ONE of the most common questions people asked me during the years I reported courtside for Ateneo in the UAAP was, “Kumusta si Coach Norman?” Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know what kind of person the celebrated coach was.
People would ask whether he was nice to me, because he always seemed so stern on TV. Or they would wonder aloud if he ever smiled, because he always seemed to have his scowl on during games.
The answer is yes.
Coach Norman Black is a nice man, always polite if not always jovial, especially when talking about his teams. He never jokes about his work. He is a teacher, a disciplinarian, a thinker, an enabler, and a father.
What authority do I have to talk about Coach Norman? You could say he was my first coach. Before him, I’d never seen a coach at work up close (non-athlete here, remember?). His were the first huddles I ever listened in on, the first practices I ever visited, the first plays I ever understood.
I’m not sure what he’d say now, but I know I made a less-than-wonderful first impression the night I went to the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center to meet him and the 2009 Blue Eagles for the first time. Here was this great hulk of a man, fresh from a preseason practice, thoughts probably still on preparing his team for a repeat championship run. There I was, small, nervous, completely unwitting and utterly green—like, literally. I was in a green shirt. A personal brain fart had me go to my first Ateneo practice in a green t-shirt.
We shook hands as team manager Paolo Trillo introduced us, and in front of the whole team Coach Norman said something like, “You’re wearing green on my basketball court.” I’m pretty sure that if a hole were nearby at that moment, I would have crawled into it and stayed there until 2012.
I don’t think I wore green in his presence after that.
That was the first time. Thereafter, I would go to Ateneo practices the night before a game. When the players would leave to hit the showers, Coach Norman and I would sit on a bench and I’d ask my questions and write down his answers on my blue spiral notebook.
As time passed he began to give me bits of advice, small corrections where he felt I’d said something wrong or misleading in a previous report, or short explanations about certain plays. I’m a firm advocate of defense because of him.
He also started to loosen up around me,speaking his mind during huddles even when I was there. He started smiling whenever I’d approach him with my pen and paper, always greeting me with a “Hello, Jessica. What can I do for you tonight?”
The longer I became a courtside reporter, the more I trusted him and the more I wanted to earn his trust. I would spend time putting my interviews together, researching, making sure I asked him at least one worthy question. To this day, I feel a sense of triumph after a successful interview with him.
Watching Coach Norman win his first PBA title in a decade, no less than the Philippine Cup and just months after concluding a five-peat campaign with his college team—I was proud. I witnessed this man build a college dynasty. I saw how he pushed his players, how he encouraged them, how he instilled in them that desire to win. I watched firsthand as he led his team to that second championship, and then jumped right back into an even bloodier battle going after the three-peat.
One Christmas, the team invited me to their annual party at Coach Norman’s house. It was a different man who met us at the door that evening. Gone was the austere general and in his place was a relaxed, smiling host, offering us food that his wife had made. That has to be my favorite memory of him in my two years in the UAAP: more than the image of him with the net around his shoulders after winning a championship, more than the oft-viewed visual of him bellowing by the sidelines, I picture Coach Norman as he was that night, grinning, joking, talking. It keeps me calm when I have to get a report from him while he’s yelling at his players (and he is scary when that happens.)
It also reminds me that behind every larger-than-life personality is a regular human being struggling on the road to greatness.
Life has changed a lot since 2009, for both of us, I’d say. But I started my sports career with Coach Norman, and that won’t change. He was my first coach. And you always have a special place for your first.
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