Tropical impression Miami: Kevin Norris (Lake Clifton) and Johnny Hemsley (Southern) give the Hurricanes a taste of Baltimore basketball, and the school's first NCAA berth since 1960 could be the icing on the cake.

January 17, 1998|By Chris Perkins | Chris Perkins,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MIAMI -- To understand how important Baltimore natives Kevin Norris and Johnny Hemsley are to the University of Miami basketball team, you only have to watch them play.

You have to see Norris, all 5 feet, 9 inches of him, at the top of the key shaking down a defender with the crossover dribble that often precedes a behind-the-back, no-look pass.

You have to see Hemsley, a slender but muscular 6-5, raining jumpers into the basket from 15 feet, or slashing through the lane for a layup.

Norris, a senior point guard who attended Lake Clifton, and Hemsley, a sophomore swingman from Southern-Baltimore, bring the skills and attitudes of East Coast basketball to the previously docile Hurricanes.

"That's just the mentality it appears those kids on the playgrounds of Baltimore seem to develop if they're going to survive every day," Miami coach Leonard Hamilton said. "It's nothing new to them."

The contributions of Norris, the school's all-time assists leader 00 with 428, and Hemsley, Miami's second-leading scorer at 14.4 points per game, have helped the Hurricanes to one of the best starts in the nation.

At 12-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big East, Miami is eyeing its first NCAA tournament berth since 1960.

Saturday's 98-84 loss at No. 25 West Virginia -- coming four days after a 76-67 upset of then-No. 8 Connecticut -- prevented Miami from earning its first Associated Press national ranking since 1960. The Hurricanes last were ranked in 1965 in the discontinued United Press International poll.

Of course, Hamilton isn't concerning himself with rankings or a tournament berth right now.

He's more concerned with Miami getting better at running its newly installed up-tempo offense and executing its pressing and half-court defenses.

East Baltimore beginnings

Norris and Hemsley, who both honed their games at Cecil Kirk Recreation Center in East Baltimore, are big keys to each of those elements.

Norris' toughness sets the tempo. Sometimes it's something as simple as the in-your-face defensive style he plays. Other times, it's a threatening elbow flashed in the face of an aggressive defender.

Hemsley's offense gives the Hurricanes a weapon aside from 6-7 All-Big East junior forward Tim James (18.1 ppg).

A year ago Miami started 15-6, but finished 1-7. The Hurricanes' offense was so predictable at crunch time that teams often double-teamed James and dared someone else to shoot. This season they can't do that because Hemsley will hurt them.

"Me and Tim play off each other," Hemsley said. "It's been working well for me this year."

The job of getting Norris and Hemsley to attend Miami wasn't nearly as tough as the task Hamilton presented them once they arrived. Hamilton's goal was for Miami to get to the upper echelon of the Big East.

Hamilton, who was an assistant at Kentucky when the Wildcats won the national title in 1978, realized he would have a hard time competing in the Big East with talented but laid-back players from Florida. So he headed north and found Norris and Hemsley, players with warrior-type mentalities.

Norris, a first-team All-Metro selection each of his final three years at Lake Clifton, was a nonqualifier out of high school and attended Maine Central Institute before going to Miami.

Once at Miami, it didn't take him long to establish himself. He started 23 games as a freshman in the 1994-95 season and was named to the Big East All-Rookie Team.

In the summer of 1995 Norris went to the U.S. Olympic Festival in Denver and helped lead the East squad to a second-place finish.

Family affair

Norris, who has now started a Miami-record 95 consecutive games, got his start in basketball watching his late father, Kevin Sr.

Known as "Big Stink" and "Little Stink", the father-and-son duo could often be seen on area courts, the son closely watching the father's moves to the point that he now has the same type of game.

"Every time I step on the court, somebody who saw my father play will say, 'Boy, you're just like your father,' " Norris said.

Norris and his father had just begun getting close again when his father died of kidney failure in 1991. The son rushed his father to the hospital two days before he eventually died.

When Norris was born, his father joined the Marines to provide a steady income. His military service marked the end of a promising basketball career.

"He had to stop playing basketball for me," Norris said. "That's my drive. I still think about him all the time."

Norris even changed his uniform number from 12 to 10 last year to honor his father.

Norris now plays in hopes of earning enough money to support his mother, Claudette Porter-James, and the rest of his family.

"Everybody's got that NBA dream," Norris said. "I've got that NBA dream. But right now whoever offers me the most money, that's where I'm going. I'm going where the money's at. If the NBA offers $250,000 and overseas offers $300,000, I'm going overseas.

"I'm trying to support my family and make my family fine," he said. "I'm playing for them."

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