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Home team
Seth Davis
February 04, 2002
Their household riven by mental illness, Illinois's Brian Cook and his mom have held on to each other for dear life
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February 04, 2002

Home Team

Their household riven by mental illness, Illinois's Brian Cook and his mom have held on to each other for dear life

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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 2½ 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 in-frequency 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 in-trasquad 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."

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