Home TeamTheir household riven by mental illness, Illinois's BrianCook and his mom have held on to each other for dear life

February 04, 2002

From the very beginning Joyce Cook held her baby boy close. First
it was out of stubbornness, for there was no way she was giving
him up for adoption, even if everyone else thought she should.
Then it was out of maternal instinct, to protect her child. From
the very beginning, however, this was no ordinary mother-son
relationship, and even as Joyce shielded her boy, Brian, he was
also protecting her. Because if Joyce woke up in the morning
holding Brian close, then maybe, just maybe, her husband, Norman,
would wait a few hours before hitting her.

Norman was in a bad way back then. He'd been a star in the small,
basketball-mad town of Lincoln, Ill., a coltish 6'8" forward who
in 1973 led the Lincoln Community High Railsplitters to a 30-1
record and a berth in the Elite Eight of the state tournament.
Three years later Norman was All-Big Eight at Kansas and the
first Jayhawk since Wilt Chamberlain 16 years earlier to leave
the school before his senior year to enter the NBA draft. The
Boston Celtics selected him in the first round of the '76 draft,
and he appeared in 25 games as a rookie, averaging 2.5 points
before getting cut at the end of the season. The following year
he played briefly with the Denver Nuggets, but soon after he was
out of basketball and back in Lincoln, with little money, no
degree and no prospects. He was also starting to manifest the
first signs of an acute mental illness that would be diagnosed as
paranoid schizophrenia.

Joyce didn't know at the time that Norman was sick, but it wasn't
long before she felt as if she were living in a violent prison
with no way out. "He hit me several times a day," Joyce says. "I
would sit and wonder what I did to deserve it." In 1982, two
years after Brian was born and a year after marrying Norman,
Joyce gave birth to a girl, Kristina, whom Joyce says she
conceived with her husband while he held a knife to her throat.
Says Joyce, "I wished I was dead quite a lot. Then I would think,
Where would the kids go? What would they do? I decided I'd do
whatever it took to make sure they were O.K. It makes for a real
close bond."

Those days, thankfully, are long gone. Joyce, 39, divorced Norman
15 years ago and today supports her family by working as a
telephone-company dispatcher. Norman is being treated at the
Andrew McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield, Ill., the
latest in a string of court-ordered confinements. Kristina is a
senior at Lincoln Community High and has accepted a volleyball
scholarship to Illinois Central College, a junior college in East
Peoria. Brian is a 6'10" junior forward for 12th-ranked Illinois.
A second-team All-Big Ten selection a year ago, he was averaging
11.8 points and 6.0 rebounds for the 15-5 Illini through Sunday,
and he's considered a bona fide NBA prospect. He also remains the
apple of his mother's eye, a thoughtful and sensitive young man
who seems to possess his father's physical gifts but none of his
demons.

There's a sense, though, that the same traits that make Brian so
lovable off the court are preventing him from realizing his
potential on it. "Brian is the type of player who leaves you
wanting more," Illinois coach Bill Self says. "He shows flashes
of dominance, and then he goes back to being another face in the
crowd. He's way too unselfish out there."

Having been an assistant at Kansas in the 1985-86 season, Self
knew all about Norman Cook's legacy when he became the coach at
Illinois before Brian's sophomore year, but he has never talked
to Brian about his father. "I was told that that was something
better left unsaid," says Self. Indeed, for much of Brian's life,
the subject has rarely been discussed. When Brian started
college, Joyce asked the Illini staff to shoo away reporters who
asked about Norman. (She granted her first interview on the topic
to a newspaper last March.) Brian has come to understand,
however, that silence only cloaks the past in shame. He believes
it's time to remove the cloak. "I've been asked about my dad
since I started high school," he says. "I've gotten to the point
where I want to tell people about it because it's something that
should be addressed."

Joyce Kelley, who was also a standout player at Lincoln Community
High, was 17 when she first met the 23-year-old Norman at the
school's gym. She was white; he was black. When her father, Jack,
found out they were dating, he kicked Joyce out of the house and
threatened to shoot Norman if he ever set foot on Jack's
property. Joyce moved in with her mother, Fran, and soon became
pregnant with Brian. After Brian was born on Dec. 4, 1980, Norman
and Joyce lived with Norman's family for six months before
finding a place of their own. Monthly welfare checks were their
main source of income, but Joyce's biggest concern wasn't a lack
of money. It was Norman's abusiveness, which became increasingly
frequent as his schizophrenia got worse.

Schizophrenia is not, as is widely believed, a condition that
begets multiple personalities. Rather, it's thought to be an
abnormal functioning of the brain's limbic system, which serves
as a sort of switchboard operator for the mind, filtering and
interpreting sensory input. As a result of this malfunction, most
schizophrenics suffer from delusions and hallucinations,
especially auditory ones, the voice-in-my-head torment that is
the stuff of dark fiction. Without the ability to distinguish
these delusions from reality, schizophrenics become chronically
confused, withdrawn and, in some cases, violent.

Three fourths of schizophrenics start showing symptoms between
the ages of 17 and 25. Norman was 24 when the illness began to
seriously take its toll on his and Joyce's marriage.

It's impossible to know how much of Norman's abusiveness toward
Joyce was attributable to his schizophrenia. What is evident is
that he spent most of their five-year marriage trying to foil
what he believed were his wife's plans to entertain paramours. He
was, quite literally, insanely jealous. "Norman wouldn't let me
go anywhere," Joyce says. "When I walked down the street with
him, I couldn't look up. He nailed shut all of the windows. When
he left the house, he would lock me in. I wanted to leave him,
but I didn't know where to go."

In the fall of 1985 Joyce finally contacted the Logan County
Health Department, which sent personnel to the house to
investigate. The authorities ended up putting Norman into a
straitjacket and taking him to the McFarland Center, where he
remained for about a week. When doctors eventually established
his diagnosis as paranoid schizophrenia, it allowed him to
receive antipsychotic medication and disability payments. Joyce
moved out with the kids the following spring and filed for
divorce in June 1986.

Norman's successes would have made it hard enough for Brian to
play for Lincoln Community High, but he also had to contend with
Norman's failures. In the more than 15 years since Joyce divorced
him, Norman has been committed to McFarland nearly a dozen times,
has had numerous run-ins with the law (including convictions for
aggravated assault and intimidation) and has frequently been
spotted riding his bicycle around town looking unkempt and
jabbering with voices only he could hear. Says Northern Illinois
coach Rob Judson, who recruited and coached Brian while an
assistant at Illinois, "There's an element in Lincoln that
wouldn't mind seeing Brian wash out, so they can say, 'You're
just like Norman.'"

As Joyce bounced from one low-wage job to another, she did her
best to provide for and protect Brian as he began to blossom on
the court. She was ultra strict when it came to his schoolwork,
and she refused to let him spend his summers traveling around the
country with AAU coaches. Brian, in turn, tried to shield his
mother from suitors, who came around more often after Brian's
athletic potential became apparent. (Joyce never remarried, but
in 1988 she had another daughter, Natasha Wilson, whose father,
Paul, lives in Edwardsville, Ill.) Says Lincoln Community High
coach Neil Alexander, "The relationship between Joyce and Brian
is a lot more like sister-brother than mother-son."

Brian kept improving as a player until, in his senior year, he
also led Lincoln Community to an Elite Eight berth in the state
tournament. He averaged 21.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.2
blocks, and was named Illinois's Mr. Basketball and a McDonald's
All-American. Not surprisingly, he never considered attending
college far from home. The day Brian left home for the hourlong
drive to Champaign, he and Joyce spent 10 minutes bawling in each
other's arms.

During his 2 1/2 years at Illinois, Brian has been one of the
nation's most tantalizing--and enigmatic--players. He averaged 9.0
points and 4.5 rebounds his first season and was named
co-freshman of the year in the Big Ten. Still, he scored a total
of two points in the Illini's two NCAA tournament games that
season. As a sophomore he exploded in the first half of games
against Missouri and Penn State, going for 23 and 22 points,
respectively, but then scored only two points in the second half
of the former and zero in the latter. He's putting up decent
numbers this season, but they're essentially the same as they
were a year ago. His passivity can be seen in the infrequency
with which he gets to the foul line (3.0 attempts per game).

"The athleticism is there, the skills are there," says one NBA
executive who has scouted Cook, "but there's a mental piece."
During Brian's first two seasons in Champaign, Judson would
sometimes ask Joyce to stand by the Illini bench when the players
came out at halftime so she could urge Brian to shoot more.
"Brian wants to please everyone," says Judson, "so he's always
looking for you to tell him what to do. He's not going to get
down in the post and scream for the ball."

Brian acknowledges the criticism--"I'm the type of person who
doesn't like to hurt people or make them angry," he says. "I
guess that's why I just go with the flow sometimes"--and he
wonders what his game would be like if he'd grown up with an
older male figure around. "I see [freshman teammate] Roger Powell
with his dad, who played at Illinois State, and how hard he is on
Roger," Brian says. "Maybe if my dad had done that for me, things
would be a little different."

As he advances into adulthood, Brian is still deciding how--and
whether--to stay connected with Norman, who has seen Brian play at
Illinois only once, during an intrasquad exhibition game in
Brian's freshman year. The following summer Brian went to see
Norman, but the visit ended abruptly when Norman got angry at
Brian for refusing to pick up his disability check. The last time
Brian saw Norman was at the home of Norman's mother, Lizzel, in
December 2000, but Norman quickly walked away without seeming to
recognize either Brian or Kristina.

"I have a lot of love for my dad," Brian says. "Without him, I
wouldn't be here and I wouldn't have the skills that I have. I
really don't know how he sees me. Maybe the voices in his head
are telling him I'm the enemy."

As for Joyce, she's 10 credit hours shy of earning an associate's
degree from Heartland Community College. She attends all of
Brian's home games and most of the away games, and is in frequent
touch with the Illinois coaching staff, monitoring Brian's
progress. Her days of overprotectiveness are gone, however. Asked
about the possibility that next spring Brian, a sports-management
major, might choose to leave college a year early to play in the
NBA--just as Norman did--she says, "I'd love to have his degree in
my hand, but it's his decision. It's his life."

But is he ready to seize it? "I know I have a lot to learn," he
says. A self-described "big, goofy kid," Brian has been known to
play hide-and-seek in the Illinois locker room with his coaches'
little kids. He hopes someday to become a coach or a teacher.
Asked what he enjoys so much about being around children, Brian
replies, "Innocence. Little kids don't judge you or talk about
you behind your back. They want to go along with life and be
happy."

As difficult as Brian's own childhood was, his experiences could
serve him well should he choose to be an educator someday. He may
have a lot to learn, but he also has a lot to teach.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II STICKING TOGETHER Brian and Joyce are so close that Illinois coaches used to seat her near the court so she could try to get Brian to play to his potential. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN D. HANLON BEFORE THE FALL Norman Cook (with ball) averaged 14.8 points as a junior in 1975-76 and then went pro. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK UP AND DOWN In a loss to Arizona, Cook took only eight shots.

"I've been asked about my dad since high school," says Brian.
"Now I want to tell people about him."

"Brian shows flashes of dominance," says Self, "then goes back
to being a face in the crowd."

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