Archdeacon: A Hall of Fame nod for a Dayton hoops legend

Norris Cole won two NBA titles with the Miami Heat and Dunbar to back-to-back state championships

Credit: Garett Fisbeck

Credit: Garett Fisbeck

When it comes to basketball, his bling is rarely his thing.

Norris Cole II owns two, jaw-dropping NBA championship rings — each blanketed with over 200 diamonds — he earned while playing for the Miami Heat a decade ago, but he said “99 percent of the time I keep them locked up in the safe.

“Every now and then I might take them out — if there’s a formal event or maybe I’m going to be with some famed basketball guests — but I don’t wear them that much, really.”

This Saturday, though, should qualify as an open-the-safe outing for the former Dunbar High School star.

He’s being enshrined in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.

Among the 17 other athletes, coaches and contributors being inducted with him in a gala event at the Hilton Polaris in Columbus are Tom Rettig, the longtime Tippecanoe High girls basketball, and Don Knodel a standout guard at Hamilton High School and Miami University, who went on to become a MU assistant coach and a head coach at Talawanda High School and later Rice University.

The Miami Valley is well represented in the Ohio hoops hall, but few enshrinees have had a more impressive career than Cole.

After leading Dunbar to state titles in 2006 and 2007, he had a legendary career at Cleveland State. He led the Vikings to upsets of nationally ranked teams — Syracuse, Butler and Wake Forest — and became the first player ever to be named the Horizon League Player of the Year and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

CSU has retired his No. 30 jersey and it now hangs from the Wolstein Center’s rafters.

In February the school inducted him into its sthletics hall of fame.

A first round NBA draft pick, he won league titles with the Heat in 2012 and 2013 — the first two of his 3 ½ seasons in Miami — and then played a year and a half with the New Orleans Pelicans and a season Oklahoma City Thunder. In all, he played 360 NBA games and was in the playoffs five of his six seasons.

Beyond the NBA, he’s become a hoops version of Phileas Fogg.

Basketball has taken him around the world. He’s played on teams in China, Israel, Italy, Montenegro, Monaco, France, Spain and he’s now in Puerto Rico. Early this year there also was a stint with the Grand Rapids Gold of the NBA G-League.

When we spoke by phone the other day, he was in Ponce, Puerto Rico, but he said he would be back in Ohio on Saturday for the Hall of Fame festivities.

“I’m proud to represent West Dayton and my city,” he said.

“It’s a special feeling. It’s made me reflect on all the hard work I’ve put in and all the people who have helped me get here.”

He talked about the coaches and teammates he’s had along the way, as well as his uncles and cousins who are part of one of the most famed sports families ever in Dayton — “they taught me the art of competition” — and he especially focused on his parents, Norris Sr. and Diane.

“My parents did a great job of laying the foundation in my life,” he said. “Everything that’s come to me was built on that.

“Whatever you’re trying to do in life — build a building, a business, a life — the foundation is the key. It has to be the strongest part of it and my parents made sure of that by stressing things like discipline and hard work and treating people the right way.”

That foundation served him well off the court, as well.

He was the salutatorian of his graduating class at Dunbar, a four-year National Honor Society member, a national finalist for the Wendy’s High School Heisman, which honors academics and community involvement as much as athletics, and, like his sister, Deonna, he even won honors playing the piano at a UD Arena recital.

“My parents always led me to believe I can do anything,” he said. “That there’s nothing I can’t do.”

That mindset served him well when he ran into doubters — and there were many — who thought he wouldn’t blossom at each new level of his career.

Credit: Ron Alvey

Credit: Ron Alvey

Family tradition

“I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t have a basketball,” Cole said when asked about his introduction to the sport.

By the time he was in third grade his grandfather had put up as 10-foot bank board and rim outside of his West Dayton home.

Eventually the hoop was transferred to Norris’ house and he began to cobble his own piece of the Cole legacy.

Norris’s dad — Norris Sr. — and his eight brothers all went to Dunbar and then on to college. Many of them had athletic scholarships.

They became college stars — Lawrence went from Nebraska to the New York Jets — and several became high school and college coaches of note.

Norris Sr. went the academic route and got a dual degree —chemistry and biology at Bowling Green — before studying nuclear medicine at Ohio State. (Not to be over-shadowed here, his wife Diane — a track athlete at Patterson — has a master’s degree from the University of Dayton.

And the next generation has kept up the family’s athletic tradition.

Xenia High’s Trent Cole played 12 years in the NFL, was an All-Pro defender and last season was inducted into the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame.

Although Norris II showed his skills already as a youngster — playing for Dayton Metro in the national AAU tournament and leading Fairview Middle School to two city titles — he was small and found himself overshadowed by some of the bigger, older players, guys like Mark Anderson, Aaron Pogue and Daequan Cook — when he first got to Dunbar.

And yet he was the one who especially carried the Wolverines to two state titles.

Even so, he was snubbed by Division I coaches — his only athletic scholarship offer was from Walsh, the NAIA school in North Canton — until Cleveland State’s Gary Waters saw what his counterparts were missing.

“It all came from the vision of Coach Waters,” Cole said. “He’s the one who gave me the opportunity no other coach did. He believed in me and built on that foundation I had.

“He taught me to get my body in supreme athletic shape and play high-level defense. He stressed being a student athlete, too. And all that enabled me to do the special things I did there.”

The 6-foot-2 guard many originally had thought to be too small had some towering games in college, none more so than his 41 point, 20 rebound, nine assist effort against Youngstown State as a senior.

Although he became a first-round pick in the NBA, two teams didn’t realize what they had on draft night.

The Chicago Bulls initially selected him, but then promptly traded him to Minnesota, which then traded him to the Miami Heat.

He was quickly embraced by another Ohioan with Cleveland ties, Heat cornerstone LeBron James.

James sent a “Welcome to the family” text and invited Cole to train at his home. He took the rookie under his wing and became his seat mate on the Heat’s team flights.

That first season the pair teamed up for some highlight reel plays, Cole making the alley-oop passes — once on the run with a no-look backwards toss over defender Steve Nash — that James dunked with rim-rattling authority.

Cole once told me how that foundation his parents built in him served him well as he began his NBA career and that garnered the confidence of Heat coach Eric Spoelstra, who regularly called him off the bench in crucial situations.

No outings were more memorable than two during the Heat’s runs to their titles.

In his rookie year, Cole came into Game Four of 2012 NBA Finals with Oklahoma City when the Heat trailed by 13. He promptly scored on a driving lay-up, then hit back-to-back threes. By the time he returned to the bench, Miami was down by just two and would go on to win the game.

The following year in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Chicago, he made eight straight three-pointers over a three-game span — an NBA record — and ended the series making 20 of his 29 shots.

His never-wilt-in-the-moment efforts made him a favorite of Miami fans.

“Heat Nation always showed me a lot of love,” he said. “Even today, when I’m just walking around Miami (he still trains there) they still give me a lot of love.

“And I have a lot of love for them. Miami and Heat Nation have a special place in my heart.”

Credit: Al Diaz

Credit: Al Diaz

‘Basketball is basketball’

“Growing up in West Dayton, I never thought I was going to need a passport one day,” he said with a laugh. “Now I’ve had to get a second one because I filled the first one up.”

He’s had standout seasons in many of the places he’s played:

In 2016, he averaged 19 points for the Shandong Golden Stars in the Chinese Basketball Association. Two years later he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Israeli League title.

He averaged 16.3 points in the Italian League, 16.6 when he led his team in Montenegro to a league crown and when he played for ASVEL in the top-tier of French basketball, he was named an All Star.

“Honestly, Bro, I never knew this would happen,” he said. “I never thought I’d play all over the world.

“But the way I’ve looked at it is: ‘Basketball is basketball.’ And at the end of the day, I’ve tried to keep it real simple.

“I figure, no matter where you are, you’ve got a 10-foot rim. And the free throw line is the same wherever you go. Although the three-point line is a little different some places, most of the rules are the same.

“You just try to get more points that the other team and play defense to keep them from scoring.

“Other than that, I try to enjoy the countries and embrace their cultures and their fans. And along the way I’ve been able to win some championships and gain a fan base all over the world.”

Credit: E.L. Hubbard

Credit: E.L. Hubbard

Although he’s in Puerto Rico now, he’s keeping an eye on the NBA Finals between the Heat and the Denver Nuggets, with whom he also has some connections.

The Grand Rapids team he played with early this year is an affiliate of the Nuggets. And down in Miami, he said he trains with Denver players Jeff Green and Bruce Brown.

Having played in two NBA finals, he knows what the Heat and Nuggets players are going through now:

“It’s a time when some people might be nervous and shy away, but I’ve found the bigger the moment, the more intense the moment, the better I like it. I’ve always been a big game player. It seems like I can focus more and I play better.

“I believe in my teammates and I believe in myself and that goes back to my parents instilling that belief that I can do anything I put my mind to.”

Although four months shy of 35, Cole said he is setting no limit on how long he’ll play: “I feel good. I still have the fire to compete. I’m still in shape and have the burst you need to be a professional athlete. And I’ve been fortunate enough — knock on wood — not to have had a serious injury in my career.

“I want to do this as long as the Lord allows me to do it because I know, once it’s over, it’s over.”

As for his Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame induction, he treasures it, but he doesn’t trumpet it:

“I don’t go around telling people, ‘Hey, I’m going into the Hall of Fame!’ If it comes up organically in conversation, I’ll talk about it. But I’m not going to toot my own horn.”

The most he might do next Saturday is open the safe and put on one of those bulky NBA championship rings.

The diamonds would make a nice accessory to his sparkling basketball career.

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