Change of Seasons
Learning to put the past behind, in Norm’s own words.
Red-hot rage fills the breast
Swelling, burning, choking
Firey anger, searing pain
Blistering the soul.
Kind words, like soothing rain
Salve on the wounds
Balmy and cool
Lilting like music,
Soothes the savage beast.
I am at peace.
— Kim Harris-Jones, “Pariah” (1998)
In December of 2004, I sat down with Norm for the first in what would become a regular series of long interviews. These interviews were long not always because of the content covered, but because in public, Norm was always subject to interruption by friends and well-wishers at five-minute intervals. When I asked Norm to catch fans up on what he was doing at the time—he was in-between gigs as a Bulls pre- and postgame analyst—I didn’t get the usual retired athlete’s pabulum. Instead we spoke more about life in general: regrets, achievements, loves and losses. Not many people may cite Norm’s life as a means of modeling their own, but he was so much more than the “silly man” he hoped to portray on screen.
I among thousands will miss him, dearly. We love you, Norm. Keep on rockin’ and rollin’.
by Norm Van Lier
Younger fans might only recognize me as the crazy guy who did Bulls postgames, or the guy in the barbershop ad for this year’s Bulls. But I’ve had an interesting road in the 25 years since I retired.
Initially, I spent most of my time raising my two girls, Heidi and Hillary, who were six and two years old when I retired. I married into a family when I married my wife, Susan. That was the biggest challenge of my life, and the best thing ever to happen to me.
It was a hard adjustment not only to stop playing, but to realize that the people I’d worked with for so long—the Bulls, the NBA—didn’t owe me anything. To be honest, this team and this league had me on more painkillers than the law should allow, and later, they turned their backs on me like I was some drug addict. No one would return my calls. No one would help me. I was a pariah. That hurt me so much. But eventually, I realized that I had to get up off my butt and make something happen.
Today, it’s a little hard to see the forgiving nature of sports fans, and sports in general, knowing that it was so hard for me to get a second chance. They hand second chances out freely today. You’re almost glorified if you’re making a comeback from crime or drugs. Look at Darryl Strawberry, Steve Howe. Sammy Sosa. They just now realize the guy’s got some problems? He should take Roberto Clemente’s No. 21 off right now with the way he’s stained the game.
One thing is messing up our country: We put too much emphasis on winning everything. That’s hurt sports more than any mistake that any athlete has ever made. We would hire a murderer today if it would help us win. None of the owners or people upstairs take responsibility for that.
I’m not blaming anybody for my playing while hurt. If it was up to me, I’d play with a broken arm, just to play. It was the reaction I got from the league and this Bulls team that was disappointing. It was hard on my family. It took me a long time for me to let go of my resentments. But my daughters tell me today, “Dad, you’re one tough guy. You speak up for your rights. You don’t take nothin’ from nobody.” So some positives came from all of that. I taught them lessons they could use to empower themselves, right from the start.
It was my dad who helped me let go of my anger. Before he died in 1988, we watched “The Godfather” together. Afterward my dad asked me, “Why do you think the Bulls owe you anything?”
I told him about this and that, slights and slams, stuff that had grown into huge obstacles in my mind.
“Did they pay you on time?” Yes, sir. “Were their checks good?” Yes, sir.
“Well, then they don’t owe you a thing. So get up, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and go to work.”
I swear, from that moment on, my attitude was completely different. I’ve not looked back since.
It was Chet Coppock who convinced me to come back to town and get into broadcasting. I was in L.A., and he told me you’re too good to be sitting out there on your butt, doing nothing. Ironically, when I came back and started doing radio with WMVP, I took his place.
I loved broadcasting. I could vent, say what I wanted to say. I had two degrees, in history and special education, but still I had to polish myself up and get all the Ebonics out of my system. I had a real communication with fans. I always did, even when I was a player. I was hired because I told the truth. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. I just tried to tell the truth. I was never intimidated by anybody, whether it was Michael Jordan or Phil Jackson, in the pursuit of telling the truth. Get in my face if you want to, I’m not going to budge.
Now that I’m away from broadcasting, I don’t know if I’m that hungry to get back into it. I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. I’ll tell you what I’d like to do more of, though: movies and commercials. I’m in the spots promoting the Bulls this season, the barbershop spots, and I should be doing some national Popeye’s fried chicken commercials soon. I like that. It’s the same thing I did on radio and TV: entertain. My daughter who’s in the movies tells me, “You have a gift, Dad, but you won’t pursue it like I want you to.” As I’m getting older, I’m thinking there might be some room for an older, silly man in the movies or on TV.
– As told to Brett Ballantini, December 2004