It took Norm Cook just one game to win over the hearts of Kansas University basketball fans.
On Dec. 1, 1973, the prep All-American out of Community High in Lincoln, Ill., went 10-for-10 from the field and scored 21 points, stealing the show in his major college debut — a 103-71 victory over Murray State in Allen Fieldhouse.
“You are always worried about a rookie in his first game. Here the guy goes out and goes 10-for-10,” said former KU coach Ted Owens, referring to Cook, who died Monday at Lincoln (Ill.) Memorial Medical Center at the age of 53.
“Then he doesn’t back off at all. We play Kentucky the next game, he hits his first shot and we go on to win the game,” Owens added of the Jayhawks’ 71-63 home victory over the Wildcats, a game in which the 6-foot-8, 210-pound forward scored 11 points.
Sparked by the arrival of freshmen Cook and Donnie Von Moore, as well as juco transfer Roger Morningstar and a solid cast of returnees, the Jayhawks won the Big Eight Conference title and advanced to the 1974 Final Four where they fell to Marquette in the national semifinals.
“It was one of those quiet deals. At the end of the day you didn’t realize he’d made every one of his shots,” Lawrence businessman Morningstar said of Cook’s first KU game — to this date the most points scored by a freshman in a Jayhawk debut.
“That was Norman. He was a real quiet kid with a tremendous amount of talent,” Morningstar added. “He was a prototypical Jayhawk. He understood his role. He was always more interested in the team having success than scoring a bunch of points.”
Cook — who will be honored with a celebration of his life at 4 p.m., today, at Second Baptist Church in Lincoln (an hour visitation will begin at 3 p.m.) — scored 1,004 points at KU, placing him 50th on the school’s all-time scoring charts.
Cook, who helped KU to two Big Eight titles, played three years of college ball. He was selected in the first round by the Boston Celtics in the 1976 NBA Draft, lasting just one season.
Cook played in two games for the Denver Nuggets in ’77-78 before being released. Cook returned to Lincoln, where, sadly, he suffered from mental illness most of the remainder of his life.
“Norm was a special young man. He just had the sweetest spirit about him,” Owens said. “What I am so sad about is so many years after he left KU and the pros he suffered an emotional disorder that did not give him a very good quality of life. Norm had the friendliest, happiest disposition. Just to see him suffer a number of years is what makes you the most sad.”
Still, Cook’s story is one that has inspired many youths in Illinois.
Norm Cook as a young child witnessed the murder of his dad James, who was gunned down on the family front porch.
Troubled by increasing gang activity in Chicago, Norm asked his mother if he could move to Lincoln — where a friend attended Lincoln College — for his sophomore year of high school.
He enrolled at Lincoln Community High, where he was mentored by coach Duncan Reid, who eventually moved to KU to work as an assistant on Owens’ staff.
“Norman was a real trailblazer for his time,” his sister, Linda Cook-McGrady, told the Lincoln Courier newspaper.
“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. 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 (to Lincoln).”
Norm Cook’s Boston Celtics jersey hangs in Lincoln Community High’s gym.
Next to it is the Los Angeles Lakers jersey of Brian Cook, Norm’s son, who starred at Illinois and currently plays for the Orlando Magic.
“Coach Reid was a taskmaster. He made sure you did what you had to do to take care of business. He was a great influence on his life to get him out of the mess he got away from in Chicago,” Morningstar said.
“Whenever Norman would sway off the line coach Reid would be there to get him back focused again.
“He was a great guy, a great roommate,” added Morningstar. “We lived in the (Jayhawker) Towers, room 602B — me, Norman and Donnie Von Moore.”
Morningstar loved his college buddy so much he today will make the six-hour drive to Lincoln for services. Teammate Dale Greenlee will drive from Indiana and some other Jayhawks may be on hand as well.
“He is my teammate — a guy you went to war with, roomed with. It’s a sad, sad deal,” Morningstar said. “I’ve talked to him off and on throughout the years. He never quite felt strong enough to make it to our reunions. He’s our teammate and friend and always will be.”
Coach Owens, who lives in Oklahoma, spoke with Cook’s mom on Saturday. He desperately wanted to make the 10-hour drive to Lincoln, but is feeling under the weather and won’t be able to attend.
“It has been awhile since the last time we talked,” Owens said. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘I love you coach.’ That has stuck with me a long time.”