Doctors eventually ruled out a heart attack but determined that his collapse was stress related. So the Lady Cougars just started blowing teams out. They did it again Saturday, crushing Young Harris 68-49 for their sixth consecutive win. The average margin of victory in that span: 16.3 points.
"I've wanted to say that," Norton said. "but I haven't because whenever I make a joke they get onto me and say, 'Coach, it's too soon. Don't joke about that stuff.' So I try not to. I just try to make light of the situation."
Norton loves to crack a joke. After all, Herbert Greene was his mentor. Humor is part of his personality as well as his coaching style.
"He cracks some corny jokes," guard Erin Morrow said. "One of those jokes that's so bad you have to laugh."
"At practice, we're going to work hard," Norton said. "We're going to have a good time. I'm going to make little jokes. I'm going to be a smart aleck. That's because basketball is a long season over both semesters. You got to have time to enjoy each other. We stressed when all the stuff went down, we talked about the importance of relationships. Don't take those for granted. Enjoy each other's company, so we've tried to do a better job of that the last few weeks."
There was nothing funny about what happened a few weeks ago. It was exactly one month ago Saturday that Norton collapsed on the sideline at North Georgia. Chest pains and dangerously high blood pressure led to the initial diagnosis of a heart attack. An exercise science major, that's what Norton himself thought when he regained consciousness.
Somehow, the Lady Cougars mustered up the courage to finish the game but lost in overtime. It was only their second loss in 15 games. But three days later, with Norton still out, they lost to Augusta. They beat Lander at home with Norton back, but to say everything was back to normal would be inaccurate. But they lost the next game at Young Harris.
"I think we were a little shook up emotionally," Morrow said.
Norton tried to joke about it, but the players didn't find it very funny.
"They said, 'You didn't have to see it like we did,' " he said.
Norton could see it in his players' eyes. He was touched by their concern. But he was also concerned that the players were losing focus. So he brought the team together and "had a real heart to heart."
"Here's where we're at," Norton told them. "Don't worry - I appreciate it - but you can't worry and be concerned with me. You've got to focus on basketball. Here's what the doctors have said. Everything's fine. I'm doing OK. My assistants will help take care of me. I'm eating better. I'm resting better. I'm smarter on the bench. So y'all just worry about doing your jobs."
"I think that's when everybody got back in their normal groove and we got it going from there," Morrow said.
There was more to Norton's message than a health report. He wanted everyone to get back to normal. Normal meant they were going to have to let Norton be himself.
"I'm going to get after you when you mess up. I've got to be able to coach you the way I coach. Part of that is I'm going to make little jokes. I'm going to throw a little smart aleck comment in there. If y'all laugh in practice, that's OK. Let's enjoy it. Again, basketball is a long season. You don't want to get in that grind where it's just boring and monotonous. You have to keep it fresh. Once we got through that, I said we can't use that as an excuse. It is what it is. Let's learn from it. Let's use it as a teaching tool. Let's everybody focus on doing their job and not look back. Look forward."
The view forward certainly is more encouraging. The Lady Cougars are now 19-4 with three games left before the Peach Belt Conference tournament. The last game of the regular season is at Clayton State and likely will decide the Peach Belt West Division championship. If they win out, they're virtually assured of receiving a bid to the NCAA Division II Southeast Region tournament for the third consecutive season.
The Lady Cougars play suffocating defense and move the ball well on offense. They held Young Harris to 20 points through the first 26 minutes. Michelle Mitchell averages 19 points a game. The other four starters - Ashley Asouzu, Britteny Tatum, Gabby Williams and Ashley Johnson - all average between eight and nine points a game.
When the postseason arrives, it's going to get tough. They won't be able to keep blowing teams out. The games are inevitably going to get more stressful. Norton's ready for it.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at email@example.com