For most of the players, the opening session of the Washington Bullets' rookie camp yesterday was the start of a quick flirtation with pro basketball. The romance for most will be over by the end of the week, when they are gently cut by the team.
But for Coniel Norman, the camp at Ft. Meade is a different story. He is trying to rekindle a love affair with the game that is threatening to flicker out - at age 23.
This is the same Coniel Norman who took advantage of the hardship draft three years ago and left the University of Arizona after his sophomore season. He was 19 then, lured into the pros by talk of big money from agents who didn't care whether he was ready for the big time or not.
Now he is fighting for the fourth guard position on the Bullets. His main competition is a second-round draft choice named Phil Walker, a physical speciman who general manager Bob Ferry says "was made to play this game," something you wouldn't say after looking at Norman.
Norman is as slight (6-3, 176 pounds) as Walker (6-2 1/2, 190) is muscular. He does not have Walker's jumping ability or his endurance. But he has that lovely guided-missile jump shot - "You can't believe it when he misses," said coach Dick Motta - and he thinks that alone will prolong his pro career.
His youthfulness won't allow him to consider talk about his being the end of the line for him. Not when he can pop it from 20 feet.
"Have I got discouraged?" he said, place for me in pro basketball somewhere. If not here, then somewhere else. Or maybe in Europe, although I times it's matter of being in the don't want to think I have to go over there to play.
"Like someone told me, lots of right spot at the right time. Maybe I haven't found the spot yet."
Norman's timing was bad last season. He was ready to start a third year of limited service with Philadelphia when the 76ers acquired Julius Erving. Instead of needing shooting guards. Philly suddenly needed ball-handlers who were willing to keep the good doctor happy with passes. And Norman is not a passing guard.
"When he came in, I went out," said Norman. "They explained it to me and I accepted it, although it was tough being the last one cut." And being 22 without gainful employment. He tried the Eastern League for a while, then wound up in hometown Detroit, playing for a recreation team and waiting until another pro offer came along.
"Detroit, Boston and Washington all expressed interest in me," he said, "but I came here because I liked what I heard. They said I had a legitimate shot at making the team. There were spots open, so it looked good to try."
Three years ago, Norman couldn't imagine getting into such a predicament. He was on top of the collegiate world, already a two-time all-Western Athletic Conference selection with two college seasons to go. He was the best (career average: 24 points) of the Wildcats' Kiddly Korps recruited by Fred Snowden, who dreamed of taking the team to the NCAA Final Four one year.
But Norman and the other Arizona guard, playmaker Eric Money, were approached by agents during the spring break of their sophomore year. They had grown up together in Detroit and finally convinced each other that another go-round in the WAC wasn't going to help their careers. So they went hardship, with Money, now a budding NBA star, being taken by Detroit and Norman by Philly.
"I don't know if I'd do it again," said Norman. "I was tried of getting my arms hacked away in the WAC. That's not good for a jump shooter. But I wish I had someone who could have told me what it was going to be like up here. I was not ready for how physical it is. That's not my game."
Norman's game is more refined. He plays to bursts, relying on the other guard to get him the ball when he breaks into the clear. His hope now is that the Bullets will prefer his style to that of Walker, the Millersville (Pa.) State alumnus with the huge hands and feet who jumped center in college and played offensively everywhere," according to Ferry's scouting report.
Walker, a Tom Henderson lookalike, has raw talent that can be molded through work. He is the type of player a deep team like the Bullets can afford to keep and be patient with; Norman is at a point in his career where he needs playing time, something a fourth guard rarely gets.
"We still have to keep in mind that Coniel is young," said Motta. "Normally, he'd just be out of college. The past doesn't tell everything with a player like him."
Ferry also remembers something else. "He beat us in triple overtime one game with a jumper. He can shoot under pressure. That's a nice trait to have on a team."
Only nine of the expected 11 rookies showed up for practice. Purdue guard Bruce Parkinson decided to attend graduate school and Virginia Commonwealth's Jesse Dark didn't pass his physical (bad knee).