. We are prayerful and optimistic that he will recover some day."

Swingle called his former teammate's current sickness "extremely unfortunate."

"He was really a great all-around guy," Swingle said. "He would do anything he could for you, was an extremely hard worker, fun to be around. He shared the ball and only cared about the team.

"Lincoln has had a lot of great players. But what was special about Norman is that he was an athletic 6-foot-8 player and there was nothing he could not do. I don't think there's been anyone like that to play for Lincoln ever since."