Coniel Norman, one of the best shooters and scorers in Arizona basketball history, passed away on Monday at age 68, his former teammate Bob Elliott confirmed.
“In my opinion, the best two shooters I’ve seen at Arizona are Coniel Norman and Steve Kerr and nobody else comes close,” Elliott said. “I’ve seen Coniel make 20 jumpers in a row on top of the key at practice.”
Norman, nicknamed Popcorn because of his ability to shoot from all over the court, was recruited to Arizona from Detroit’s Kettering High School along with Eric Money by the late Fred Snowden in 1972 shortly after Snowden was hired as the first African-American to coach a major college basketball program.
Norman was in the process of turning his life around over the last 12 years after becoming homeless and out of touch with his family and friends for many years.
He found a love in the Los Angeles area, where he lived, and unfortunately his wife, the former Maria Lewis, passed away two weeks ago. Both were living with health issues. Norman was aided by the use of an oyxgen machine in recent months.
“If this was not a case of a broken heart, I don’t know what is,” Elliott said of Norman passing away a week after Lewis.
Norman went hardship into the NBA after two seasons at Arizona. He was drafted in the third round of the 1974 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. He was released after being in the NBA through 1978-79.
He enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany for eight years. He became a homeless veteran for more than 20 years. Some of his closest friends feared for the worst.
“We were worried that he was no longer alive,” Elliott told me in a 2010 interview, shortly after Norman was found and was living at Detroit’s Piquette Square, a $23 million apartment complex built to house homeless veterans.
After spending more than a year in a work-training program in Detroit, he returned to the Los Angeles area to be with Maria, whom he befriended during his earlier time there.
Norman is Arizona’s career scoring average leader with 23.9 points a game from 1972-74.
He was homeless in the Los Angeles area until February 2010. He was taken to a hospital for treatment and was asked for his next of kin.
“He gave all the names of his immediate family and the hospital was able to track one of his sisters down,” his niece Cassie Norman told me at the time. “Once my mother spoke to him, we decided to go to California and bring him back with us (to Detroit).
“He is doing very well now. God is good. I am so happy to have my uncle home.”
Elliott, of Ann Arbor, Mich., played in youth basketball games in Detroit with Norman.
He did not know Norman’s whereabouts for 30 years — from seeing him at an NBA preseason game in 1980 to discovering he was back in Detroit getting his life in order.
“Hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since I’ve seen Popcorn,” Elliott told me. “I didn’t even know he was a veteran.”
Norman and Money, as part of the Kiddie Korps in Snowden’s first recruiting class, combined to average 42.9 points a game as freshmen.
Norman’s season average was 24.0 a game, a school record until Khalid Reeves broke the mark with a 24.2 scoring clip in the 1993-94 season. Norman held the freshman season scoring record of 576 points until Jerryd Bayless scored 592 in 2007-08.
Norman produced this type of scoring without the use of a 3-point line and shot clock, which were not instituted in college basketball until the 1980s.
Former Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta was quoted by the Washington Post in 1977 as saying, “You can’t believe it when he misses.”
For two years, Norman lived in Detroit, playing for a recreation team, waiting until another pro offer came along after he was released by the 76ers. He finally re-entered the league with the San Diego Clippers in the 1978-79 season, playing a minimal role in 22 games. It was in an exhibition game following that season that Elliott last saw his good friend.
“Not too many people know this, but he was one of the guys responsible for coming up with my nickname, ‘Big Bird,'” said Elliott, who was named after the Sesame Street character because of his height (6-foot-10). “It was because of Corn and Eric Money that I went to Arizona (in 1973-74). When I was entering my senior year (in high school), they were already headed to Arizona.
“We played on a summer-league team together in a tournament at Boston that summer. Jerome Gladney (another former Wildcat from Michigan) was also on that team. We won the title. We all thought that if we could win together there, we can win together at Arizona.”
After failing to continue his NBA career in 1980, Norman disappeared from public view. It’s at that time that he entered the military.
Norman told me in a 2010 interview that when he returned home after the Army he did not have a sustaining job and started living on the streets.
“It got to a point where I was not sure I would ever come home to Detroit and see my family again,” said Norman. “I pretty much thought that was it.”
Depression forced him to seek help at a Los Angeles hospital in February 2010. 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, 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 said he became disconnected from Detroit and his family for more than 27 years.
“When my sister (Renee) called me (at the Los Angeles hospital), 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.”
Norman did 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.
Despite never making his mark in the NBA, Norman said he did 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 chuckled when asked about his scoring output if the 3-point line and shot clock were in play when he was at Arizona.
“Something like 31 or 32 points a game,” he said.
“I loved playing in Tucson,” Norman said about the sellout crowds at McKale Center, which opened during his freshman season. “I loved playing in Tucson. I loved the people there and the school. It was a great experience.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.