The Storm is Over
One of Chicago’s true sports icons finally finds his peace.
Living life is just a game, so they say.
All the games we used to play fade away.
We may now enjoy the dreams we shared so long ago.
–James Pankow, “Make Me Smile” (1970)
As a fan, my timing as a Bulls follower wasn’t so bad. The first game I ever saw in Chicago Stadium snapped a team streak that still exists—13 straight losses—with a win over the New Orleans Jazz in December 1976. That win marked the beginning of a turnaround that would go on to become a legendary season, Chicago’s Miracle on Madison run to the playoffs.
But from the perspective of the great Bulls teams of the 1970s, the Chet Walker-Bob Love-Jerry Sloan-Norm Van Lier bruisers—I missed the boat. Norm, sans his essential backcourt mate Sloan, was on his last legs by the time I first saw him in person.
Yet still, the Bulls captain made his mark. His winding, breathless, circuitous drives to the basket are the first memories I have of an NBA game. He was constant motion on the floor.
And, I would later learn as a writer and just one of thousands who could call Norm a friend, off it.
Norm was a guy who would turn a short interview into dissertations on politics, freedom, television, or music. Yes, always music. Try to pry Norm from the Stones, Zeppelin, or Chicago (whose song is cited atop this column) and you were in for a losing battle.
I’d try to foist something new on Norm, like a Living Colour disc, and it would seemingly dissipate into the lair of his West Side apartment. Give the man some “Satisfaction”, and he’d be just fine. For all I knew, the man who was fax machine in an e-mail world was also still vinyl in a laser one.
But that’s how Norm rolled, an old-school gypsy with feist to burn. He was peace, love, and happiness, but he also had flashes of a Panther side: peace, love, and let’s get it on. He was tormented by anger and remorse, but driven by grace and kindness. And besides, who was I to lecture him about his musical favorites being in mothballs—the guy dated Stevie Nicks, for crying out loud!
It was only four years ago that I had my first extended interviews with Norm, and since then I’ve been in the practice of just calling to check in on occasion, always under the ruse of having another story that necessitated his input. But to be true, I just wanted to feed off his spirit—and as time went by, to raise his.
It comes as no surprise that when Comcast sent someone over to Norm’s apartment yesterday that the television was blaring; every time I called, he’d have some old-school TV on, roaring loud. He’d hustle over to turn the set down, then catch me up on the latest TV Land Monster Marathon. As a guy who could have easily made me feel I was infringing on his time, Norm was always generous; in the tenuous dynamic that’s always present when talking with the famous and/or rich, that the mark that seems to separate business from friendship.
Norm always found his reputation as a killer on the court to be ironic. Yes, everything you’re reading about his tough-as-nails persona is true, plus one. And Norm, a high school d-back and quarterback of note, hailing from Joe Namath country in Pennsylvania, never failed to acknowledge he brought a shoulder-pads mentality to the hardwood.
But just the same, he started his pro career in Cincinnati, learning the speed game first under Oscar Robertson and then, Bob Cousy. He was an offensive weapon for the Royals, leading the NBA in assists in just his second year. As happy as Norm might have been to move on to a title contender in Chicago in 1971, the change in pace could not have been more drastic, or more disadvantageous: “In Cincinnati, we ran the ball up and down the court, and I loved that style of play, because I didn’t get beat up.”
It was Bulls coach Dick Motta, with whom Norm would have many a run-in, who convinced Norm that in order to run his Chicago team, he’d have to be the baddest ass on the court—in Norm’s words, he “had to have a little bite.” At 6-1, 165, Norm was forced to be the loudest and brashest player to lace up his sneaks, night-in, night-out. It was not a natural thing for him: “I had to come with the attitude, every night,” he’d say. “It wasn’t like I was a crazy guy. My temperament was part of the game plan, and it was exhausting and draining, like two jobs instead of one. I was getting my little butt kicked every night, defensively and offensively.”
Norm did those two jobs so well, so seamlessly downshifting from uptempo to grinder ball, that he made eight straight NBA All-Defensive teams. More than being a three-time All-Star or All-NBA, Norm was proud of his defensive recognition. It’s safe to say that few, if any, players of his size—especially at a time when there was no such thing as a flagrant foul, as players adhered to codes of physical play on the floor—matched such an extraordinary feat.
Norm loved that he was considered, with Sloan, as part of the toughest defensive backcourt ever to play the game. Talking defense with him, in fact, would trigger his biggest, ongoing sadness—lack of recognition by the Bulls.
He never did understand how Sloan’s and Love’s jerseys could hang in the stadium rafters, but not his own. Never would he denigrate a teammate, but he wasn’t blowing his own sax in stating that he was the heart of what defined the Bulls in the 1970s. (Use Dean Oliver’s defensive rating to extrapolate what Norm’s defense did on an individual points per 100 possessions measure, and his 97.7 ranks 18th among all players in the past three decades.)
Over the years, the lack of recognition hurt: “The older I get, the more it bothers me. I have more pride about our defensive achievements than anything else. No one else did that, and no one can take that away from me. But I wouldn’t mind a few pats on the back for it.”
For all the talk of how tough Norm was, he was pretty much a pussycat off the floor. He spoke with love about those old Bulls teams—his “family,” he called them. He was never slow to deliver a compliment, from Sloan (“my career came to a screeching halt when he retired”) to Love (“Bob was a much, much better defensive player than anyone gave him credit for, shutting down the Elvin Hayes and Spencer Haywoods”) to Walker (“We had a ‘need’ play, where Chet just took the ball when we were slumping and got a basket; things like that are what made our teamwork click so well”). Even the players who are mostly overlooked in the Bulls pantheon got love from Norm, like centers Tom Boerwinkle (“best passing center I’ve ever seen”) and Clifford Ray (“my best friend in the NBA, who doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone”).
Those he knew only at the tail end of his career, or never played with at all, were not beyond Norm’s kindnesses. Of center Artis Gilmore, who was the core of the Miracle on Madison run in 1977, Norm said, “If I had a son, I would want him to be just like Artis, a kind, and good human being.” And Reggie Theus, who came to the Bulls as a ballyhooed first-round pick destined to supplant Van Lier in 1978 as starting point guard, was completely thrown by Norm’s kindness.
“Chicago was where rookie guards went to die,” Theus says of the team where just a year earlier, first-rounder Tate Armstrong had his spirit crushed and would see his career end short of 100 games. “I showed up thinking I’d have a fight my first day of practice—and I thought Norm was going to be the guy. I don’t think I slept for days before camp started. I was trembling with anticipation, and if Norm had said hello to me, I would have thrown the first punch. But Norm turned out to be the nicest guy on the whole team, and made special effort to comfort me. Maybe he already knew the Bulls planned on releasing him, but he told me that his spot was going to me, and that I needed to watch my back—not that he was gunning for me, but others were.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I had no idea that my first mentor in Chicago would be Norm Van Lier. He had the same experience I was about to have, with me going from a running game at UNLV to walking it up with the Bulls. And he was such a pro. I’ll never forget that.”
Still, for all the connections Norm made, he knew he was a round peg in the square hole that was brown ball-era NBA basketball. For all the similarities he shared with fellow Bulls icon Red Kerr, who ironically passed away on the same day as Norm, his introspectiveness and iconoclastic nature contrasted with the typical teammate’s. “I didn’t have a lot in common with the other guys on the team, most of whom were older than me,” Norm said. “I was more to myself, rocking and rolling. They’d say, ‘Norm is out there a little bit.’ If I had an off day, I’d fly to New York and see Led Zeppelin, not sit around a bar, drink and talk basketball.”
He was laughing when he’d say things like this, but Norm was a bittersweet man. His family was his biggest love, but he lived far away from them, in Chicago. His movie-producer wife, Susan, and two stepdaughters, filmmaker Heidi and musician Hillary, were out in California. He missed all of them way more than he let on.
His own health issues, and more so the illnesses and deaths of peers in and out of the League, wore on and worried Norm. He was prone to depression, and more than one friend lamented, if only there could have been a Bulls game for him to broadcast every night.
Talking basketball, talking life, was what Norm lived to do. He was, at root, an entertainer. And it was so easy to be entertained by him.
Knowing that so many older players find artifacts from their careers hard to come by, I brought Norm a little gift when we first sat down together, a photograph of him, Sloan, and Love that seems to embody the tenacity of those 1970s Bulls. Norm was genuinely touched to receive this simple photograph, going on and on about it, showing others sitting around us in the Bulls’ media room: Oh, this is beautiful…I’ve never seen this…Look at me, it’s a fast break so I’m not barking orders. Later he would claim it as a prized possession that had a special place in his Chicago loft.
I’ve received my share of thank-you notes and calls from coaches and players. But when Norm called me after he saw the “MemoraBull” game we first spoke about printed up, he was sweeter than you could imagine. He was genuinely touched that he could be accorded such respect, and that someone out there—someone who’d never seen the black and blue Bulls playing live—would seek to write about a game he feared would be forever forgotten despite being his very greatest one in the NBA.
Whenever we spoke, I’d sign off by telling him I’d be spreading the good word of Norm to the masses. And again, despite the fact that he spent much of his retirement being paid to offer his opinions, Norm seemed to be touched that his thoughts and memories were so highly regarded.
But that only scratched the surface, Norm. You were, and will remain, unforgettable. Sure, you may be rockin’ again with Ian Stewart and John Bonham, sharing with them some of your Normisms: That’s what I’m saying, or I’ll tell you this, or that omnipresent transition by way of, but the recognition is there, and building.
Elegies are not always easy to craft. To have two Chicago icons taken from us on the same day creates a void that could cause decades to fill.
Norm, you may be gone, but never forgotten. Keep the peace upstairs, brother.