DENVER -- Some would call him undisciplined, others merely undaunted. Some college coaches backed away from Kevin Norris during his senior year at Lake Clifton High School, or merely forgot about him during his one season at Maine Central Institute.
But Miami's Leonard Hamilton knew that Norris -- "Stink" to all his friends and relatives back in Baltimore -- could be just what the Hurricanes needed to help a team badly in need of a jump-start. All it would take was a little bit of adjustment.
"We've tried to allow Stink to maintain his edge, his confidence, his tenacity," Hamilton said Friday by telephone from his office in Coral Gables. "We've asked him to play hard, to play smart, to play within a certain framework. But sometimes you have to allow Stink to be Stink."
It means making a no-look pass when his teammates are sometimes not looking or dribbling behind his back to get by an opponent when he could have just as easily taken a more conventional route. But in the end it usually means making his team better.
Just as he did during his freshman season at Miami, where he helped the Hurricanes win nine Big East games a year after they went 0-18, Norris will be trying to help his East teammates here at the U.S. Olympic Festival when the basketball competition begins Wednesday at McNichols Arena.
Though his new coach and teammates don't know him by his longtime nickname -- "It won't be long before they're calling me Stink too," he said -- they are getting accustomed to his style. As East coach John Calipari of Massachusetts said after yesterday's practice, "Instead of doing 1,000 things, we want him to do 100 things."
Asked to describe his style, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound point guard said, "I rely on my instincts. If I sense something happening, I might throw a behind-the-back pass. That's just the way we always played back in Baltimore. Playing aggressive. When I went to Miami, I had to get used to them and they had to get used to me."
Hampered by a pulled groin early last season, Norris moved into Miami's starting lineup after five games and never left it. He wound up leading the Hurricanes in assists and steals. He also helped a team known for losing close (and not-so-close) games go 9-1 in games decided by six points or less.
It enabled Miami to finish with a respectable 15-13 record and go to its first postseason tournament (in this case, the NIT) in 31 years. It also helped Hamilton, who had one year left on his contract, get named Big East Coach of the Year. For his performance, Norris was named to the all-league rookie team.
"It was all right," Norris said of his freshman season, which included a 21-point performance on national television against St. John's. "I could have done a lot better."
Norris also performed well in the classroom. After going to Maine Central as a result of falling 10 points short of the then-requisite 700 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test, Norris maintained nearly a 3.0 grade-point average.
"My mother really got on me," said Norris. "She said, 'No grades, no clothes.' "
Norris said that getting away from Baltimore the past two years has proved a positive move. Though much of his life there revolved around the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center and basketball games with cousins Shawnta Rogers and Kwame Evans, Norris is all too familiar with the city's mean streets.
As a teen-ager, Norris learned to avoid confrontations. After some angry words with another neighborhood youth during a pickup football game, Norris found himself being chased, a gun pointed in his direction. "If there's trouble, I go the other way," said Norris.
Not that he's been immune to the often random acts of violence that have wracked his hometown. One night last winter, Norris left some tickets for friends who were on their way to watch him play Georgetown at USAir Arena. They never made it. One of them, David Brown, was shot and killed as he sat waiting at a traffic light in Baltimore.
It wasn't the first tragedy in Norris' life. An even bigger one came when he was 16, when his father, Kevin Sr., died of cancer.
"When he died, I stopped playing ball for a couple of months," Norris said yesterday. "We all stopped going to the Craig Cromwell League the rest of that summer. But it made me a little more focused. It made me know that a person can go away just like that. It made me work harder."
L Those tragedies don't haunt Kevin Norris. But they push him.
"It makes me angry," he said. "It makes me want to succeed more and more."
NOTES: Louis Bullock of Laurel was added yesterday to the North team. Bullock, the high-scoring guard from Laurel Baptist Academy who disappointed Maryland fans last fall by choosing Michigan, replaced Shammgod Wells.