Wait, who’s Jason Norman?
It’s not surprising if you haven’t heard of him. Though he may be this year’s men’s basketball captain—as a junior, no less—the only returning starter and “arguably the best athlete in the league,” according to ivybasketball.com, it’s still understandable if you haven’t heard of him.
After all, the junior from California is admittedly soft-spoken and his insertion into the starting lineup last year was overshadowed by senior Patrick Harvey’s departure from the team.
It’s not quite so understandable if you haven’t ever heard Norman making a big play. No, not heard of. Just heard.
That’s because the roar that comes out of Lavietes Pavilion every time Norman makes a steal, drives the lane or blocks a shot seems to echo far beyond the athletic complex and into the cushy dorm rooms of Harvard students both in the River Houses and in the Quad.
The source of that eruption—Norman’s personal entourage, you could call it—all but makes up for his relative silence.
“Those are just my good friends and blockmates,” Norman says with a quiet chuckle and sheepish grin.
Such an understated response seems a bizarre reaction from a man who appears to have the captaincy locked up for the next two years and is the leader of a talented, if inexperienced, team.
“To be honest, this is probably the toughest time I’ve ever had with basketball,” Norman says.
Wait, what’s he saying? He’s already a captain as a junior. Shouldn’t he be a bit more arrogant? Seriously, where does this guy come from?
Though he lettered all four years on the varsity squad at Bellarmine College Prep, Norman didn’t even move to the Golden State until midway through his freshman year.
After growing up in Rochester, N.Y. and living in Houston, Texas for a while, Norman moved in with his uncle and aunt in Woodside, a suburb of San Jose. From there, he attended Bellarmine Prep and was on a track for success.
“He came to us as a very skilled athlete, someone who had played a lot of basketball and someone with a lot of potential,” said Patrick Schneider, Norman’s high school coach.
Though Norman had an incredible amount of talent, his style of play and basketball sense were still not quite as developed as the coaching staff desired.
In his early years at Bellarmine Prep, Norman relied heavily on his pure ability to blow by defenders and create scoring opportunities for himself, rather than learning how to get around his opponents, fight off screens and work within the team system.
“Our league plays a very good, physical, high level of defense,” Schneider said. “He needed to learn to play with a more controlled structure.”
Such a transition took time for Norman, who didn’t really come into his own under Schneider’s system until his junior and senior years of high school. It was during those crucial years that he learned how to improve his help defense, play more physically and exploit a spread out offense that focused on drawing double or triple teams in order to create space and free up the middle for driving to the basket.
Ultimately, it wasn’t until his final year at Bellarmine Prep that Norman came into his own as a truly mature player.
During this senior year, he earned the West Catholic Athletic League Player of the Year award and captained his squad to the League championship.
His leadership style was distinctive, and one that would follow him all the way to Cambridge.
“He clearly led by example, and knew he had to lead by example,” Schneider said. “If he needed to, he would say something, but really [he] left the vocal leadership to a teammate.”
Follow the Leader
While Norman’s game had progressed considerably under Schneider’s tutelage, not all components of it were as complete as Norman or the Harvard coaches hoped.
“One of the things I regret most about high school was not picking up what my coach was telling me about my defense, and how I needed to pick it up to play at the next level,” Norman said. “It would have made me a much better player if I had picked up those things at a much earlier level.”
When he came to Harvard, Norman’s shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball plagued him. He didn’t see significant action until the end of his freshman year, when his defensive game had developed enough to warrant more minutes on the court.
But by the end of the year, Norman was averaging more points than any other Crimson freshman.
Perhaps more important than his development on the court was the experience he gained from two of Harvard’s best leaders in recent memory.
“I think one of the nice components of our system now is that we have had one captain for a while,” coach Frank Sullivan said. “He’s been very fortunate to have been on two teams with really superior captains in Andrew Gellert [’02] and Brady Merchant [’03].”
If there was ever a man from whom to learn defense, it was Gellert, whose on-court intensity and team play were legendary.
While setting the school record for steals (242), Gellert’s defensive intensity seemed to infect his teammates, and he led the Crimson to the most steals (9.1) and forced turnovers (17.1) per game in the Ivy League.
“I learned a lot from him, since he worked so hard every practice and every game,” Norman said. “He’s one of the toughest players to play here.”
While Gellert taught Norman how to be a leader on the court, Merchant displayed a different quality of a leader in dealing with last year’s troublesome off-the-court issues surrounding Harvey.
The loss of the team’s leading scorer and offensive linchpin was an early, shocking end to what seemed a season of destiny.
After bursting out of the gate to the quickest ten-win mark in the program’s history, the Crimson appeared well positioned to take on the Ivy schedule.
But without Harvey’s scoring and play-making abilities, the team stumbled through league play, ending the season with a disappointing 4-10 conference record.
It was Merchant who had to develop his game the most once Harvey was gone, as he found himself the key to the offensive system.
“Brady’s just a great teammate,” Norman said. “He always made people feel comfortable. He’s been a good friend of mine since freshman year.”
And while the loss of the team’s most electric player was devastating, the more active role in the lineup certainly benefited Norman, who got the starting nod in place of Harvey and finished the year averaging over five points a game.
“Personally, I’d say it did help in terms of getting more experience on the court in competitive situations,” sophomore center Brian Cusworth said. “I think he definitely did benefit from the situation, although it was tough on the team just losing a great scorer and a great teammate, a great defender. If you break it down, personally, Jason did benefit from the fact that that allowed for him to get more minutes, get more experience.”
But Norman, ever the humble man, tried to downplay his own part.
“It was tough, especially for me,” Norman said.
Invasion at Normandy
If Norman thought last year was tough, this year is going to be even more difficult. The loss of the entire starting lineup—which included Harvey, Merchant, Sam Winter ’03, Brian Sigafoos ’03 and Elliott Prasse-Freeman ’03—has cast a dark shadow over the Crimson’s hopes for Ivy success.
Harvard has been picked by the so-called experts to finish in the bottom half of a league that in general lost a lot of talent to graduation.
Even more troublesome is the fact that the Crimson’s biggest inside threat, Cusworth, is expected to miss 4-6 weeks due to a foot injury.
Other than Norman, Cusworth was the biggest non-senior contributor last year, averaging 6.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.
So now, all eyes have shifted to the junior captain.
“It’s a very difficult thing for Jason to step into,” Sullivan said. “You don’t feel the [same thing seniors do]. You know, sometimes seniors say, ‘Okay, this is my last 26 games. Okay, this is my last seven games. Okay, this is my last practice. This might be end of the road for me.’ But he has two years.”
With Cusworth sidelined for the time being, much of the scoring burden will fall on the shoulders of Harvard’s three-guard attack. Though Sullivan remains unclear about who his starters will be, Norman will be joined in the back court by juniors Kevin Rogus and David Giovacchini and sophomore Michael Beal. Last year, that trio averaged only 6.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game—combined.
So, when it comes right down to it, the pressure has never been greater. But if there is one man who can lead Harvard to the top, it is Jason Norman. Just don’t look for him to admit it. It’s not his style.
—Staff writer Evan R. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.