Ever since he first arrived in the Philippines in 1981, Norman Black has contributed immensely to the Philippine basketball scene as both a player and coach.
Recently, the former import-turned-coach sat down with Charlie Cuna, Noel Zarate, and Sid Ventura's in their new podcast entitled An Eternity of Basketball to discuss his playing and coaching career.
From LA to the PBA
In 1981 Black was part of the Detroit Pistons summer league team participating in the the Southern California Summer Pro League in Los Angeles.
Back then, things were different. There were no formal summer leagues unlike what the NBA holds in Las Vegas and Utah, and previously in Orlando.
Teams just sent a rag-tag squad of hopefuls from the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and undrafted players who would duke it out for over a month before cuts were made. Basically, it was a survival of the fittest.
The 6'5" forward managed to make the Pistons' roster in the previous year but only played in three games. To make matters worse, he also played sparingly in Detroit's summer squad.
"We were out there for about one month training and playing in the league and it gets to the last game, I'm not really playing that much. I'm only playing about 15 minutes a game. Not really scoring that much, maybe four or five points a game," recalled Black.
"I had an opportunity to go back with the Pistons to veterans camp, but they wouldn't guarantee me any money. So that was giving me problems because you know, it's hard to go back and go through the entire camp like I did the year before with the [Washington] Bullets and then at the end of the camp, two days before the season started, I got taken out of the team. So then you left to go back into CBA once again, so I wasn't really feeling that to be quite honest with you," he added.
After their final summer league game, a lanky 6'3" foreigner suddenly approached him and popped a question that would change his life.
Norman Black names his most unstoppable PBA import of all time
For long-time PBA import and coach Norman Black, Billy Ray Bates was super talented and had flair to go with his game.
"Do you want to play in the Philippines?" the man asked.
Black answered in the negative. But he did say that he was open to it. He had returned to Maryland, not knowing where the Philippines was, so he decided to look it up in an encyclopedia.
"I looked it up in the encyclopedia, the Philippines. We have bases here. So there were English-speaking people here. Also, almost all the Filipinos spoke English," said Black.
The Philippines, in terms of English proficiency, was miles ahead of Venezuela, where he had previously played. There, Black won a title with a club team comprising of its national team players, but he rarely talked to them because of the language barrier.
When Black decided to entertain the offer, he talked with Pistons team management, and they responded that the squad was willing to invite him back to the veteran's camp, but with no guaranteed money, much like what the Bullets did.
It was either going back to the CBA where he played for three years before or head to Southeast Asia. There, he called up the man who asked him. Black then revealed that it was PBA legend Jimmy Mariano who was trying to recruit him for Great Taste.
However, the team had already found its reinforcement in Lew Massey.
So it became an offer that was no longer there. As he prepared for veteran's camp, another PBA team came calling. It was Frank Harn, manager of the Tefilin Polyesters squad, on the other end of the line. He agreed, and the rest they say, is history.
Black went on to have an illustrious career in the PBA, first as an import and later as a playing-coach and coach.
'Billy Ray Bates was the best'
Two years after Black arrived, another import would take the PBA by storm. In Black's mind, he was the best ever to see action in the league.
"The best import-player for me, and it's only my opinion, was Billy Ray Bates," he said. "It's not that he did it that much better than everybody else, but he just did it very, very well and he did it with flair."
Bates went up against Black in his very first PBA game in 1983 and debuted with aplomb, dropping 64 points to Black's 59 in leading Crispa to a 120-119 win over Great Taste. All in all he played in four conferences and won two titles with Crispa in 1983 and Ginebra in 1986. In 98 PBA games, Bates averaged 46.2 points.
Prior to his PBA stint, Bates was a starter for the Portland Trailblazers in the 1981 NBA Playoffs where he averaged 28 points per game. In Black's mind, Bates was a legitimate NBA-level talent.
"He should have been a star professional player in the NBA if you ask me," Black said. "That's how talented he was, but he did have a lot of off-court problems he had to solve."
Despite his penchant for the night life, Bates proved unstoppable on the court, Black said.
"I could go to sleep at 11 o'clock, prepare myself for the game, eat well. Billy would probably stay out till three o'clock in the morning and still score 60 points. That's how good he was. He was a great player offensively but he could lock you down defensively too."
Three PBA players Norman Black would have wanted to play with
Norman Black played with dozens of great PBA players, but he wishes he could have been teammates with these three legends.
Sizing up PBA talent
As an import, Black suited up for Tefilin, San Miguel, Great Taste, Alaska and Pop Cola and got a chance to play with and against some of the greatest players of his time like Ricky Brown, Mon Fernandez, and Abet Guidaben.
But there were three players from the 1980s whom he never had a chance to play with and wishes he had.
The first was Robert Jaworski, who played with Toyota, then Ginebra and its iterations. Jaworski, who was wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor, also caught the eye of Black.
"I had this little, it was something that we'd never talked about, but it got to the point where he was within two or three feet of me, I was trying to hit him already. And, you know, my whole thing was, you know, I'm gonna hit first before I get hit, because I know he's gonna take the ball out of bounds and bump into me, he's gonna do something to rile me up, but I really wish I could have played with him. That would that would have definitely been a pleasure," Black said.
Another one was Jaworski's former backcourt partner, Francis Arnaiz. "Mr. Clutch," though just standing at 5'10, was fearless on offense, especially when the game was on the line.
"I was always amazed by Francis Arnaiz, I couldn't believe how this 5'10" guard could come through the lane and shoot a finger roll from the foul line and consistently," Black explained.
He even compared Arnaiz to another diminutive guard that played a decade later.
"I believe that I mean, I just thought he was very, very talented for his size and, and he could easily get to the basket anytime he wanted. He was almost like a Johnny Abarrientos before Johnny came along."
The last one was bonafide scorer Atoy Co. The "Fortune Cookie" torched the nets, and was the first to score 5,000 and 10,000 PBA career points.
Co's confidence in putting the ball through the hoop was the main reason for Black wanting to have played with him.
"Atoy was the type of player that would be out on the fast break, nobody in front of him then he would stop in the foul line and take a jump shot. And make it," reminisced Black.
"I said, something's wrong with this guy. He had a wide open layup, he stops at the foul line. Takes a jump shot from the foul line. Had personality, he had character. And you could understand why the PBA was so popular back in those days."
'Mon Fernandez is the best player ever'
Norman Black explains why he thinks Mon Fernandez is the PBA's GOAT.
"El Presidente" still the GOAT
Black, who has seen it all in the PBA after almost 40 years, still subscribes to the fact that Ramon Fernandez, the most decorated player in league history, should still be considered as the greatest of all time.
"Don Ramon," who played for two decades in Asia's first pay-for-play league, stands tall as the league's career scoring leader, shot blocker, and free throw maker. He also amassed the most playing minutes, and is second all-time in assists, game played, and steals.
"In my mind he's the best player to ever play in the PBA. And I say that because, I'm always into production. I know June Mar (Fajardo) has been very productive. June Mar is great, by the way. I coached against him in college. I know how good he is.
"But Mon has led the league in scoring, rebounds assists, steals, blocks, you name it. He holds the record for most championships in the PBA. So until June Mar can accomplish those things..."
The winningest player in PBA history, Fernandez bagged 19 championships, just three short of what Tim Cone achieved as a coach.
Being the star center for Toyota, Beer Hausen/Manila Beer, Tanduay, and Purefoods, Fernandez and Black faced off countless times in the paint.
As Black would recollect, Fernandez would spew out words against the import that the former would not utter once again.
In 1988, their paths would cross again as Fernandez was shipped to the San Miguel Beermen in exchange for rival Abet Guidaben.
"He called me names over the years, but when I met him, in practice, for the first time, I sat down with him," remembered Black, who was then the player-coach of the team.
"And I told him, You know, I know we've had our differences. We've had our battles, but hey, let's just go out and try to win games. To my surprise, he said, 'Okay, coach, let's get it done.'"
Fernandez, who was a 6'4 forward/center impressed Black because of his versatility on offense. Whether it was his patented "elegant shot," "kili-kili shot," and some other shots that he had names for, much like Kevin McHale, Fernandez had a vast repertoire of moves.
Black explained that those shots were not careless attempts, but rather a product of constant hard work and practice.
"He had so many different types of shots that had names. He actually practiced those shots. It wasn't like it was just happening in the game. This guy was a hard worker in practice. He got on the court and practiced his skills. That's why he was as good as he was. And you know, we went on to win maybe the next, I don't know, maybe seven out of nine championships like that with him, we went on to win the Grand Slam, we won that third conference where I actually played as an import," said Black, referring to their 1989 campaign.