GREENFIELD — In the late hours of the night, far after the game ended and their family went to sleep, Norm and Josh Johnson remained awake to talk basketball.
For Josh, the Greenfield-Central boys basketball varsity head coach, those late nights with his most trusted assistant are the fondest memories he has of his father. Even though they were both adults, the pair of kindred basketball souls often got into trouble for staying up and rehashing game situations or discussing rebounding positions in Josh’s kitchen.
When Josh was a child, he’d practice his jump shot in the driveway of his family’s house, which was located on a strawberry farm in Albion, a town 45 minutes northwest of Ft. Wayne. The driveway was actually more of a small country road, so Norm had his son practice dribbling up and down the length of the way. Norm also coached Josh’s youth league teams, and took pride in seeing young players reap the fruits of their labor.
Norm was a quiet observer of the game. When Josh played for Central Noble High School, his father stationed himself in a secluded corner on the visitors’ side of the floor at home games. He simply didn’t want to be bothered.
Years later, Norm traded in his corner seat for a chair on the sidelines as an assistant coach to his son, but remained reserved during games. Tired of his father saving his words of wisdom for their post-game kitchen conversations, Josh asked Norm to be more active in his intelligence-lending during the action.
Norm obliged, but insisted on adhering to his understated methods.
“When I got a tug on my coat, I knew it was something important,” recalled Josh, now in his fourth season at G-C.
Nothing was of higher importance to Norm than being there for his son.
Before last winter, Josh couldn’t remember his father missing any athletic event he participated in, not during his childhood nor while he was in high school or college. When Josh was helping out with the Manchester College (Ind.) girls basketball team, Norm once flew out to San Diego to see them play.
Despite living in the Ft. Wayne area, Norm had been an assistant at each of Josh’s three head coaching stops, the first of which was at Shakamak High School in Jasonville. Norm didn’t make it to every practice, but he made the four-hour trip from Ft. Wayne for each game. He did the same thing when Josh coached at Franklin County for six seasons.
“When I was real small, I probably didn’t think about it too much. As I got older and I started coaching, I realized how much it meant to me,” said Josh of his father’s devotion to him. “I realized how hard it was, all the time and the gas money. I started taking appreciation for how much he put into it.”
Last February, Josh got a call from Norm, who said he wasn’t going to be able to make the Cougars’ home game against Knightstown. His back was giving him too much trouble.
“That caught my eye,” said Josh, whose team went on to beat Knightstown on a last-second shot. “I knew he was in pain.”
On June 28, Norm had back surgery. Greenfield-Central was hosting its summer basketball tournament, the Cougar Classic, on June 29 and 30. Norm told his son that he was fine and that Josh, who was with his father before and after the procedure, should return to Greenfield in order to run the Classic.
The morning of June 29, Norm was engaging in physical therapy exercises at the hospital and seemed to be recovering well.
But on July 1, Norm’s heart stopped, and he passed away at age 77.
Norm had once told his son, “I love what you’re doing. I love being around it,” and that was never more clear than at his funeral.
Unbeknownst to Josh, Norm had informed Josh’s mother and sister that whenever he did leave the Earth, he wanted his pallbearers to be members of Josh’s current basketball team.
“That was one of the things to hit me. That made it an emotional time,” said Josh of his father’s request. “That said a lot about what he thought of the team.”
The Cougars are winless this season and have just three victories in their past 27 contests, but another of Josh’s assistant coaches said the team knows there is more to life than on-court victories and defeats because of Josh and Norm’s bond.
“Just seeing them interact as a father and son helped teach our kids about what that relationship is supposed to be like,” offered Jared Manning, a boys varsity assistant and the head coach of the junior varsity squad. “It helped our kids focus on life outside basketball and how our relationships look to other people.”
At a recent team brunch, Josh received a picture of himself, his son, Brady, and Norm at the only Indianapolis Colts’ game the three attended together. It was presented to Johnson by his players and their parents.
Josh was blown away by portrait, which was separated into pieces that were sewn together.
“Our team, our community, our parents, our kids…we’ve got good ones. We have good people,” Josh offered. “You want kids to be successful after high school, and our kids are going to be successful. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
And though he can no longer enjoy moonlight basketball chats with Norm, Josh revels in the gift his father gave him.
“He taught me the game,” Josh said of his father. “That’s where my love of coaching came from.”