Kerr, Van Lier taught us all what it means to be fans
On Feb. 26, 2009, Chicago and the Bulls lost not only two of its greatest sports figures, but two men who as much as anyone reflected the heart, soul and spirit of the city.
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The word reached Washington the evening before the Bulls were facing the Washington Wizards. Johnny “Red” Kerr had died.
Neil Funk, the Bulls longtime play-by-play man, and Bill Wennington, who was doing radio color for the Bulls, would have been out to dinner and then a cocktail with John, as they did—especially Neil—the night before games on the road for years.
So Neil sat in one seat and Wennington one away and they left one between them empty. They ordered three beers, one for each of them, for Neil, Bill and John. They set John’s beer on the bar in front of his stool just as he would have liked it.
It was a quietly appropriate tribute to the man whom Chicago sat next to and had a beer and a laugh with for the last half century, the neighborhood guy who never let fame get in the way of being a fan.
It was a year ago Friday, on Feb. 26, 2009, that Kerr, the popular TV voice and first coach of the Bulls, died after a battle with cancer. That same day, longtime Bulls fierce guard and fiery personality Norm Van Lier also passed away of a heart attack. The city and the Bulls had lost on the same day not only two of its greatest sports figures, but two men who as much as anyone reflected the heart, soul and spirit of Chicago.
They were as different as two men could be, John with the gregarious personality, the kindly self deprecating quip and the big arm to embrace the city like it was part of his own family. Norm was second city personified, always striving, always reaching for more and never satisfied that he was getting his due. He also would let anyone who cared know.
Yet, at the same time, Norm’s was as wide an embrace as Johnny’s, for it was long before the famous TV show Cheers that anytime Van Lier walked into a tavern in Chicago—and he enjoyed many, though he wasn’t particularly a drinker—the shouts of “Norm” echoed throughout the place.
Norm was the party wherever he went, sonorous and boisterous and funny, earthy, ribald and course. Norm loved music, as Chicago does, and his life many ways was a blues opus.
He had to fight his way all the time, which was all he knew, anyway, the tempestuous, outspoken, black power point guard of the 1970s who fought with opponents, teammates, his coaches and anyone who didn’t care to hear the way he told it and saw it.
It was the same way when he went on air to take his popular post before, during and after Bulls games.
All he asked for was “48 minutes!”
You can still hear him shouting it, “48 minutes of defense, heart and attitude and backbone!” He was preaching almost, like in a revival tent for the greatest within the players. It made you laugh and smile and get angry and want to get right in there to show them, as you know Norm believed he could.
When the players lost, he was a fan. “Hearts like mustard seeds!” he exclaimed. Just tiny little things you could barely see.
But Norm would have loved this Bulls team. He would have loved the way Joakim Noah hustled and Taj Gibson fought and Derrick Rose never quit on anything. This is Norm’s kind of team, and that’s a good thing.
Johnny loved all the Bulls teams. He loved the Bulls no matter what they did or couldn’t do. He knew who they were and what they were at their worst, but he always had hope and optimism like the most sanguine of fans. He was in love. And no matter how much they would hurt him, he never left and always forgave. It was true love.
Norm’s was a tougher love.
His rants were classic and innumerable, and one time the old WLUP-AM (1000) station asked me to co-host an overnight show with Norm, 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., because Norm would get going on his rants about a lack of heart and conviction and taking a charge and what babies the players were today and they’d go on for 20 minutes and they wanted someone there to break in occasionally. We had the times of our lives.
Like some of his favorite groups of the 70s, Norm was a rolling stone and all of earth, wind and fire.
I remember him many times grabbing his heart and mimicking Fred Sanford from the old Sanford and Son TV show. He would feign a heart attack in reaction to his dislike to what he saw on the court. He called them Fred Sanford moments, and you figured it eventually would claim him, because Norm was all heart.
He was Charles Barkley of his era, though his era wasn’t so kind and unforgiving. Black power was a feared force then and for saying the things then that Barkley says now, Norm was revered and reviled. He wanted to coach after his playing career ended with three All-Star appearances at a time he may have been the game’s most feared guard.
Though it less for scoring 50 points than it was a knockout.
He once chased Sidney Wicks, almost a foot taller, with a chair. No one messed with Norm after that. He was Stormin' Norm. Teammates less accomplished like Jerry Sloan (two All-Star appearances), Matt Guokas and Bob Weiss became head coaches. Norm couldn’t get an assistant’s job. Bad timing? No, they were white and he was black, Norm said.
To paraphrase Groucho Marx’ famous saying, maybe Norm didn’t want to be part of any club that wouldn’t have him as a member.
Norm told it as it was, or as he saw it, and so if no one liked it, well, so what. He wasn’t supposed to be an All-Star guard, anyway. And if they didn’t appreciate him, well, so what to that as well as they never truly appreciated his adopted city. Second city. In his heart, Norm was second to no one.
Johnny was a fan as well, though, just as Chicagoan in his ways.
Norm was the fan and Chicagoan who always felt they were scheming against us and never giving us the deserved recognition.
To John, the glass always was filled.
The radio and TV guys would always have this little game they’d play on the way to games, voting if it was going to be a thumbs up tonight or a thumbs down. It always was thumbs up for John. Somewhere between 80 and 82 wins a season by those one game at a time calculations. He just wanted the team to succeed so much.
There never was a doleful moment with him as his grace, vitality, and resilience brightened the occasions.
He was master of the pun and the playful. He loved to tell stories on himself, like when he was the expansion Bulls coach and they were playing the defending champions and he told each player to pretend they were an All-Star. Then after they lost, he explained how one of the players told him to pretend they won.
Like Norm, John lived through bitter hardships and tragedy; John’s father dying when he was a child and John’s son dying at three, the same age John was when his father died. He raised his wife’s sister’s kids when she died at a young age. Johnny, really, took us all in.
We’ll never forget his famous call of Michael Jordan’s shot against Cleveland in 1989 or that spray of talcum powder that Jordan sprinkled on Kerr to open every game of Jordan’s career, which LeBron James later copied. Mike was the original. John was an original.
He was the South Side and the White Sox and 16-inch and deep dish and a hot dog with everything, though Norm was more the relish.
Norm took to wearing bright sienna and chartreuse suit jackets long before TV’s Craig Sager did, and that’s where the TNT announcer probably got the idea as a kid growing up in west suburban Batavia.
Norm always was hot, and despite the red hair, John was cool and genial.
But they personified what was best about our great Midwestern metropolis. Their passion was earnest and honest. They cared and they believed. And they never met a stranger. Class never held distinction in their personal class and distinctiveness. They spoke from the heart in their particular way. They never let disappointment defeat them. You might know their pain, but they never allowed it to become who they were.
They were bundled up against the cold rejection of outsiders or the disappointments we all faced. Yet, they always had a smile and a laugh and a good story for you. They could take the chill out of the coldest day or the coolest adversary.
They were fighters and made us proud to be fans. They always came back for more and always believed, so we could as well.
We miss John and Norm as people and Bulls and friends. But we miss them more as Chicagoans and what it means to be a fan and to be a Chicagoan. They were us, and we lost a part of us when we lost them.
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