“It was a good thing, probably one of my biggest dreams — next to having a family. I achieved that, and I feel very good about that. I’m very proud of the efforts I’ve made, and the fact that I didn’t quit, I didn’t give up, despite naysayers.”
As one of the players on the 1988 Olympic basketball team in Seoul, South Korea where Canada finished sixth-overall, Norman Clarke was able to realize a dream he kept in the back of his mind since he was 12 years old. But being a visible minority, he says, came with challenges that any player with hopes of playing high level basketball would have to deal with.
Ontario Basketball Hall of Famer Norman Clarke immigrated to Canada in 1968 from the May Pen parish of Jamaica. It was growing up in Toronto that he would discover, and later inquire, about the game of basketball."
“When I was 12, I saw Olympic basketball on TV for the first time, I didn’t know about that stuff. I didn’t hear any talk about sports,” said Clarke. “People that were older than me in the neighbourhood went to watch. When I asked, they would tell me ‘it’s a process’ and I just started playing. Spending time by myself in the school yard, practicing. In the end I got to accomplish my dream to play in the Olympics. I represented Canada.”
Clarke earned various accolades on the court playing for his high school, Oakwood Collegiate Institute, including a City of Toronto Championship, making the Ontario Provincial Basketball Team, and numerous tournament MVP trophies. Walking the path expected of an elite athlete, Norm received a scholarship to attend university and pursue a career, and life, of basketball.
After being named team captain of the 1984 St. Bonaventure University varsity team, Norman began his professional career, traveling overseas to England and Ireland, and playing in multiple basketball tournaments around the world, he secured his spot on the Canadian national team—though times, as he recalls, were not always the sweetest.
“Looking back and reflecting upon the times we were in… the inability to access opportunities as a visible minority back in those days was very challenging. There are very key people that were, I would think, outwardly receptive and supportive of my successes and did what they could to help me in terms of moving forward with that success. Those individuals, not of colour, of varying backgrounds and experiences, they were very supportive,” said Clarke.
“It was difficult to crack the lineup and be selected to the national team back then. I have my views on that: I think the Black community of this city who had seen how I’d grown and developed at that point in time we were very disappointed and very verbal about the fact that they thought I was getting the short end of the stick… it didn’t matter how well I’d played, where I’d played, etc., I was never going to get an opportunity the way those less than visible minorities were getting.”
“We had lots of people in this city at that time that thought we should make our own national team because there was no colour at all on that team for many, many years, until they had a token in Tony Simms, and they had a second token in Norman Clarke,” said Clarke.
“There were things said to me that kind of shocked me… but dare I say anything. I just closed my mouth, opened my eyes, opened my ears, moved forward, and pushed as hard as I could to prove them all wrong. I didn’t let it get me down because my dream was to play in the Olympics.”
Norman enjoyed a relatively short time playing professional basketball overseas until coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t for him and returning to Canada. Upon returning, he decided to go back to school, becoming a physical education teacher and coach, and started a family with his wife in Toronto.
“It’s a lonely process when you’re by yourself over there. You have a lot of time on your hands… and a lot of people do things they probably shouldn’t do,” said Clarke. “I mean, it’s really nice, the country is beautiful, the people are receptive to you; they want you there, they enjoy your company, and they praise you, which is quite nice. But in the end, I gave that up.”
His love for the sport of basketball didn’t dwindle after retiring from playing professionally. Early on in his career, while doing parks & recreation work at the YMCA, Norm’s love for coaching was kindled, and he’s expressed it with his assisting at Ryerson University, and winning two OFSAA championships coaching at his old high school, Oakwood Collegiate.
In true ‘hometown hero’ fashion, Norm took action to fight a big problem for racialized inner-city youths: the biases, and lack of support or opportunities to really go the distance in basketball; 20 years ago, he started the not-for-profit, charity organization Toronto Triple Threat Basketball Club, a program he connected with other coaches and team staff in the community to establish, ensuring a fair shot for young players from diverse backgrounds.
“Some people were getting preferential treatment and I didn’t like that… I couldn’t sit there and be a hypocrite and pretend all is good for the community and for everyone,” said Clarke. “I started Triple Threat with the support of high school teammates and the support of the coaches that joined. We had no money, but we had a few conversations with some people with the know-how and they were able to get funding for us.”
"As a result of that, the program’s been around for 20 years. It’s been going well and I’m quite happy and pleased with the progress that’s been made in terms of interaction cross-culturally, and diversity with respect to the individuals that participate. We’re quite pleased with how that panned out,” said Clarke.
Norman says the basketball community, “without a doubt,” was a key to his success, and to alleviating the pains of the racial climate he lived through.
“The basketball community was predominately visible minorities. They were dominant, they were the athletes in the city. We had a tournament that was held— people from Montreal, Nova Scotia, we would go there, they would come here, and it was called the Black Tournament — that’s what we called it. It was like the Maroons. We had some great games.”
“If not for the fact that the basketball community knew me, and visible minorities along with me, it would be more difficult. They appreciated you and respected you for who you are, and for what you did on the court. That took a lot of the racism that I probably would’ve experienced, and deflected it elsewhere because I wasn’t just another Black guy who was gonna be a statistic,” said Clarke.
“I was working hard to achieve something, to go somewhere. Without basketball, I’m sure things could’ve gone very differently. The fact that I was feeling good about who I am, my self respect was there, I had good feelings about what I was achieving, I was proud of my efforts. I was supported for that, and looked up to by the younger Black kids. Basketball definitely helped me, without a doubt.”
Now retired, Norm still keeps in reasonable shape, but has only recently thought to get back on the court and “touch a ball,” having been invited to play in a Masters Tournament this summer. Most of his time these days is spent tending his comic book collection, and spending time outside of the city noise with his family— another accomplished dream that Norman has under his belt.
“The biggest, number one achievement was marrying the right person and having three loving children. That’s my biggest achievement in life so far. I think nothing will surpass that.”