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Monday May 9, 2011A Basketball Odyssey: From Talent-Rich New York, Norm Roberts' Journey Now Takes Him To Florida

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The point guards around New York in those days owned the prep sports headlines in the city’s vibrant newspapers.

“This was 1983, a year when New York City had more great high school guards than possibly any time before or after,’’ wrote New York Times columnist William Rhoden several years later.

There was Dwayne “Pearl” Washington at Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School, a legend on the playgrounds around the Howard Housing Project before he was in middle school. Future St. John’s star Mark Jackson dished not too far from Washington at Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin Memorial High, later becoming a hometown hero drafted by the Knicks.

Prior to joining Michael Jordan in North Carolina’s backcourt, Kenny Smith dribbled his way around Queens as a star for Archbishop Molloy High. There were others, including shooting guards Eddie Davender and Kenny Hutchinson. The collection of talent made a championship in the New York Public Schools Athletic League one of the most coveted in the Big Apple.

In 1983 a young point guard at St. Agnes High out on Long Island named Billy Donovan caught the eye of then-Providence coach Joe Mullaney, and four years later Donovan led the Friars to the Final Four under Rick Pitino. Meanwhile, another point guard about 20 minutes away at Springfield Gardens High in Queens was making his mark, too.

Norm Roberts liked to shoot as much as the next guy, but one day before his senior season his high school coach sat him down for a long talk.

Kenny Fiedler, perhaps known more these days as former NFL quarterback Jay Fiedler’s dad than for his success as a high school basketball coach, told Roberts what he needed.

“We’ve got a chance to be good, but something needs to happen,’’ Fiedler said. “What needs to happen is you don’t need to shoot and look to score. You need to facilitate and make other guys on the floor better, be a leader.’’

Roberts knew Fiedler was right, and the future coach in him heeded the advice. The team’s best scorer was guard Richard “Radar” Anderson, who could shoot from anywhere on the court. When the team needed to go inside, future NBA tough guy Anthony Mason starred for Springfield Gardens.

Roberts took control of the team and led the Golden Eagles to the PSAL title, defeating Davender, who would later shine at Kentucky, in the title game.

“I felt like I should be going to Kentucky,’’ Roberts said. “That didn’t happen, but in the end, it was what was best for the team and we ended up winning. Back then, that was incredibly hard to do because there was so much talent in New York.

“To win the city championship in New York was bigger than winning the state.’’

Nearly 30 years after Roberts and Donovan burst onto the New York basketball scene – Roberts said they never played against each other in high school – they can now share the backcourt during a pick-up game at lunch.

When Donovan was forced to rebuild his coaching staff after the season, Roberts came highly recommended. As Roberts searched for a way back onto the bench after spending a season working as a college basketball analyst, he heard only good things about Donovan.

Their Big Apple familiarity helped bridge any unfamiliarity.

“I knew Billy as a player,’’ Roberts said. “I knew he was a very good player. And as a coach, I knew of him professionally. We would bump into each other here and there.’’

Around the time Donovan started to establish himself as an up-and-coming coach as an assistant at Kentucky, and then a head coach at Marshall and finally at Florida in 1996, Roberts took a different route to the top of the coaching profession.

After his prep career was over, Roberts stayed home and played at Queens College while Donovan left town and became a national figure by leading the Friars to the 1987 Final Four. Once his college career ended, Roberts got a teaching job at Archbishop Molloy High, the same school that produced Smith.

To get the job, Roberts had to agree to coach the freshman basketball team and help with the varsity. In a stroke of good luck, future NBA star Kenny Anderson had just arrived at Archbishop Molloy and all the big-time college head coaches were stopping by to watch practice.

Georgetown’s John Thompson, North Carolina’s Dean Smith or Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins might pop in any day.

Roberts got to meet many of the coaches and decided to enter coaching full-time, taking over at Queens College in 1991. With wins difficult to come by once the school jumped up in class and a one-bedroom apartment getting cramped with his wife and newborn son, Roberts was uncertain about a long-term future in coaching.

He considered going back into teaching full-time and coaching on the side. However, around that time is when fate intervened. Roberts was urged to apply for an assistant coach’s job at Oral Roberts University, a school he had never heard of.

As a player at Queens College, Roberts attended a basketball camp at the University of Kansas and got to know the Jayhawks’ team manager pretty well, Bill Pope, who is now an assistant coach/advance scout with the Detroit Pistons. Pope told Roberts to give then-Oral Roberts head coach Bill Self a call about an opening on this staff and that he wouldn’t regret it if Self hired him.

Roberts was hesitant since New Jersey seemed a long way from his Queens home, much less Tulsa, Okla. Roberts decided to take a shot at the job and finally got a call back from Self after going to Oklahoma to interview.

Roberts recalls the conversation like this: “I had a great conversation with you Norm,’’ Self said. “Boy, I think we’re compatible. I think it would work. I think it will be great. But I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve got three guys ahead of you and I can’t believe all three would turn down the job.

“You’re probably fourth.’’

Roberts thanked Self for the opportunity and quickly began contemplating his other options, either accepting a $10,000 raise per year at Queens College or leave coaching and return to teaching at another Queens high school where a friend was offering a good job.

And then Pope called a few days later.

“It’s not over Norm,’’ he said. “It’s not over.’’

Sure enough, the other three candidates fell through and Self called Roberts shortly after Pope told him to expect a call.

Roberts accepted the job and over the next nine years, starting with the 1995-96 season, Roberts worked on Self’s staff during stops at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. Three trips to the Elite Eight – one each at Tulsa, Illinois and in Self’s first year at Kansas in 2003-04 – helped Roberts return home to New York as head coach at St. John’s for six seasons.

Roberts’ New York basketball odyssey came full circle in some ways when he recruited and signed Antony Mason Jr., the son of Roberts’ former teammates at Springfield Gardens back in the Year of the Guard.

Taking over a program that was only a shell of the Big East powerhouse that it once was when players like Chris Mullin and Walter Berry starred for Lou Carnesecca’s program, Roberts endured several lean seasons and a 105-185 record in six seasons. He led the Red Storm to the NIT in 2010 but was replaced by former UCLA coach Stave Lavin after the season.

After his six-year run at St. John’s ended, Roberts had other options to coach rather than go into TV, but he decided to take a year off. After two months, he was bored and ready to get back into coaching but he had to wait for the right opportunity.

“I had other job offers, but they were going to be at positions and jobs that in two years you are going to say, ‘Why am I here? What’s going on?’ I said to myself, ‘Do I want to go down that road?’ ’’ Roberts said. “I had already taken over a job at St. John’s where we had rebuilt it, and we rebuilt it the way we were asked to rebuild it, and when we got to that point to actually take it to the next level, we weren’t allowed to finish that out. I just didn’t want to do that again if I didn’t have to.’’

Instead, he and Donovan now give the Gators’ staff perhaps the best pair of New York accents ever to work the same bench in the SEC.

“Being from New York, I’ve known Norm for a long time,’’ Donovan said. “Norm’s a guy that has been around. He has an impeccable reputation.’’

Roberts and Donovan, both 45, were born just two months apart and remain closely connected to New York hoops. While the city’s point guard collection might not be what it once was, there’s no doubt the Gators have even stronger recruiting ties to the city with Roberts on board.

Meanwhile, as he bounced around the country with Self and Donovan established Florida as a national program, Roberts watched from afar with a mixture of New Yorker pride and coaching respect.

“The thing that has always stood out to me about Billy and his teams is one, they play extremely hard,’’ Roberts said. “And the other thing is, I think he does an incredible job of taking guys’ skill sets – sometimes coaches take guys and try to change them – I think Billy does a great job of seeing whatever your skill set is, and then he is able to put it in his mind and say, ‘That works for me. That is going to help our team. We’re going to be good.’

“That is one of his greatest strengths as a coach.”

Roberts also sees similarities between Donovan and Self. The biggest difference may be that Self now goes by Bill, while Donovan has maintained Billy.

“The great thing you can say about Bill – and people always say this – he is the same guy,’’ Roberts said. “Even though he is making a lot of money and his status changed, he’ll come into this room – Billy does this too – and light the room up. He’ll never come into the room and say, ‘Hey, I’m Coach Bill Self with the Kansas Jayhawks.’ He’ll never do that.

“And I think that’s one of the best things people can say about someone, that they are a down-to-earth person. Billy is the same way.’’

About the time Roberts said that, you could hear Donovan down the hallway cracking a room up with a one-liner. The New York accent gave him away.


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