Norman Black: He Will Always Be Remembered

Farewell Coach, may the Fates treat you well, and
may you continue to find success in the PBA.
It’s rare that the choices one man makes directly affect the course of events for an entire community. It’s rare such a thing happens for someone who is not in public office, or someone who is not commanding legions in a corporate hierarchy.

This is why Norman Black is a rarity. And the thing that makes him a superlative rarity, that is a rarity among other rarities, is that he has climbed to the summit of college basketball and remained there for the past five years.

Now that he’s leaving the UAAP and returning to his old stomping grounds, Coach Norman will undoubtedly be remembered as the bemedaled and beloved mentor who reinstated the winning tradition in Ateneo basketball.

This is why I am jumping on the bandwagon and giving him my own simple tribute in my little corner of the sports-writing world. This I believe – Ateneans all over owe Coach Norman, more than any other player or patron, for the past five bonfires. His coaching acumen, his eye for talent, and his demeanor on and off the court have made him the benchmark against which all other college hoops mentors are measured.

It, however, wasn’t always that way. There was a time he had mighty struggles, too. There were times his team fell short of the target. There were times people doubted him, and, perhaps, there were also times he doubted himself.

At this point in time, though, there is absolutely zero doubt about the impact he has made on his players, his staff, the Ateneo community, the UAAP, and college basketball in general. So let’s use a tesseract and go back in time. Let’s look back at the colorful collegiate coaching career of a man rare among other rare men.

Three Seasons of Hurt

Season 68
Coach Norman's first game was on July 10, 2005.

Ateneo lost to DLSU, 78-60, as Franz Pumaren notched his 100th career win in the UAAP. The Ateneans, who enjoyed an immense size advantage, went behind by 30 points at the half and never recovered. The Eagles would eventually win 10 of their next 13 games, but La Salle upstaged them anew in the Final Four.

Season 69
Ateneo won 10 of its 12 elims games. They beat Adamson in the Final Four.

They faced UST in the Finals, winning Game 1 before losing Games 2 & 3 to finish at second place.

The turning point seemed to be the Eagles’ second round encounter with the Tigers. Ateneo was looking to go 9-0 for the first time ever, and UST was in the way. This was supposed to be an easy game, since the Eagles beat the Tigers, 114-78, in the first round, and UST was missing many key players. Ateneo led by 3 with 10 seconds to go in regulation. They chose to foul Japs Cuan, who was known to be a terrible free throw shooter. Cuan made the first and missed the second. Allan Evangelista rebounded the ball and scored on a put-back to tie the game. UST won in OT, 88-80.

*The Finals series against UST was truly a memorable one, even if Coach Norman was on the losing end. It's one of the most-rehashed series in recent memory, so I won't discuss it here anymore.

Season 70
Despite losing its vaunted 2006 core of JC Intal, Doug Kramer, and Macky Escalona to graduation, the Eagles still advanced to the Final Four with a 9-5 slate, where they faced the De La Salle Green Archers in a virtual best-of-three affair for a Finals ticket.

Ateneo beat DLSU both times in the elims, so they were favored to advance, but the Archers upped their play in the second-seed playoff game, beating the Eagles, 70-69. Ateneo beat UST in a stepladder match, 69-64, for the right to face DLSU again. The Eagles, thanks to Chris Tiu’s game-winning drive, beat La Salle, 65-64, to force a rubber match, which the Archers won, 65-60. The Greenies would go on to win two more games and upset the erstwhile undefeated UE Red Warriors in the Finals.

This was a frustrating result for Coach Norman. His squad failed to return to the Finals and, for the second time in three years, they were eliminated by the Green Archers.

A lot of people doubted if this “experiment” – using a PBA coach to helm a UAAP team – would work. Three Final Four stints and playing in the 2006 Finals were commendable, but the Ateneo community, especially top patron Manny Pangilinan, wanted a title. Clearly, they were tired of winning in the early part of the season only to lose in the most crucial stages.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, the Eagles finally did clinch a title, winning the Collegiate Champions League after beating the University of the Visayas Green Lancers in the Finals. From then on, things would continue to go up in an unprecedented rise to dominance.

Five Seasons of Grace

Season 71
Buoyed by quite possibly the best recruitment class in recent history, the Ateneo Blue Eagles went on to win 13 of their 14 elims games. Their only loss was against the FEU Tamaraws, 72-66, in the first round. Ateneo beat the UE Red Warriors, 70-50, in the Final Four before facing their age-old nemesis, the De La Salle Green Archers, in the Finals.

Ateneo beat La Salle twice in the elims, 79-73 in the first round and 65-57 in the second. Coach Norman’s wards would go on to continue their dominance over the Archers, winning Game 1, 69-61, before clinching their first UAAP crown in 6 years, 62-51, in Game 2.

Finally, Coach Norman delivered his first UAAP title. He would then add the UniGames crown a few months later, but little did he know that his prized freshmen, Justin Chua, Nico Salva, and Ryan Buenafe (Vince Burke was also a talented rookie, but he would only go on to play one more year for the Blue & White before eventually moving to the States) would all play vital roles in helping him build one of the most dominant basketball dynasties in Philippine amateur basketball.

Coach Norman finally gets a UAAP title in 2008.

Season 72
With his core players intact (only captain Chris Tiu played out his eligibility), Coach Norman didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble dominating the collegiate scene in 2009. Ateneo posted another 13-1 elims record in the UAAP before beating UST in the Final Four, 81-64, and then a gritty Paul Lee-led UE squad in three Finals games for a rare title repeat. They would go on to defeat St. Francis of Assisi College in the UniGames Finals before completing a collegiate grand slam by besting the Tamaraws in the Philippine Collegiate Championship League (PCCL) Finals.

Just when things were really looking up, however, reality dawned on Coach Norman and the rest of the Ateneo faithful. Their best big men, Rabeh Al-Hussaini and Nonoy Baclao, and their best shooter, Jai Reyes, were now leaving the team. Could they continue their meteoric ascent despite these subtractions and with no blue chip acquisition?

Coach Norman repeats, but finds a daunting
task ahead of Season 73.

Season 73
The answer would be an emphatic yes, thanks primarily to the play of the 2008 rookie class (Chua, Salva, and Buenafe), and Ateneo’s super senior team captain, Eric Salamat. Though they weren’t nearly as dominant as the previous two editions of the team, the Eagles continued to remain serious contenders. They finished the elims with a 10-4 card, losing once each to DLSU and UE, and twice to FEU.

Coach Norman continued his mastery of Adamson in the Final Four, 68-55, before facing the daunting task of defeating a supremely confident FEU side in the Finals.

Leaning on a balanced attack, the Ateneans dominated the Tamaraws in Game 1, fashioning out an unexpected 72-49 shellacking. Game 2 was much closer, with the lead swinging back and forth. The decisive moment, however, was when Ryan Buenafe shot a big triple late in the fourth over FEU’s Carl Cruz. That was one of the finest games in Buenafe’s UAAP career, and it secured an improbable three-peat for Coach Norman.

With the help of Kirk Long, Coach Norman leads Ateneo to
its first UAAP three-peat.

Season 74
Riding on the cusp of their third UAAP title in a row, not to mention another PCCL title, and now armed with the most promising young tandem in the country – 7-foot Greg Slaughter and rookie sensation Kiefer Ravena – Ateneo was, once again, installed as a runaway favorite for the crown.

The Eagles didn’t disappoint, building another 13-1 elims record, with the lone loss coming at the hands of the Adamson Falcons, who finally beat Ateneo after what seemed like forever. The Blue Eagles narrowly beat UST in the Final Four, 69-66, before blasting the Tamaraws in both Finals matches, 82-64 in Game 1 and 82-69 in Game 2.

This four-peat enabled Coach Norman to join the ranks of legendary mentors Aric Del Rosario and Franz Pumaren as the only coaches able to steer their respective teams to four straight titles in the Final Four era.

Coach Norman joins some of the best coaches in local hoops history
after the Eagles secure a fourth straight title.

Season 75
Before the season even began, it was clear that this would be Coach Norman’s last as Ateneo’s head tactician. Without a doubt, he wanted to leave a winner.

The road to victory, however, was peppered with controversy. Foremost of which was the unexpected decision of patron Manny Pangilinan’s absolute and total pullout from the Ateneo. Another was the hefty amount of suspensions meted and protests filed through the UAAP Board. These distractions were seen as potential roadblocks to Ateneo’s drive for five.

Like he has done in the previous years, though, Coach Norman was able to let his players tune out these outside factors and simply focus on the immediate task – winning another championship.

The Eagles finished atop the standings again with a 12-2 record. They escaped the upset axe against La Salle in the Final Four, 66-63, before sweeping a very game UST side in the Finals. The Eagles’ close wins, 83-78 in Game 1 and 65-62 in Game 2, effectively exorcised the demons of their 2006 defeat and gave Coach Norman a fitting farewell.

Kiefer Ravena and Coach Norman show off their dancing chops after
the Eagles annexed an unprecedented 5-peat in the UAAP's Final Four era.
(image by Erwin Cabbab/

In the nine years (2004 as consultant, 2005-2012 as coach) Norman Black has been with Ateneo, he has produced a number of achievements anyone else would be hard-pressed to duplicate. He is a proven winner, and he brought that winning attitude, mindset, and aura, to a school that needed it dearly.

Now he leaves the aerie peaks of Loyola to return to the hallowed grounds of the PBA. He leaves a program that, once again, finds itself in a state of flux and uncertainty. Nevertheless, all Ateneans should be thankful for what Coach Norman has given, has sacrificed, for the team and for the school.

He will be remembered as a man with a brilliant basketball mind, a humble heart, and an unwavering commitment to discipline.  His legacy will be imprinted in Ateneo lore as perhaps the best mentor to ever steer an Ateneo quintet.

He will be remembered for helping the Eagles through the hurts, and guiding the Eagles with grace.

Coach Norman Black. He will always be remembered.

*Unless otherwise specified, all images are by Philip Sison/
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