“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Audie Norris – Barcelona’s adopted son
With so many great players who have worn the Barcelona jersey over the years, I cannot be 100% certain that Audie Norris was the best foreign player ever on that team. But if there was ever a poll to determine the most beloved foreigner by the Barcelona fans, I am sure he would win by a lot. As appreciated and admired as Norris was – and, in fact, still is – that can only be achieved with the ultimate mix of sporting and humane qualities. Audie had both to spare. He was an excellent player and a great human being. During his six years in Barcelona, he became the biggest idol at Palau Blaugrana, the club’s classic arena. Today, whenever Norris comes to the gym to see a game – which he often does because of his great love for the club and the city – the fans still rise and give him an ovation.
A mistake for Real Madrid
Audie James Norris, who was born on December 18, 1960, arrived in Europe as a well-known player. After an excellent college basketball career at Jackson State University, the NBA team of his native Portland, the Trail Blazers, selected him with the 37th overall pick in the 1982 draft. But after three years and 187 games, during which he averaged 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per night, Norris decided to try playing in Europe. He chose to start with what, at the time, was a humble Benetton Treviso team in Italy. Known later as a perennial contender for European trophies, Benetton then was mostly fighting just to stay in the Italian first division. He enjoyed a brilliant debut season with 21.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Of course, big clubs began to eye the “Atomic Dog”, as he had been nicknamed by Mychal Thompson because of his physical attributes.
Norris landed next in the Spanish capital and everything pointed to an imminent deal with Real Madrid, but a contract difference of $10,000, according to Norris, torpedoed the deal. Neither side was willing to budge even a single dollar, the negotiations fell apart and, in the end, Benetton won, as it was able to extend Norris for another season. Norris shined again with 20.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He deservedly won the award for the best foreign player in the Italian League that season.
In the summer of 1987, several teams fought again to sign Norris. Something that had not happened before, and has not happened since, took place. According to the excellent book “Foreigners in the ACB”, Barcelona and Bologna agreed to share the services of Norris. He would play two years in Barcelona and then go to play in Bologna. In the end it didn’t happen, of course, because Norris, with his performances and behavior, practically forced Barcelona to break the agreement – and pay for it.
Aito Garcia Reneses, who was the Barcelona coach at that time, had seen Norris play for Portland in the San Diego summer league and from the first moment he knew that he wanted that player for his Barça. It finally happened three years later. Norris went on to stay in Barcelona for six seasons, winning three Spanish Leagues (1988, 1989 and 1990) and two Spanish King’s Cups (1988 and 1991). But his career is a clear example, and quite a rare one in sports, that results do not always define the image of a player.
The Euroleague was always missing in Norris’s trophy case, as it was during so many years for Barcelona, which back then had only lost one final still, in 1984 against Roma. The second chance arrived in Munich in 1989, but a young Jugoplastika Split led by Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja on the court and Boza Maljkovic – who would later coach Norris in Barcelona – on the bench, surprised everyone by beating Barça in the semis, 87-77, and later beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final, 75-69.
Norris scored 15 points in that semifinal, but Kukoc was huge for Jugoplastika (24), which also got contributions from Dusko Ivanovic (21) and Radja (18). The following year in Zaragoza, Barça and Jugoplastika met again – this time in the final – and Jugoplastika won again, 72-67, despite 18 points and 10 boards from Norris. The third consecutive duel between the teams took place in the 1991 final in Paris, this time with Maljkovic coaching Barcelona. Nevertheless, Jugoplastika won it again behind the brilliant Zoran Savic (27 points), who would also be a future teammate of Norris in Barcelona. Norris scored 8 points and pulled down 3 boards, but he was playing after a long hiatus due to a shoulder injury.
Injuries, the worst enemy
During Norris’ career, his weak spot was injuries, especially his knees. He missed many games and spent weeks and even months with Toni Bove, Barcelona’s physiotherapist, but always came back. In the Spanish League, where he averaged 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds over six years, his duels with the late Fernando Martin of Real Madrid are greater than legend. He also fought in the paint with Arvydas Sabonis in his prime as well as great stars and legends like Dino Meneghin, Radja, Vlade Divac and Panagiotis Fasoulas in European contests. Norris stood only 2.06 meters, but he looked bigger because of his big body and long arms.
Jose Luis Galilea, one of his teammates in Barcelona in the early 1990s, defined Norris in an article for Solo Basket magazine:
“An old school big man who created from the low post. An excellent passer thanks to his great understanding of the game and huge hands, which made the ball look like a handball. And great character. He was a man who, despite being a star, was close to anybody who would approach him. He treated with the same respect and love the cleaning ladies at Palau Blaugrana and the President of the Generalitat (the regional government of Catalonia), the veteran player or the junior rookie. He was loved by all, even by people who didn’t follow basketball closely. He was generous in his game and the way he related to everyone else, on and off the court. He was a mentor for the youngest ones like Santi Abad, Lisard Gonzalez, Roger Esteller, Angel Almeida … even myself. Young kids that were starting out and trying to find our place in the professional world. He even taught me, together with Piculin Ortiz, to speak English.”
I personally met Norris during his last season in Barcelona. He made for an excellent duo with Savic. Today it’s always a pleasure running into the man at the Palau or any place. He continues hosting basketball camps in and around Barcelona and the kids that attend will get a chance to learn about basketball and more from one of the best.
Audie Norris, the idol of Palau.