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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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From the very beginning Joyce Cook held her baby boy close. First it was out of stubbornness, for there was no way she was giving him up for adoption, even if everyone else thought she should. Then it was out of maternal instinct, to protect her child. From the very beginning, however, this was no ordinary mother-son relationship, and even as Joyce shielded her boy, Brian, he was also protecting her. Because if Joyce woke up in the morning holding Brian close, then maybe, just maybe, her husband, Norman, would wait a few hours before hitting her.

Norman was in a bad way back then. He'd been a star in the small, basketball-mad town of Lincoln, Ill., a coltish 6'8" forward who in 1973 led the Lincoln Community High Railsplitters to a 30-1 record and a berth in the Elite Eight of the state tournament. Three years later Norman was All-Big Eight at Kansas and the first Jay-hawk since Wilt Chamberlain 16 years earlier to leave the school before his senior year to enter the NBA draft. The Boston Celtics selected him in the first round of the '76 draft, and he appeared in 25 games as a rookie, averaging 2.5 points before getting cut at the end of the season. The following year he played briefly with the Denver Nuggets, but soon after he was out of basketball and back in Lincoln, with little money, no degree and no prospects. He was also starting to manifest the first signs of an acute mental illness that would be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.

Joyce didn't know at the time that Norman was sick, but it wasn't long before she felt as if she were living in a violent prison with no way out. "He hit me several times a day," Joyce says. "I would sit and wonder what I did to deserve it." In 1982, two years after Brian was born and a year after marrying Norman, Joyce gave birth to a girl, Kristina, whom Joyce says she conceived with her husband while he held a knife to her throat. Says Joyce, "I wished I was dead quite a lot. Then I would think, Where would the kids go? What would they do? I decided I'd do whatever it took to make sure they were O.K. It makes for a real close bond."

Those days, thankfully, are long gone. Joyce, 39, divorced Norman 15 years ago and today supports her family by working as a telephone-company dispatcher. Norman is being treated at the Andrew McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield, Ill., the latest in a string of court-ordered confinements. Kristina is a senior at Lincoln Community High and has accepted a volleyball scholarship to Illinois Central College, a junior college in East Peoria. Brian is a 6'10" junior forward for 12th-ranked Illinois. A second-team All-Big Ten selection a year ago, he was averaging 11.8 points and 6.0 rebounds for the 15-5 Illini through Sunday, and he's considered a bona fide NBA prospect. He also remains the apple of his mother's eye, a thoughtful and sensitive young man who seems to possess his father's physical gifts but none of his demons.

There's a sense, though, that the same traits that make Brian so lovable off the court are preventing him from realizing his potential on it. "Brian is the type of player who leaves you wanting more," Illinois coach Bill Self says. "He shows flashes of dominance, and then he goes back to being another face in the crowd. He's way too unselfish out there."

Having been an assistant at Kansas in the 1985-86 season, Self knew all about Norman Cook's legacy when he became the coach at Illinois before Brian's sophomore year, but he has never talked to Brian about his father. "I was told that that was something better left unsaid," says Self. Indeed, for much of Brian's life, the subject has rarely been discussed. When Brian started college, Joyce asked the Illini staff to shoo away reporters who asked about Norman. (She granted her first interview on the topic to a newspaper last March.) Brian has come to understand, however, that silence only cloaks the past in shame. He believes it's time to remove the cloak. "I've been asked about my dad since I started high school," he says. "I've gotten to the point where I want to tell people about it because it's something that should be addressed."

Joyce Kelley, who was also a standout player at Lincoln Community High, was 17 when she first met the 23-year-old Norman at the school's gym. She was white; he was black. When her father, Jack, found out they were dating, he kicked Joyce out of the house and threatened to shoot Norman if he ever set foot on Jack's property. Joyce moved in with her mother, Fran, and soon became pregnant with Brian. After Brian was born on Dec. 4,1980, Norman and Joyce lived with Norman's family for six months before finding a place of their own. Monthly welfare checks were their main source of income, but Joyce's biggest concern wasn't a lack of money. It was Norman's abusiveness, which became increasingly frequent as his schizophrenia got worse.

Schizophrenia is not, as is widely believed, a condition that begets multiple personalities. Rather, it's thought to be an abnormal functioning of the brain's limbic system, which serves as a sort of switchboard operator for the mind, filtering and interpreting sensory input. As a result of this malfunction, most schizophrenics suffer from delusions and hallucinations, especially auditory ones, the voice-in-my-head torment that is the stuff of dark fiction. Without the ability to distinguish these delusions from reality, schizophrenics become chronically confused, withdrawn and, in some cases, violent.

Three fourths of schizophrenics start showing symptoms between the ages of 17 and 25. Norman was 24 when the illness began to seriously take its toll on his and Joyce's marriage.

It's impossible to know how much of Norman's abusiveness toward Joyce was attributable to his schizophrenia. What is evident is that he spent most of their five-year marriage trying to foil what he believed were his wife's plans to entertain paramours. He was, quite literally, insanely jealous. "Norman wouldn't let me go anywhere," Joyce says. "When I walked down the street with him, I couldn't look up. He nailed shut all of the windows. When he left the house, he would lock me in. I wanted to leave him, but I didn't know where to go."

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