Norman Bonner wasn’t going to let his height stop him. He was going to dunk a basketball.
With not much space between his house and his neighbor’s home, Bonner put in nails on both side walls and tied sewing thread to the nails.
Starting from about three feet from the ground, Bonner, who also played basketball in combat boots to strengthen his legs, kept jumping and increasing the height of the makeshift apparatus.
By the time he was a 5-foot-9 senior in high school, Bonner could dunk.
Bonner used this determination and work ethic to find success as a student-athlete at Laney, as his college team’s leading scorer for three years and later as the Wildcats’ boys basketball coach from 1966-2005.
Tonight, Bonner’s contribution to Laney will be recognized as the school holds a dedication for its new athletic complex named after Bonner, with the floor named for current girls basketball coach Otis Smart. The dedication begins at 5:30 p.m., with Laney playing Glenn Hills after the ceremony.
“My greatest thrill about coaching was to see kids perform at their peak,” Bonner said. “Whether they won or lost, it didn’t make much difference to me. I was more concerned the kids enjoyed what they were doing.”
Growing up a few blocks away from Laney, Bonner played basketball, football and baseball at the school. He was a member of David Dupree’s 1961 GIA state championship football team and still holds an interception record, but he initially hoped to play baseball professionally.
However, his future was to be with basketball.
Bonner received basketball aid to compete at Hampton Institute – now Hampton University – and played point guard, starting four seasons.
Before he left for college, Bonner was told the Laney boys basketball head coaching job was his if he returned after completing college.
Sure enough, Bonner came back, was an assistant on Dupree’s second state title team in football, and wound up coaching basketball in five decades, sometimes teaching two generations of a family.
Bonner, 67, won more than 500 games in his career despite often going up against larger schools, but he considers himself more of a teacher than a coach. Bonner taught physical education, health and safety, physical science and biology.
“Even though I was a basketball coach, I used to tell my players, ‘I’m a teacher who happens to be a basketball coach. So I’m not really a basketball coach because that’s only a part-time job. My full-time job is as a teacher,’ ” he said.
When Bonner was teaching on the court, his teams often won, even going to the state semifinals.
Bonner, who also became athletic director, eventually decided to end his coaching career, and it came without hesitation. He appreciates all his former players and others who have helped him and been with him along the way, especially his family.
“I’m a Wildcat. There’s 39 years of memories as a teacher and coach, and three years as a student-athlete,” Bonner said. “It’s a great honor, there’s no question about that. It’s a tremendous honor, in fact. I’m grateful to the board of education for thinking I was worthy of having such an honor.”