Johnny "Red" Kerr & Norm Van Lier - Loyalty, Passion, Stamina, Resilience
On the 10th Anniversary of their Passing, Sam Smith Looks Back On the Lives Of Two Bulls Legends
It was the day Chicago died; Chicago basketball, anyway.
It was 10 years ago today, February 26, when Johnny Kerr and Norm Van Lier died the same day, Kerr after a mostly suffering-on-the-inside extended battle with cancer and Van Lier, paradoxically the man with the biggest heart, suddenly from heart failure. They were never basketball champions here, perhaps other than Kerr in his prep days at Tilden Technical High School. They really weren’t the most identified with Chicago basketball like Michael Jordan for the Bulls championships along with Phil Jackson, and even Jerry Sloan for his blue collar ethic.
Though perhaps what distinguished Kerr and Van Lier more than any was the way they never left, unlike so many others who flourished and succeeded here and then moved on. Look, Chicago is not the greatest city. It’s a city we love, but it’s a tough city, which perhaps is why we treasure it so much more. Heck, even on the best day of its reputation it’s only moved up to Second City.
Chicago is cold and unforgiving, a shoulders back and head down trudge into an unrelenting storm that’s only sometimes weather related. They called Van Lier, Stormin’, and he was like that, similarly unwelcoming and inexorable when it came to opponents. He was bundled up against the cold rejection of outsiders and the disappointments we all faced and yet kept moving straight ahead. Norm wasn’t that highly regarded, but no one wanted to upset him. Sort of the way we feel here. Overlook us; but beware about ignoring us.
Johnny was our lighter side, easy going and welcoming, but endlessly reliable and as broad shouldered as he was soft of heart. Johnny as the original ironman of basketball, establishing the first serious games played streak of 844 consecutive regular season that extended basically his entire career. That in an era when, forget first class, sometimes they couldn’t even afford the airplane and rode trains. Sure it was hard, but you punched the time clock because that was your responsibility to yourself, your family and your community. That, too, was John and Norm.
Life, as we often learn painfully, keeps rolling by like the farmscapes outside those railroad windows John and his teammates often watched. It can be relentless and cruel. It often was for both Johnny and Norm, tragic family fatalities, Johnny having to shed the tears of a clown, crying only when no one was around, Norm’s a life long struggle against the forces of hate, denial and class without ever losing the song in his soul. That they died on the same day mirrors in some sense American’s loss of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying on the same day, exactly 50 years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
It was a symbolic loss for the young United States. The death of Johnny and Norm the same day in 2009 was, similarly, a marker for the first generation of Chicago basketball.
It didn’t start with Jordan. It started with Kerr and matured with Van Lier because they embodied the city as well as the game with their commitment and loyalty. Johnny played here in high school, Downstate in college and around the NBA for a dozen years until returning to midwife Chicago’s NBA history that was given up as stillborn. His 1966 expansion Bulls remain the only such team ever to make the playoffs with John coach of the year. The runner-up was the coach who led his team to the then record most wins in a season, Alex Hannum with the 76ers who were 68-13. Big Red, as he was affectionally known, would go on to work as a Bulls executive and then a beloved team broadcaster and virtual face of the franchise for three decades. Norm would similarly work as a broadcaster after a frenzied decade as an All-Star point guard and the Sugar Ray Robinson of the NBA, the toughest pound for pound. Maybe, like Chicago, others were more accomplished and famous. But few as respected.
Chicago really is about staying with it, absorbing the defeat and not so much accepting it, but fighting back against it and despite all of those saying to quit, to leave, you know the weather and all that other stuff, to stand right there and take another whack at it. That’s what Johnny and Norm were about.
Perhaps one day they’ll be immortalized among those banners that speak about winners. Maybe when the All-Stars alight in Chicago next year, though they’ll always be the highest in our regard.
Norm Van Lier and Johnny Kerr didn’t hold up championship trophies here; they lifted up a city and its game.
Norm Van Lier - NBA all-defense 8x, top 10 in assists 8x, top 10 in steals 3x
You knew Norm was a football player growing up. He came from that fierce steel and coal mining area of western Pennsylvania, the home of the likes of Mike Ditka, George Blanda, Johnny Lujack, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas. It was colloquially known as the Cradle of Quarterbacks. Norm played safety and quarterback; he also played baseball and basketball and was good enough to be scouted by the pros in all three sports. Football was first there, and he had scholarships offers. He insisted he play his best position, quarterback; no, defense, he was told. Black kids were not considered bright enough for quarterback in those days. The heck with you then. Norm, whose business card could have read “Take this Job and Shove it,” went to play basketball at St. Francis College in Loretto, Pa.
Norm was barely six feet tall and maybe 165 pounds, all full court dive and chest to chest defense. A quirky Bulls scout who liked to hang out at those small college gyms named Jerry Krause found Van Lier and the Bulls drafted him in the third round in 1969. The Bulls shipped him off to Cincinnati for a big man, Walt Wesley, and Norm went on to lead the league in assists in 1971. But the Royals got future Hall of Famer Nate Archibald and had some other guards like John Mengelt and Matt Guokas. So the Bulls quickly recognized their mistake and reacquired Van Lier early in the 1971-72 season. Van Lier went on to team with Jerry Sloan as if not the most celebrated — and each did make multiple All-Star teams — the most feared backcourt in the NBA.
The Bulls talked about doberman defense in the title years. Sports Illustrated was calling Norm a doberman in the 70s. The bites of Sloan and Van Lier were often more literal.
They actually asked Sloan first before the Bulls required Van Lier since the two had already had a few fights, and some more even after Van Lier again became a teammate. Sloan said anyone who played that hard was his kind of teammate.
Sloan often delighted in the story of the time some fans threw aerosol cans at he and Norm at a road game. Sloan said he and Norm went into the stands and explained that wasn’t something they particularly appreciated. That never occurred again. Norm in one notorious incident became famous for chasing Sidney Wicks, then with Portland and throwing some mean elbows, around the arena with a chair. Bulls coach Dick Motta had said afterward he knew once Norm grabbed the chair it wasn’t going to be for sitting. Norm didn’t make contact, but no one would mess with him after that. The league’s celebrated guards, Walt Frazier and Jerry West, long complained how much they resented playing against the Chicago ruffians. Didn’t you know who they were? Norm, instead, taunted West and Gail Goodrich as the Hollywood stars who didn’t care to face the Midwestern chill.
Though Norm was more than a human floor burn. His game could rock and roll and he was a fixture in the Chicago music scene, at times a guest disc jockey and a Rolling Stones favorite who knew the blues as well as any. It was the other side of his life, an anti-war, black activist in an era when that was not only unpopular, but demeaned as just being an “angry back man.” Norm played defense, but refused to just be on defense in life. His game was defense, but he took offense to the slights, shuns and snubs. And he said so. Not to diminish the social activism of players in this era, for everyone should claim their equal rights at any time. But Norm did so at risk of his livelihood, and he insisted it remained the obstacle to a coaching career he long was denied.
He made three All-Stars teams for the Bulls in that wonderful and unfulfilled early 1970s run of averaging 50 wins over five years, and a hiccup of near immortality in 1977 when they had the eventual champion Trailblazers on the ropes and almost out in the first round playoff series. Bill Walton always said they knew they’d win the title once they got past those Bulls.
Norm wasn’t the big scorer. That was left for Chet Walker and Bob Love in Motta’s unconventional forward dominated offense. But it was Norm with 28 points and what was believed to be a record 10 steals before it was an official statistic when the Bulls were seconds away from taking out Wilt’s Lakers in the 1973 playoffs. Wilt later said Norm’s play was as tough as he’d ever seen in that fiery environment.
Norm was NBA all-defense eight times, top 10 in assists eight times, top 10 in steals three times, and only because the six or seven times he also would have been it wasn’t a statistic. He was wearing Bulls on his sleeve long before anyone thought to wear it across their chest. He could have been considered for the Hall of Fame if he played closer to Springfield.
Norm played Rush Street as fiercely. With charges taken and loose balls retrieved, Norm was on the floor more than the Bulls logo. The Bulls had to add furniture repair to a trainer for all the scorers’ tables Norm damaged flying into the stands. Painkillers were handed out like Skittles then to keep the players in the game, Norm averaging about 78 games per season and missing games only after a preseason salary holdout.
Norm didn’t miss games or a chance to fight for what was equitable.
It probably kept him out of coaching when teammates like Weiss, Guokas and Sloan all became NBA head coaches with sometimes limited results. Norm didn’t hesitate; they were white, he noted. But Norm’s anger and bitterness mixed with a welcoming and cheerful personality. He was the first guy to knock you down and the first to invite you to the party.
He left Chicago for a few years in the 80s after a few stints in minor league and prep coaching, kicking around the West with some constriction and sales work before landing back in Chicago as a radio and TV and pre and post game host on Bulls games. Long before the TV show Cheers, Chicago knew well the greeting of “Norm!” He was welcome in everyone’s home, where everyone knew his name.
Norm’s demands for “48 minutes of intensity” became legendary, like when Miami’s James Posey took cheap shot at Kirk Hinrich in a playoff game and it was Norm the broadcaster who went after him to fight.
You don’t get away with going after one of ours.
Johnny Red Kerr - Player, All-Star, Coach, General Manager, Broadcaster
Johnny Kerr is mostly known as the gregarious toastmaster of Chicago basketball, the man famously calling Michael Jordan’s 1989 game winner in Cleveland, fending off Jordan’s pregame resin spray and if you’ve ever been to charity summer golf tournaments or on the El to Comiskey’s Guaranteed Rate Park, you knew the big guy with the formerly red hair, the NBA’s first iron man with the cotton candy heart.
Johnny also is arguably the most overlooked for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and one of the great winners of the game. Johnny was a Chicago kid, 67th and Racine, 16-inch softball at Ogden Park, a round of beers and the hopes of getting a job in a foundry. John’s humor was self deprecating. He said they asked him about getting to know Chaucer when he got to the U. of Illinois. He said he hadn’t yet, but assumed he’d meet him at a frat party.
John played neighborhood soccer until well into high school when they noticed he was kind of tall. He took to basketball quickly enough to lead Tilden to the public league title, then Illinois to the Final Four and in his rookie season in the NBA the Syracuse Nationals to the NBA title. He made the All-Star team three times even playing in the same conference with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He was an All-Star playing almost a third of his games each season against probably the game’s best centers.
Johnny at 6-9 was a unique big man ball handler for that era, his behind the back, between the legs passes a center version of Bob Cousy in his team’s motion game with him at the high post. He never missed a game until his final season when traded to Baltimore, getting a DNP from the coach despite not being injured. The coach said the streak was a distraction.
Johnny became one of the few players in the first 50 years of the NBA to average a double/double and have more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds to not be in the Hall of Fame. What a party that would be, he’d say about getting the recognition.
Like Norm, like the Second City, Johnny, too, often was overlooked, though not without a quip and a smile and a welcome for everyone. There never was a bad day around Johnny Kerr.
They asked him how he would have guarded Kareem. Breathe on his goggles, Johnny explained, Abdul-Jabbar then wearing goggles after being poked in the eyes so often in an era of somewhat unrestrained physical play. Johnny said he’d call his biography, 12 years in the post without the ball. He said he was so slow they called three seconds on him when he was driving for a layup. He said he was proud when he set the record for most consecutive games. And then he said a friend called to tell him he was just 1,286 games behind Gehrig. The poorest teams in each conference used to have a coin flip for the top draft pick. Johnny was coaching the Phoenix Suns at the time with his then former administrative assistant with the Bulls, Jerry Colangelo. The No. 1 pick was to be Abdul-Jabbar. No. 2 would be Neal Walk. The Suns lost the flip and Colangelo slumped, head in hands. Maybe they’ll pick Walk, Johnny suggested brightly.
But life, as we know, isn’t one sunny day, and Johnny experienced the clouds and storms perhaps as intense as any.
When John was three, his father, a meatpacker in the stockyards from Scotland, died. John’s son, Jay, died at three years old of meningitis. He and his wife, Betsy, were next of kin for Betsy’s sister’s children. Betsy’s sister and her husband died and John and Betsy took in the three children with their five. It was the true eight is not enough.
John was the first Bulls coach in 1966, taking a team from the city known as the graveyard of pro basketball and helping make it a community shrine. John moved onto Phoenix and then the ABA in Virginia, where as general manager he picked up a couple of talented kids the NBA had ignored, Julius Erving and George Gervin. John came back to the Bulls as business manager after Pat Williams was forced out by Motta, who also wanted to be general manager. And then John got on TV and never stopped talking and smiling and rooting for the Bulls.
No one ever suggested John Kerr was two faced, but life is never just a party.
John never spoke about it much, but when the All-Star game was in Chicago in 1988, Johnny was doing the radio broadcast and we talked about those difficult times after the death of his son.
"It really hit us hard,” he related then. “I didn't know what I wanted to do. Should I quit basketball? You always pick up the paper and read 'Boy, 3, falls out of window' and you say, 'That's terrible,' and you wet your thumb and turn the page and say that'll never happen to you. And then one day you're one of those people, and I wish I could say you grow up in a hurry, but you don't. It's something I can talk about now. But I couldn't for a long time. Alex Hannum was our coach at the time, and we had some strong conversations. He said: 'What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to be a man and a father or quit, be a coward?' I told him he couldn't talk to me in my house like that. To step outside.
"But the key was to go on for the other kids,” Johnny said then. “I think somewhere along the line it helped Betsy and me solidify the bond we had. It made our love for each other stronger. Sure, I've gone through a lot of things in my life, and I guess there's a little of the Pagliacci there. People sometimes expect for you to have a smile on your face. 'Hey, Red, tell us a story.' Don't get me wrong. I'm a gregarious person, and I love people. But sometimes you have problems. I'll tell someone I really hurt my arm today. And he'll tell me a story about some friend who broke his collarbone. And I'll tell someone about getting my car door hit in the parking lot, and he'll tell me about a friend of his who was in a head-on collision. Sometimes you just want to say: 'Pay attention to me. Listen to my problems.' “
We miss Johnny and Norm because of who they were. But also because of who we are in Chicago, committed to the game and to the team. It’s not easy and often not satisfying. The glamour isn’t as common as the task. They’re guys who showed up less for the parade than the project. They were about loyalty, passion, stamina, resilience, from a city more known for its response to a great conflagration than great excess. We all cried. It was the day Chicago basketball died. But it also was a day to remember two men who never would let up because they never could. They were the best of Chicago.
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