The Windy City, the Chicago Bulls organization and the NBA lost a great one today. Norman Allen Van Lier III — nicknamed “Stormin’ Norman” during his playing days because he was one tough hombre — passed away today in his Chicago apartment at the age of 61.
The phrase that best describes Norm’s NBA career is “under appreciated.” I find that to be rather bizarre considering his many accomplishments, which included: One league assist title (1971), one All-NBA Second Team selection (1974), three All-Star Game appearances (1974, 1976, 1977), three All-Defensive First Team selections (1974, 1976, 1977) and five All-Defensive Second Team selections (1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1978). Think about that: He was one of the greatest defensive players in the world for nearly a decade. Amazing.
Sadly, most of the fans of his era (and quite a few fans of future eras) only appreciated big size and bigger numbers. But at 6’1″, Norm was small-ish, even for his day, and his game was about toughness, hustle, defensive tenacity and a team-first attitude…not the accumulation of gaudy, record-setting statistics. You might notice those are the same traits that made one William Felton Russell into the greatest winner in NBA history. Sadly, Norm wasn’t part of 11 championship teams like Russell. In fact, he wasn’t on a single title winner. But that shouldn’t diminish his greatness, or our memory of him.
Fortunately for Norm, the people of Chicago came to adore him, and his teammates respected him so much they probably would have stepped in front of a flaming meteor for him. He was a member of the most beloved Bulls team that didn’t include Michael Jordan. That 1970s squad featured a group of players who brought it every night: Norm, Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle. None of those guys were what you would call All-World, but they played smart and they played together. And despite the lack of star power, they managed three straight 50-win seasons (four if you count the year before Norm arrived), an epic seven-game semifinal series against Wilt Chamberlain’s Lakers in 1973, and two trips to the Western Conference Finals in 1974 (where they lost to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks) and 1975 (where they lost a bitterly contested seven-game series to Rick Barry’s Golden State Warriors, who would go on to win the title).
But that’s the kind of ancient history that today’s “Now, now, now!” society might not fully grasp or (again) appreciate. (I call it chronological snobbery.) Today’s Bulls fans knew Norm best as a (very) gruff and (exceedingly) outspoken studio analyst for ComcastSportsnet. Nobody had a quicker temper for careless play than Norm, and he wouldn’t hesitate to lay waste to the Bulls when the players weren’t going all out. It’s hard for a man to be patient with lackadaisical play when he would have walked through a brick wall face-first to win.
But he still loved them like a wayward child. As his old running mate Love said after he heard about Norm’s passing: “Man oh man, me and Norm were just together Tuesday night. As usual, he was expressing his love for the team and the franchise. He said, ‘Butter, a lot of times I may sound critical on TV but it’s just because I love these guys so much and I want them to win.’ People might have taken that the wrong way. But he had passion like nobody else and just wanted to be loved.”
That was Norm in a nutshell. When Johnny “Red” Kerr was honored a couple weeks back, President Barack Obama described Kerr as “the fan on the bar stool next to us.” Which he was. Well, Norm was the rascally old grandfather filled with a mind full of wisdom and a belly full of fire. He was never afraid to tell it like it was, nor would he waste an opportunity to teach a lesson that needed to be learned, even if, at times, those lessons weren’t taken to heart or (again) fully appreciated.
We’ll miss you Norm. Sadly, many people will probably wish that they would have appreciated you more when they had the chance. (I’m looking at you, Jerry Reinsdorf; retire Norm’s number already.) Thanks for everything.
Respect, admiration pour in over Van Lier’s passing
Norm Van Lier through the years
Bulls great Norm Van Lier dies
RIP, Norm Van Lier
Former Bulls player, commentator Van Lier dies
Remembering Norm Van Lier
Former Bulls great, TV analyst Van Lier dead at 61
Norm Van Lier remembered as
Come To Think Of It…Remembering Stormin’ Norman Van Lier
David Stern reacts to Van Lier’s passing
Giving all was his trademark
Ex-Chicago Bull Norm Van Lier, who played, lived hard, dies at 61
The End of 48 Minutes of Intensity
Norm Van Lier: My Most MemoraBull Game
Norm Van Lier – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Norm Van Lier Statistics – Basketball-Reference.com
Midland’s Norm Van Lier inducted into WPIAL Hall of Fame