The lounge was empty that night except for two men lingering at the end of the bar. Stinky paid them no mind. But unknown to him, Stinky had walked into Bessie's in the middle of a stick-up. One of the gumen at the end of the bar told the bartender to get rid of Stinky - quickly. As she waited on Stinky, the bartender pressed a hidden security button before retrieving his six-pack.
Stinky paid, then turned to leave. At that moment, police burst into the bar, and gunfire erupted between the cops and the two brigands. Stinky was caught in the crossfire. "All I remember," he says, "is waking up in Graduate Hospital."
He didn't know how badly he had been hit until the next day, when a doctor told him he was paralyzed from the waist down. Two bullets had lodged in his spine, practically guaranteeing that he would never walk again. "I really didn't want to live at that moment," he recalls, "knowing I'd probably be in a wheelchair the rest of my life."
He was 22.
* On a cold, windy November night at the Carousel House in Fairmount Park some 20 years since he was shot, Stinky Norris rolls off a screen, gets a perfect pass, and sinks a shot. He's still playing the game he loves, but things have changed since his days of derring-do at Southern. Now there are no reverse spin dribbles, no tomahawk dunks, no satin-smooth jump shots.
Stinky plays the game in a wheelchair.
He is one of the stars for the Magee 76ers, a wheelchair basketball team co-sponsored by Magee Rehabilitation Center and the Philadelphia 76ers.
If you think wheelchair basketball is simply a nice social outing for the players, you're wrong. Hustling players tumble out of chairs, set bumper-car screens, and bang bodies under the boards.
The competition was exactly the mental medicine that Stinky Norris needed. "I really wasn't talking to anybody after the shooting," he says during a break in practice.
Then in 1981, Roger Miller, a friend and a wheelchair player, encouraged Stinky to get into wheelchair basketball. "He told me it was a way of keeping active in something I loved," Stinky recalls. "He was right. I found out the court was the place where I could release the anger and frustration in me. Wheelchair ball pulled me back up. Even now when I get depressed, I pick up a ball and go right to the playground and shoot 'em up."
For 18 years now, Stinky has been shooting 'em up for the same wheelchair team. Formed in 1978, the team was originally called the Philadelphia Spokesmen. After Sixers president Pat Croce signed on as a fan and supporter in 1997, the team became the Sixers Spokesmen. This year, the team has been renamed the Magee 76ers.
The team plays in the Wheelchair National Basketball Association (WNBA). At the end of the season, the WNBA holds a tourney similar to the NCAA basketball tournament. Sixty-four teams are selected from conference winners and independents. The teams go through sectionals and regionals until there is a Final Four. This year, the Magee 76ers are playing as independents.
"My goal is to win the WNBA championship," says Stinky. "No championship would be greater than winning one sitting down in this chair - and I won a lot of them standing up."
Four years ago, in 1995, Stinky and the team scored their finest triumphs. The team had reached the WNBA tournament's Sweet Sixteen. In the next game, Stinky poured in a WNBA-record 13 three-pointers on his way to a 46-point night. That bears repeating. He made 13 shots from beyond 19 feet, 9 inches - sitting in a wheelchair.
"Stinky got us to the Elite Eight that night," says Johnny DeAngelo, his teammate of 17 years and a former Temple University wheelchair basketball standout.
Stinky and the team came agonizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, losing in the quarterfinals by one point. Disappointing?
"Yes," he says.
"No. I knew basketball would just get better the following year, as it had year after year since I began playing with this team."
* At 43, Stinky's commitment to basketball is as fierce as fire. Each day after doing the household chores - he's married with four children - and after checking in on his ailing mom, he goes to the 25th and South Street playground to practice for an hour. Then he's home by two in the afternoon to greet the kids when they come in from school. His wife, Maryanne, works in the maintenance department at the Coast Guard station on Delaware Avenue.
Stinky, too, hopes one day to be employed. "I'd like to work in recreation," he says, "and help kids."
But for now, basketball occupies a good deal of his time. The Magee 76ers practice every Wednesday night at the Carousel House, and they play their games on weekends. "And we get tickets to the Sixers' games and get to tease Pat Croce," he says, clearly beaming about those perks.
Does he ever wonder if he could have made it to the NBA?
"Many times I wondered . . . no, I didn't wonder," he corrects himself. "I know I could have played at that level. I had enough heart and enough skills. I knew I could get there in junior high when I was playing in the Sonny Hill League and won the Chink Scott Award for Mr. Offense."
Stinky envisions playing the game, well, almost forever.
"I'm in great health," he say, "so I plan on being the first 80-year-old to play basketball." He grins in that patently impish way of his. Then, sounding like a certain commercial, he says, "I love this game."
* And about the name "Stinky?" His father was a sanitation worker, and when young Tony was 7, his father would stick him in an empty trash can and take his son on his rounds. "He started calling me 'Stinky,' " he says. "It stuck."
Is he offended by that name? Stinky laughs, then says, "No. That name is famous."