Q+A: Susan Van Lier
The widow of Bulls great talks about her husband and the United Hoops Classic.
by Bryan Crawford / @_bryancrawford
Susan Van Lier, widow of Bulls great Norm Van Lier, was the engine behind last year’s inaugural Chicago United Hoops Classic, a high-school all-star game which pits the best players from the South side of the city against the best players from the West side.
Last year, the West side emerged victorious over the South side. But the game wasn’t about who won or who lost, it was about raising awareness of the plight of kids who come from the most impoverished and under-served neighborhoods in the city; areas rife with drugs and gang violence. The game was put together to let both of those communities know that people out there care about them.
Mrs. Van Lier is once again spearheading the event this year with a special place in her heart for Ryan Royall—a Division I basketball prospect and senior-to-be at Hillcrest High School in South Suburban Country Club Hills—who was killed last June by a stray bullet after leaving a party. Royall was slated to play in the Chicago United Hoops Classic this year.
Senseless acts of violence like this led Susan Van Lier to create a 125-word non-violence pledge that requires people to take ownership and do their part to prevent violence from happening in the streets.
Mrs. Van Lier spoke with SLAMonline about the game, her mission and how much her husband loved the city of Chicago.
SLAM: Where exactly did the idea for the Chicago United Hoops Classic come from?
Susan Van Lier: Norman passed away in 2009 and I was with some close friends thinking about what I could do as a way to honor him. So we came up with the Norm Van Lier Scholarship Fund and out of that came the idea for the Hoops Classic. So it was a wild ride to do it in such a short period of time and to have it be that successful was very surprising to me. And the kids that we had in the game were all so special and they will always be very important to me because they were those inaugural kids that we chose that came and played in our very first game.
SLAM: Talk a little bit about the scholarship fund and how it helps kids.
SVL: With these kids and with their families, we want them to be leaders in the community—which they already are—but we want them to now have sort of an idea to go back into their communities and talk about getting a good education which is what Norman believed in so strongly. He always told kids not to focus on getting into the NBA because the chances are so small, but to make sure they got a good education because that’s what will transform your life. So that’s why we started the scholarship fund, based right on that philosophy of Norman’s. We want to create leaders in the communities on the South and West side, we’re also focused on non-violence on the South and West sides.
SLAM: You mentioned the success of the game as being a surprise. How so?
SVL: When I was walking the players into the arena before the game I could hear some of them behind me going, ‘Oh wow!’ and ‘Oh, man!’ They were so excited to be playing at DePaul and that was exciting for me, too! I’d been married to Norman for 30 years so I guess I became jaded to things like that. I didn’t expect that kind of excitement and it was very moving to me. The other thing is that there were people from the South and West sides—mothers and fathers particularly—that would come up to me during the game and hug me and thank me because they said no one had ever done something like this in the City of Chicago. I didn’t expect that either! It makes me want to cry even now.
SLAM: With your husband being a former Chicago Bulls player, has the team given you any support with regard to the game and what it is you’re trying to do?
SVL: The Bulls have been very supportive, quite frankly, from Day 1. I called Jerry Reinsdorf and told him that I was doing this and he immediately threw his support behind our efforts. That was very important to me because it made me feel like we could do this and that gesture was just a very, very big deal for me.
SLAM: For those who are too young or don’t know about Norm Van Lier, can you talk about how much he loved Chicago?
SVL: Chicago was 1,000 percent in his heart! I met him when he playing at the height of his career and he had opportunities to go other places both as a player and as a broadcaster. But he was so dedicated and devoted to Chicago and also to the Bulls. Chicago and the Chicago Bulls was Norman’s identity. He was very, very devoted to Chicago and I think the city was very devoted to Norman, too. The reason I started the scholarship fund in his name was because I was just so blown away by the response from the city when he passed it away. It was huge and clearly they had so much love and affection for him that it was almost obligatory on my part to do something like this because of his love for the city and their love for him back.
SLAM: What was it about your husband do you think caused so many people to have such a love and admiration for him?
SVL: He was quite an interesting and extraordinary human being. He was very accessible. He never had a big group of people around him to keep him away from the public, he wanted to be right there and be able to talk to anyone; he loved people. And one of the things that I love that Norman taught our daughters was that every single person—no matter their background—is as valuable as the next. And that was really how he lived his life. He taught me that and he taught our girls that and I’m forever grateful.
SLAM: Can you talk about the non-violence pledge that you put together and what the vision is behind it?
SVL: The pledge is up on the website, NormVanLier.com, and also on the Chicago United Hoops Classic Facebook page. Our goal, really, is to have every person of all ages, every person in Chicago to sign the non-violence pledge. I really feel that if you sign something like that, I believe that as you go through your life or when something comes up or when you see something, you’ll remember that you signed a pledge to choose to live in a non-violent way. We rolled it out officially on Martin Luther King’s birthday which I thought was appropriate because Norman loved Martin Luther King as we all did, and all of the participants in our game will sign the non-violence pledge every year going forward. It’s very important to us that anybody that’s going to work with Norman’s scholarship fund or with the Chicago United Hoops Classic, that these people have committed—by physically signing the pledge—to a life of non-violence.
The Second Annual Chicago United Hoops Classic will take place May 5 on the University of Chicago Campus at the Gerald E. Ratner Athletic Center. Tip-off time will be at 3 p.m. and tickets for the game can be purchased here.