Archive for Wednesday, February 11, 1998


February 11, 1998


— Brian Cook is on center stage a quarter century after his dad Norm played basketball at Lincoln High.

However, Norm, a 6-foot-9-inch Kansas University All-American, has never seen his 6-10, 210-pound son play a varsity game. Norm Cook is a victim of mental illness and imprisoned a mile from Lincoln High.

Joyce, the mother of Brian, raises three kids alone. She works the overnight shift at a local factory, goaded by a determination Brian and his sisters will escape the pitfalls Norm and she did not.

``My biggest thing with my kids is ... I had a rough life even to get where I'm at,'' she said last week, sitting with her three children in the small house she purchased late last year. ``I want a better life for my kids.''

Her life turned rough after she became pregnant with Brian toward the end of her senior year in high school. The then Joyce Kelley had met Norm early that same season when he had come by a practice to teach some players the hook shot.

Brian, who verbally committed to Illinois on Monday, was born Dec. 4, 1980. Joyce shelved her plans to attend college and play basketball. She and Norm were married the following December, and Kristina was born almost a year after that.

By then, Joyce said, Norm had begun to deteriorate mentally. Norm, she said, eventually became abusive toward her, and she divorced him late in 1986.

Brian has since grown into a quiet, bright young man with a gentle sense of humor and an unquenchable thirst for hoops.

A junior, Cook is averaging 16.2 points and 8.7 rebounds a game for 17-2 Lincoln.

Brian's contact with his father is limited to occasional holiday visits at the house of Norm's mom.

``We're all-right friends when we see each other, but we don't talk much, so we're not as close as we should be,'' said Brian.

Norm left Kansas in 1976 after three seasons to enter the NBA draft. The Celtics made him their first-round pick but cut him after a rookie season in which he played in 25 games.

He appeared in two games for the Denver Nuggets the following season, and his basketball career soon ended. Norm returned to Lincoln, where he worked sporadically as his illness set in.

In the last five years, Cook has had numerous run-ins with the law. A 1996 psychologist's evaluation described him as ``paranoid and schizoid'' and not fit to stand trial at that time on charges of assault against a peace officer.

``He was a great basketball player,'' Joyce Cook said. ``I don't want this to be he's this terrible man. He has this illness that caused a lot of problems, but he has been places others haven't.''

``Sometimes I think this town thinks Brian will fail like (Norm),'' Joyce said, her expression hardening. ``We're going to show this town we won't fail.''

The biggest error, she says, was Cook's failure to get a college degree, and she is resolute that Brian will avoid that pitfall. He already has the grade-point average and test score necessary to receive an athletic scholarship as a college freshman, and Joyce vows that if he becomes good enough to leave Illinois early for the pros, his new team will have to guarantee money for him to finish his education.

``I tell him all the time, "Look at what Norman went through,''' she said. ``"You need something to fall back on; you need an education.'''

``I think everyone wants me to be as good as him,'' Brian said. ``I'm just trying to make my own image. I don't want to follow others' footsteps; I want to make my own.''

  • Barry Tempkin is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune

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