How many times did Michael Jordan and LeBron James lose in the playoffs before breaking through for an NBA title? The two greatest basketball players in my lifetime failed several times before finally grasping the championship trophy.
The reality in sports is that if you’re playing for a championship, only one team goes home happy. Norwich basketball coach, Tom Collier, has been around sports for most of his 56 years, and he has endured dozens and dozens of failures along the way. Last Saturday’s state playoffs defeat to Westhill was an agonizing outcome for those who have followed this previously-unbeaten Norwich team, but Collier said his players should not let that outcome define their season.
“Things don’t always go your way in life, and that’s what we have told the (team) many times,” Collier said. “It was a tough loss, and I feel really bad for the kids. They had a great year, but at the end of the day, you take something away from this loss and use it as a life lesson. In the long run, they will learn from it.”
For four months, beginning with early November practices, the Norwich contingent lived and breathed basketball during its off-school hours. When not playing or practicing, it was typical to see the majority of the varsity boys supporting the varsity girls during their home games.
The Norwich team was never about individuals, it was about individual components, with each completing defined tasks for the betterment of the whole unit. Norwich had its star player – Mike Sutton – who will likely find himself near the top of the all-state teams next month, but Sutton bought into the Collier-led concept as much as anyone.
Said NHS assistant coach Tom Dixon: “Sutty could’ve easily averaged 20 points a game, but then we might have finished with a 12-8 record. This was an unselfish team.”
Just a few days removed from the season-ending defeat, the loss still stings for all of us who followed the Purple Tornado throughout the season. This club had the longest NHS unbeaten streak since the 1992-1993 finished 29-0, and hit the trifecta winning a division title, a STAC championship, and a Section IV title, something that hasn’t been done since 1994.
Other than shoot a high percentage against Westhill, Norwich played one of its best games of the season. It held the number one team in the state to 43 points in regulation - 15 lower than its previous low score, and over 30 points below the Warriors’ season average. On offense, Norwich had just four turnovers – yes four turnovers – in the entire game against a championship-level team.
How do you reconcile a defeat knowing those numbers? They say statistics don’t lie, but in this case, they do. “Kevin King (coach of Westhill) had a great comment after our game,” Collier said. “He said that we (Norwich) should still be playing. He said we had great players and great kids.”
What compounded the emotions of the moment was that history virtually repeated itself, and nearly one year to the day. A season earlier, Norwich played Westhill in the state playoffs, and walked away a one-point loser. Again, the life lesson learned was coping with failure.
“It was very emotional in the locker room after last year’s game, and it was very emotional after this game,” Collier said. “Two years ago, we lost to Bishop Ludden (in the state playoffs), and we didn’t play that well. Last year, we had some good spots and bad spots against Westhill, but this year we played a great game all the way through. Think about it: We had just four turnovers against the number one team in the state. We did a tremendous job, and not one player who played, played bad. As a coach, that is all you can ask for.”
Three years into his coaching career with Norwich, Collier has led Norwich to section titles with the goal – always the goal – of playing for a state championship. The Purple Tornado edged a step closer to that aspiration this season, and there will be plenty of talent coming back next year aiming to reach the pinnacle of New York State high school basketball.
“Let’s face it, you need to have talent to win, and we do have a lot of talent here in Norwich,” Collier. “All we can do as coaches is give the kids the tools to succeed, and the kids have to run with it. You need kids who have passion and love for the game, and the will to win in order to be successful.”
And Norwich has that – in droves.
Editor’s note: Thank you to Tom Collier, his coaching staff, and boosters club president Dennis Oralls, who have given me access to players, statistics, and all of the time I need to perform my duties as sports editor at The Evening Sun. They have helped make my last three years writing Chenango County sports the most enjoyable of my career.