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The Norm I knew

I came in late to the Norm Ellenberger saga. Very late.

In the 1970s when the bawdy, bell-bottomed and perennially tanned Ellenberger held court on the courts where his University of New Mexico basketball team played (and mostly won), I was not yet a Lobo, nor a college hoops fan. I had never attended a game, never saw him in his element, either in The Pit or at Ned’s, a wild watering hole that in its heyday attracted the movers, shakers and snorters of the city.

Ellenberger, flashy and famous, had his own table there, had his own sandwich: the “Stormin’ Norman,” a meaty melange of turkey, ham, pastrami, green chile, Swiss and cheddar.

ELLENBERGER: Former UNM basketball coach

ELLENBERGER: Former UNM basketball coach

Stormin’ Norman. That’s what they called him in those days. Think of that. He made the name Norman sound cool.

I didn’t know that then.

I was no longer living in New Mexico when the Ellenberger era imploded in “Lobogate” – the shocking scandal involving the rigging of players’ academic transcripts that cost Ellenberger his job in 1979 and a conviction of 21 counts of fraud in 1981.

Eventually, I returned to New Mexico, and eventually I was schooled on all things Ellenberger. As iconic as he was still and as dramatic as his fall from grace had been then, it was hard not to be.

Still, in the winter of 2004, nearly two decades after Ellenberger had receded from the headlines, I seemed an odd choice for the assignment of tracking him down to the frozen hinterlands of northern Wisconsin, where he had landed long after rising from the ashes.

With news of Ellenberger’s death this weekend at age 83, I can’t help but think now that I am perhaps the last Albuquerque journalist to experience in person the contented life he had made for himself away from the spotlight, the scandal and the showmanship.

There was no one like him. I know that now.

Post-Lobos, he had continued to coach – for short-lived professional basketball teams in Albuquerque, under fellow icons Don Haskins at the University of Texas at El Paso and Bobby Knight at Indiana University and in the glitzy world of the NBA with the Chicago Bulls.

By 2004, he was still coaching basketball – girls varsity basketball at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua, Wis.

And he was having a hell of a good time.

It wasn’t as odd a fit as that sounds, once he learned to cut down on his cuss words. He had grown tired of pro athlete egos, he said, and wanted a team he could nurture. In the LUHS Fighting Thunderbirds, he had found just that.

“I am completely fulfilled here,” he told me over pints of his favorite nut brown ale in one of his favorite taverns, where, yes, everybody knew his name. “It’s the ultimate wonderful experience.”

Gone were the signature turquoise necklaces, the bell-bottoms, the brown sweep of hair. The tanned face crinkled when he smiled, and he smiled often. Beyond an occasional backache, he was far more spry than most 71-year-olds, and in those few days with him it was hard to keep up with his busy schedule.

In his first year, he led the Thunderbirds – his “little darlins,” he called them – to an 18-2 season, 12-0 in conference play, rivaling the school’s best conference record. The team clinched the conference championship and drew more fans to its games than the school had ever seen.

And still he was fixated on those two lost games, one that slipped away by one point, the other in overtime.

“We got too fat, too cocky,” he groused.

Ellenberger’s own cockiness had mellowed into the seasoned self-possession of a man who had made peace with his past and a promise to enjoy every minute of his future.

“It isn’t a big deal to rub elbows with a high school girls basketball coach,” he said.

But you couldn’t tell that by the way people greeted him everywhere we went. At Bent’s Camp in Land O’ Lakes, Wis., a bar where most patrons arrive by snowmobile, he still had “his” table, right next to the big-screen television.

He was no longer the big fish, but now he was living in a much smaller fish bowl.

But if heads turned when he strode in, it was often because of Cyndi Ellenberger, his third wife, a fellow coach from a local private boarding school and a Holly Holm lookalike four decades his junior.

She told me she thought it was hilarious when people mistook her for his daughter, which happened often.

He thought it was funny, too – sort of.

“I’m tired of raising wives,” he joked. “My next wife’s going to be an old hag.”

They shared a love of basketball, travel, outdoor sports and a snug cabin steps from Crooked Lake near the tiny town of Watersmeet in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an hour’s drive on icy back roads from Minocqua.

New Mexico was everywhere inside the cabin – in the Jemez and Hopi pottery he collected, the ristra hanging outside and the green chile in the freezer.

But what Ellenberger loved even more was beyond the cabin – the woodpeckers and the squirrels and the deer he kept seeds, suet and salt licks for, the walleye he liked to fish.

“I think every day I see something in the wild that makes me smile,” he said.

It was at his cabin that he passed away in his sleep.

Before his death, he had moved on to coach other teams at other local schools. He and Cyndi had parted ways and for the last eight years he had kept company with Lori Sharrow, a nurse practitioner 32 years his junior and, knowing Norm, not the hag he had once predicted.

On the day he died, he had been happy and content, she told my colleague Mark Smith of Journal sports fame. He had kept his promise to enjoy his life.

In that 2004 profile, I wrote about how Ellenberger was no longer Stormin’ Norman but Reborn Norm, unfettered by the baggage of his bygone era, at peace with the road he had taken, so close to heaven and so far from anything else.

We should all be so lucky to live like that.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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