Norm Van Lier: My Most MemoraBull Game

In 2005, Norm Van Lier sat with Brett Ballantini to discuss his most "Memorabull" game. Van Lier passed away in 2009

There were a lot of factors conspiring against us when we drew the Los Angeles Lakers as our first opponent in the 1973 playoffs. The Lakers were the top seed in the Western Conference, with a 60-22 record, and were one year removed from both an NBA title and a then-NBA record 69-13 season. My 1972-73 Bulls were a more modest 51-31, good for second place in the Midwest Division behind the Milwaukee Bucks and third overall in the West.

We hadn't had much luck against the Lakers in 1972-73. Back then we played six games versus conference opponents, and Los Angeles beat us five times that season. Moreover, the Lakers traditionally had our number when it came time for the playoffs (the Bulls had been eliminated from the playoffs by L.A. three times already in the team's seven-year history). All but one of those series came before my time with the Bulls, but the fact remained that we hadn't won a playoff series yet.

This was a different Bulls team, however. We could compete with anybody, with a great blend of young and veteran talent. I was one of the youngest of the group, joined by my tenacious backcourt mate Jerry Sloan; our incomparable forward combination of Chet Walker and Bob Love; board monster Clifford Ray; and nice work off the bench from Garfield Heard and Bobby Weiss. We started the season out firing right away, going 5-1 on the killer circus trip to the west coast, and never really looked back.

We finished the season with 50-plus wins for the third straight season. And, depending on how the officials were going to call the game, we matched up well with the Lakers. If the refs were defensive-minded that day, we were bound to do well. In the backcourt, the Lakers had Gail Goodrich and Jerry West. That was no easy task for any pair of guards, but Sloan and I worked them hard and made them earn their baskets. At the forward spots, we had a huge advantage in sending Walker and Love out against Jim McMillian, Bill Bridges, Keith Erickson and Mel Counts. We would have had a fair shot in the middle, countering the indomitable Wilt Chamberlain with a tandem of Ray and Dennis Awtrey (Tom Boerwinkle was injured that season and played in only eight games), but coach Dick Motta played Awtrey almost exclusively in the series, which would turn out to hurt us.

I was riding high into the postseason, playing as good an all-around game as I ever had. The 1972-73 season was my first full year back with the Bulls—I was originally drafted by Chicago but traded to the Cincinnati Royals before the 1969-70 season—and that really boosted my confidence and performance. I had made the adjustment from the run-and-gun attack of Bob Cousy with the Royals to doing what we did with the Bulls in a slower, half-court setup.

Los Angeles may have had our number during the regular season, but we certainly weren't afraid of them. We knew that with a break here or there, we could beat anybody; no one completely dominated us. Teams knew that we were hungry, prepared, and well-conditioned—no matter if it was a single game, let alone a series, opponents always knew we were going to come after them hard.

We started the series by dropping the first two games in L.A., 107-104 and 108-93. That wasn't the greatest way to begin, but we figured, "Hey, we're coming home now; let's even it up." That's just what we did, winning 96-86 and 98-94, with our defense coming through tremendously. Our hallmark was defense. We could go scoreless for five possessions, but our defense would always keep us in games.

We had another chance to steal home-court advantage from the Lakers in Game 5 back on the coast, but they blew us out, 123-102. Our backs were up against the wall when we came back to Chicago Stadium to play Game 6.

I was having a strong series already, but in Game 6, on national TV, I blew up and helped push the series to the maximum, winning 101-93. So it came down to April 15, 1973, the day of Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals at the Forum in Los Angeles—my most memorable game.

I was pumped. In the playoffs, the referees generally allowed you to get away with a little more, which was to our advantage, because we were a tough, scrappy club. Sloan, my backcourt partner, was as tough as anyone. Night after night after night, we were focused on being ready to play. And if you weren't ready to play, we'd let everybody around us know it.

In a way, I was lucky. As the youngster, I could share the burden of leadership with everyone else. I didn't have to worry about Jerry getting out and hustling hard. I didn't have to worry about Bob filling it up or containing the opponent's top scorer, or Chet making key shots. And because I was playing with the best in the business, I never lacked confidence, either.

It's funny. As much as the Lakers had outmatched us in the regular season, playing them an even 3-3 through six games in the postseason was a huge confidence boost. We all thought we could beat the Lakers, and my attitude was to leave it all out on the floor for Game 7.

Lee Loughnane and Danny Seraphine from the band Chicago were friends of mine, and they were at Game 7. That made me even more pumped. They were sitting right under the basket, and I came out firing. By the end, I'd sat out only four minutes, playing 44, led the Bulls with 28 points and 14 rebounds, and was one assist shy of leading the team in all three categories.

As much as people talk about the Golden State Warriors series in 1975 as a heartbreaker for the Bulls, this game was worse. We battled the Lakers all game long, and held a 90-83 lead with 2:58 to go. I swear to you, I thought we had them beat. I was hot, I was feeling good, and I just knew, we got this one, baby. With the way we were playing, there's no way you could tell me we were going to lose this game.

But then we curled up. Motta slowed our already-deliberate offense down and played the clock, rather than the Lakers, and we were a team that normally played the clock very well. But this time we played sloppy and committed a couple of turnovers, which was completely against our style, and the Lakers outscored us 12-2 to finish the game with a 95-92 win.

Even after having given up a big lead, down 93-92, we felt we were going to win. The play was designed to free me up and give me the last shot. Motta said, "Hey, Norm is the only guy who's hot; get him the ball." And that's just how it happened. I had the ball in the corner and let fly a 20-foot jumper that I was sure would rescue our season. I released the ball and thought, "That's it. It's over." The moonwalk wasn't even invented yet, but I did one. Yet out of nowhere came Wilt Chamberlain, who blocked the shot—and I never even saw him. He shot the ball down to Goodrich on a breakaway, and just like that a one-point win turned into a three-point loss.

I was devastated. I couldn't believe we let the game get away. This was the Lakers—you have to finish them off when you get them down. But, even in this terrible defeat, the worst of my career at that point, something happened to take the edge off. And the reason why was Wilt, the same guy who stole the game from us.

I'd met Wilt for the first time after the Philadelphia 76ers' incredible 68-13 season in 1966-67. I played for St. Francis University in Pennsylvania and was being honored at an awards ceremony as the most outstanding college player to visit Philadelphia's legendary basketball palace, the Palestra, that season; the 76ers were also there in honor of their record-breaking season. Hanging out with that team was the first time that I thought I might be able to be a professional basketball player. Before that, I'd figured I would try out as a defensive back for an NFL team—football was always my game. As I remember it now, it gives me goose bumps to know that I was being honored on the same stage as Wilt, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, and my future Bulls teammates, Walker and Matt Guokas.

Now, some six years later, the greatest center the game has ever known walked into the visiting locker room at the Forum to speak to me. To me! He walked right in and came over and said, "Man, you deserved to win this game. It's a shame for the team to lose this game with the way you played during these playoffs."

Now, I played the game in attack mode, and I didn't need validation as a pro from anyone. Bill Bridges, Walt Hazard, and other guys told me very early on, from my first preseason games as a rookie, "You've got a nice game, kid." They hadn't seen my type of playmaking and hustle much before. As I was getting settled with the Bulls in the ‘70s, Earl Monroe and other players of even greater stature started taking notice. But Wilt was the first superstar to compliment me. It was beyond belief. What he said to me in our brief conversation—validating my game, counting me as his peer—was the greatest honor I've ever received. And, from that point on, I knew what I could do and what I had. It was no coincidence that in three of the next four seasons, I was an All-Star.

I was a young guy of 26, so I shrugged off the loss pretty well. We knew we were set for many seasons to come, as long as we stayed away from any serious injuries and that we'd be back in 1973-74. Still, no one liked losing.

Today, it really galls me that if we had knocked off the Lakers, we had a clear path to the Finals. The Warriors had upset our other nemesis, the Bucks, and we would have enjoyed homecourt advantage versus Golden State. To have beaten the Lakers in 1973 would have been an incredible notch on our belt. No offense to Golden State, but the Lakers and Boston Celtics were the teams in those days.

Part of me thinks we were just worn out. Only six of our players averaged more than 14 minutes a game in the playoffs, and only seven averaged more than eight. We had no rotation at all, and the five starters played essentially the entire game.

Still, I'm proud of what we Bulls were able to do to give basketball a foothold here in Chicago. There was a time—my time—when people doubted that pro basketball could last here. Our Bulls teams of the 1970s cemented basketball in this city, and I wonder if we get enough credit for that. On the other hand, because of my experience playing for the Bulls, I've gotten to be a part of some really positive things here after my career, as a broadcaster when the team won its six titles.

As satisfying as it was to play the best game of my career in a playoff series Game 7, and to have a legend like Wilt praise me afterwards, I still can't believe it really happened. It still haunts me. We had the Lakers beat on their home floor, but we let it get away.