Norm Eavenson, 74, a huge figure in the Philadelphia basketball community | Mike Jensen
Eavenson, who died Sunday, was omnipresent on the local hoops scene as a high school talent evaluator. His other interests included music and political campaign buttons.
You knew Norm Eavenson was going through it, by his own words. He was an exact writer, precision so firmly embedded in this man’s DNA. Double-vaccinated, Eavenson had been scheduled to get a COVID booster, but COVID got to him first, mystifying even his doctors. He emailed a bunch of people a couple of weeks ago from the hospital, his message titled, “I am still here.” A few words were misspelled. He was going through it for sure, but matter-of-fact in explaining details, his oxygen level dropped.
The full swath of Philadelphia basketball was paying attention to all of it. Eavenson wasn’t just a hoops junkie but a foundational figure within the Philly hoops orbit. The retired social studies and history teacher from West Chester had 65 Division I schools subscribing to his Middle Atlantic Recruiting Service, built up from his years evaluating boys’ high school basketball talent.
So the full swath of Philly hoops plus many others are now in mourning. A phone call came Sunday night. Norm Eavenson, 74, had passed away at 4:50 p.m.
» READ MORE: Eavenson had a keen eye for raw talent
“Norm was the brother I never had,” said Larry Otter, who had been at the hospital. An attorney who had met Eavenson in graduate school at Villanova five decades ago, Otter stayed close, had Eavenson over every Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, had children who called Eavenson “Uncle Norm,” and also had bonded over a hobby that had nothing to do with basketball.
Norm collected political campaign buttons, and figured he had “ballpark, maybe 25,000″ buttons.
“I think the oldest item I have, I have a ribbon for Henry Clay in 1844,” Eavenson told me in 2017, noting he has buttons from every presidential campaign from 1896 on up.
Norm and I talked on the phone maybe one morning a month, starting usually with a basic hoops question, where the obvious route to an answer was CALL NORM. (“Yo, what’s up?” he’d answer with a half chuckle, always ready to engage.) Conversations typically strayed around the sport, pleasantly. His phone number, the same one he’d had since childhood, stays seared in my brain from the days before cellphone contact lists. (Norm never had a cell, although rumor had it that he had a burner in recent years.)
“I gave him that burner for Christmas I guess two years ago,” said Bill Hopton, Norm’s friend since kindergarten in 1952. “The funny part, he said to me, ‘I’m really glad you gave me that phone.’ … ‘You making a lot of calls on it?’ … ‘No, I’m downloading my concert tickets on it.’ "
Music was another Norm thing. He saw the Rolling Stones for the first time in 1965 and never missed a Stones tour since. The Grateful Dead were his true love. Norm had tickets for Woodstock, just planning to get up for the Sunday show because that’s when The Band was to appear. Even before they got to the New York border, police in New Jersey told Norm and Bill they weren’t getting in. Sure enough.
Those two went to Palestra doubleheaders together on Saturday nights, had Flyers season tickets for years. Norm, a Gettysburg College graduate, had convinced Bill to get his teaching certificate, both going to Immaculata for certification classes. Norm taught middle school social studies in Kennett Square while Bill taught it in Chichester. They’d also see each other frequently in high school gyms since Bill was a referee.
Norm was such a welcome presence at any basketball gathering, often sitting in his $15 blue folding chair, comfortably away from the bleachers. On Monday, Penn honored Eavenson at practice, placing a folding chair at the corner of the Palestra floor.
He never lost his way, never got caught up in his own importance. Norm was important, though. Irreplaceable now on the local scene. When he heard Eavenson was in the hospital, La Salle coach Ashley Howard mentioned how the whole Explorers basketball staff would go out to lunch with Norm once a year just to pick his brain.
Norm was the guy everyone gravitated toward, not away from.
“There was a complete person here,” Hopton said. “There weren’t any holes.”
Norm emailed his own basketball thoughts frequently, and joined Twitter to express them publicly, with 5,023 followers. We had sat together in probably 50 gyms over the years, and made a point of getting lunch once or twice a year. All this had been true for most of the last 33 years. My oldest continuous professional relationship, I realized this weekend.
Norm was the kind of guy you could email late on a Saturday afternoon last December, asking if he had the roster of the team LeBron James had played on during the fabled ABCD camp.
“It would be the camp for what year?” Norm emailed that night after getting back from a game. “Pretty sure I have it.”
Told it was 2001, Norm immediately sent back a screen shot of his own handwritten roster and a box score.
I’d asked him recently about a player who had just committed to a Big 5 school. He told me, then emailed later that day, the email titled “cleaned up comments.” He had a sentence about this player being “young for his age.” Did he mean young for his grade, or that he was immature? I didn’t write about this player yet, told myself I’d get back to Norm to clarify that.
This month, Norm’s great friends and hoop evaluators Allen Rubin and Steve Keller got whatever medical updates they could from the hospital and passed them on. After Norm was put on a ventilator last week, Keller visited, heard “Concerto in D Minor or something like that” being piped in the room, asked the nurse if it was possible to switch it to the Grateful Dead. Yes, each room gets its own music, Keller was told. He went home and downloaded 10 Dead albums.
The end came too soon to make the change, and the word passed quickly, around Philly hoops and beyond. An out-of-town Division I head coach reached last night said he’d already heard from a Big 5 head coach.
That email from Norm on Nov. 1 went out to a bunch of friends. Not a threat, Norm said, “but if I pass,” to please play Brokedown Palace by the Grateful Dead “to know how I felt about you.”
» READ MORE: Brokedown Palace