An opposing coach in college once described Coniel Norman as the “finest pure shooter” he had ever seen.
It was 1972 and Coniel was a rising star on the University of Arizona basketball team. Coniel was named “Freshman of the Year” that season. He averaged more than 25 points a game. His nickname on the court was “Popcorn” because when he got hot, his shots would pop through the basket in rapid succession.
Norman continued his scoring prowess in his sophomore year. He was then drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers.
In his rookie NBA season, Norman played against Dave Bing, who was then with the Washington Bullets. Bing would later be traded to Detroit, where Coniel is from and where Bing would become mayor almost 40 years after Coniel led Detroit Kettering to two straight Public League championships.
At the grand opening of Piquette Square for Veterans on July 15, Bing and Norman shared a stage once again. The Mayor spoke about how Piquette Square is an important development in addressing the serious and growing problem of homelessness in the city. Coniel spoke as a resident of Piquette and former homeless veteran.
Norman played three seasons in the NBA. Two with the 76ers and then one with the San Diego Clippers, after a two year stint in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). After being released by the Clippers in 1979, Norman enlisted in the military.
“My brother served in the Army and was in Vietnam,” Coniel says. “I was looking for a career after basketball and I wanted to see what military life was like.”
Norman was stationed in Germany and served four years. He left in 1983 and then played professional basketball in Europe for seven seasons. His basketball career ended when he was injured in a serious car accident on the Autobahn.
Coniel returned to America and moved to Los Angeles. He trained to become a counselor and worked for a mental health agency for more than 15 years.
In 2008, Norman’s life began to fall apart because of substance abuse. He was nearly homeless for a year.
“After a while, I got sick and tired of how I was destroying myself,” Coniel says. “I kept thinking: My mother and father brought me up to be better than this. I also thought: What if my sisters saw me like this?”
Coniel went to a drug rehabilitation program and stopped using. He then asked a friend who is a social worker to reach out to his sister Renee in Detroit. Of his four siblings, Coniel felt closest to Renee, who is the youngest in the family. Still, Coniel had not spoken to Renee in 26 years.
“I had to make sure it was really him when we spoke on the phone,” Renee says. “So I asked him about his memories of my daughter Cassie. From what he said and the way he said it, I knew it was Coniel.”
Renee and Cassie immediately flew to LA to bring Coniel back to Detroit. It was an emotional reunion.
“We may not have seen each other for many years, but we are still family and the bond will always be there,” Renee says.
Coniel stayed with Renee for a few months and then moved into Piquette Square soon after the project opened in early June.
At the Piquette ceremony, Coniel spoke about his long journey back to Detroit and his appreciation of being in the building.
“I couldn’t believe it when I got into Piquette Square,” he told the audience of 500 people, including Cassie. “Sometimes I still have a hard believing that I’m here. But I thank God for it. The apartments are beautiful. All of us who live here are grateful for the generosity of all the people who made this building possible and who donated things to make us feel at home. It is my honor to thank you all from all the veterans at Piquette.”
When the ceremony ended, Mayor Bing warmly extended his hand to Coniel and both men smiled. It was a moment of shared and unspoken reminiscence of the vitality of youth and the thrill of the game at its highest level. It was also a moment of poignancy, showing how life journeys can coincide, then diverge dramatically, and then intersect again so unexpectedly.
The Mayor offered Coniel his encouragement and his support, should Coniel need it in the future.
Days after the event, two reporters in Arizona sought out Coniel. They had seen his name in a Detroit Free Press article about the Piquette ceremony. Coniel remains a legend in Arizona Wildcats basketball. He set the single season scoring record for a freshman, and Wildcats fans still talk about whether “Popcorn” may have been the best shooter ever to wear the Arizona jersey. Each reporter wrote an article: one entitled “Great UA shooter now rebounding”; the other called “Healing process begins for Norman.”
In his apartment at Piquette, Coniel has a scrapbook of articles and photos about his basketball accomplishments, from Detroit Kettering to the NBA. Renee put the book together, and it served as her tangible connection to her brother during the years when she did not know where he was.
“The book is on loan to Coniel to help inspire him,” Renee says. “I treasure it deeply.”
Coniel is anxious to begin a new stage in his life. He recently started the green jobs training program called Detroit GreenWorks Solutions. The program is led by Southwest Solutions, in partnership with The Greening of Detroit and WARM Training. Coniel is receiving training in landscaping and forestry.