Friday, Oct. 2, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
- UNLV basketball player Tyler Norman, a junior walk-on guard from Faith Lutheran High, on the lowest point of his season at Iowa State.
- Norman talks about a John Wooden phrase that inspires him.
- Norman on how so many have responded to him being on the UNLV basketball roster this season.
It quickly hit a crescendo. At a summer pick-up game, elite UNLV basketball players goaded Tyler Norman to dunk the ball. Throw it down, they said. Climb some air.
Do a windmill!
“I’d never windmilled it before,” Norman says with a smile. “But I went up and windmilled it, and the guys just went crazy. They’d never seen a white guy windmill it before. That was a highlight.
“That was fun.”
It had been a long time since the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Norman, a three-time state champion at Faith Lutheran High, had fun on a basketball court.
A sour stint at Iowa State forced him to leave the Cyclones’ program and turned his basketball into kryptonite for eight months.
After he returned to Las Vegas, the sport slowly wooed Norman back into its clutches. He shot some baskets. He played in a few pick-up games, for fun, at a fitness club.
At a church tournament inside the Faith Lutheran gym this past Christmas, he kicked it into another gear. He wowed a participant, who called Rebels coach Lon Kruger.
Now Norman, a junior guard, owns a scarlet-and-gray No. 10 jersey.
For the longest time, he did not want to embrace the game that tortured him.
“I didn’t want to face my fears from Iowa State,” Norman says. “But I felt I needed to submit myself to it and learn from this, to discipline myself to do the things that were tough for me.
“This is a gift for me ... it would be a mistake not to take it.”
A piece of meat
After earning Nevada 3A player-of-the-year honors at Faith Lutheran in 2005-06, Norman was going to sign with Division-II Cal State Stanislaus.
A day before that was supposed to happen, however, Iowa State rang.
Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott, who had been following Norman’s high school career, had taken the Cyclones’ job and had many vacant roster spots.
Did Tyler want to walk onto the Iowa State program?
With relatives, including two brothers, in Iowa and being able to at least practice with a Big 12 Conference team, Norman quickly said yes.
Just as quickly, he grew disenchanted with being treated as a “piece of meat” by Iowa State coaches, although he admits he wasn’t prepared, mentally or physically, for the demands of big-time college hoops.
“I was not mature enough to deal with that in an adult way,” Norman says, “to not see (coaches) as people trying to ruin your life or bring you down … but just to face it and continue to do your best, regardless.
“It really took the fun out of basketball for me.”
On the rebound
In the spring of 2007, Norman came home to regain some normalcy and balance. He lives with his mother, Deb, who in 2001 married Rob Rood after they met on eHarmony.
The couple even made a television commercial for the online dating service.
Deb and Joe Norman, Tyler’s biological father, divorced when he was 5. He says it was a bitter, angry separation. Tyler Norman started learning about dealing with messy situations.
“Those struggles and battles,” Tyler says, “can refine who you are and make you a stronger and better person.”
Norman, who helped mentally challenged kids and adults when he was younger, counseled a junior high church group and worked at an after-school elementary program when he returned to Las Vegas.
He didn’t go back to school, at UNLV, for six months. For eight months, he didn’t touch a ball. He inched back into it. He turned it on last Christmas.
Paul Lychuk, a 50-something appeals officer for the State of Nevada who was playing in that tournament, was so impressed with Norman that he called Kruger with rave reviews.
Norman laughs when recalling that Lychuk, who spoke with Kruger at several UNLV basketball camps in which he enrolled his son, marveled how he ran fast and jumped high.
“I’m pretty excited for him,” Lychuk says. “I let coach Kruger know that he’s out there. I told Tyler it’s something he shouldn’t quit on, that I’d get in touch with Kruger and see where it goes.
“He showed the physical attributes, but he also came across as a real quality individual. Things hadn’t gone well for him at Iowa State, from what I understood, and I just thought he should pursue what he started.”
In January, Kruger called Norman. If you’re interested, Kruger said, we’d be interested in having you as a walk-on. Play pick-up ball with the guys this summer and we’ll see what happens.
Bret Walter, the Faith Lutheran coach, opened his gym to Norman, who worked on his conditioning with current Crusaders players. Norman and Walter even played one-on-one against each other.
Walter says it was obvious that Norman’s passion for the game “took a pretty big hit” at Iowa State.
“But he’s very thankful to be in a program like UNLV, where the coaches and players treat each other so well,” Walter says. “He’s really enjoying his experience.”
Not long after that windmill dunk, UNLV assistant coach Mike Shepherd called Norman into his office.
“You’ve got the walk-on spot,” Shepherd said.
All of Norman’s Iowa State trepidations had evaporated.
“It’s been an amazing past year for me,” he says. “I mean, I’m an average person … I’ve been blessed enough to pay attention to it all and not let it pass me by.”
Not a pick-up game has passed in which Norman hasn’t been wowed by the athletic and explosive UNLV talent around him.
In trying to explain his role for the Rebels, the 22-year-old junior ponders a quote from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA coach.
About wanting to do all the little things, having a desire to help teammates and make them the best they can be, and being utterly selfless.
“I get joy out of seeing other guys succeed,” Norman says. “Guys maybe had a rough couple of weeks, and all of a sudden they break out. It’s fun to see these young guys experience that.”
Maybe a dozen families, friends and others for whom Norman has babysat, have bought UNLV season tickets, even though chances of him ever playing a second in that No. 10 uniform are quite slim.
That support overwhelms and humbles him.
When fans see him sitting at the end of the Thomas & Mack Center bench wearing his warm-ups the entire game, he wants them to know that he’s producing behind the scenes.
“Not just on the court,” Norman says. “It branches out farther, in everyday life. Taking time to serve different people who need the help. There’s a greater opportunity here to give back.
“That’s what I’ll try to do to the best of my ability.”
Note: Rebels announce FirstLook 2009 for Oc. 16
For UNLV men's basketball fans, the 2009-10 season will officially kick off on Oct. 16, when Lon Kruger & Co. will host FirstLook 2009 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Friday night event will get going at 9 p.m., will officially kick off Homecoming weekend and is free to the public.
According to Kruger, this year’s event will feature an increased amount of team and individual drills as well as shooting competitions to give fans a chance to see many of the new players. Eight Rebels who did not play in games last season are on this year’s roster. They include highly-touted transfers Chace Stanback (UCLA) and Derrick Jasper (Kentucky), plus this year's freshman class of Anthony Marshall, Carlos Lopez and Justin Hawkins.
“Our fans have been asking about so many of the new players and this is a good opportunity to see a little bit of what they can do,” Kruger said. “It’s also good preparation for our guys. Even practicing in front of a crowd is different than being in the gym alone. This type of event benefits the guys from a performance standpoint.”