There was a time, not long before Michael Jordan, when Norm Van Lier was the best guard who'd ever played for the Bulls and was worshiped by basketball fans all over Chicago.
And then he left.
He played 11 tempestuous seasons in the NBA, a scrappy little point guard who might have been the savviest, toughest defender the league has ever seen. But his career abruptly ended when his body collapsed. He slipped away from the limelight and moved from Chicago, leaving fans to wonder what had happened and why.
Many of those questions are being answered because Van Lier is back, vowing never to leave Chicago again. He's the host of an afternoon-drive sports talk show on WMVP; he does Bulls halftime and postgame commentary on SportsChannel's broadcasts; and he's a regular speaker, commanding as much as $3,000 a talk, at functions all over town.
Some might see a contradiction between what he's practiced and what he preaches, but he's really quite consistent. He runs from no argument, he hides nothing of his past. He's the freshest, most original voice in local sports broadcasting, the envy of the opposition, the only sports-talk host around with something interesting and entertaining to say. He's got his own unique style, his own worldview. When he revs up, and he revs up a lot, he has a rollicking singsongy rhythm that's contagious. Callers and sidekicks can't help but imitate his punch-punch patter or adopt such Van Lierisms as "but, hey, that's just me."
"He comes on with the same fury he brought to the game, it's like he's taking the charge," says Larry Wert, the WMVP general manager who hired Van Lier. "We're pretty big on talented people who have fallen out of the public eye and want to reemerge. Chicago loves the underdog."
There is some delightful irony in all this, which Van Lier certainly appreciates. "I'm having more fun than I ever had and I'm getting paid for it," he says. "I tell the truth. I have to. I've got to live with myself. But now it's cool to be like this. I've got to shake my head. Fifteen years ago I was the worst fear come to life, an outspoken black man. Guess what? I'm still outspoken and I'm still black. I haven't changed. They changed."
Van Lier was born in Midland, Pennsylvania, in that working-class steel-mill and coal-mine section of eastern America that produced such sports legends as George Blanda, Mike Ditka, Dick Allen, Doug Buffone, and Joe Namath.
It's important to mention all of this, as stereotypical as it sounds, because Van Lier mentions it so much himself. "It was the upbringing that made me who I am," he says. "I take crap from no one. Yet I respect you. I respect tradition. I was raised in the kind of family where they expected us to come home from school on time and eat dinner together, respect your elders and don't talk back. No matter what kind of foolishness I did, I told my father the truth. I've never run from what I've done. That's a code I live by and I learned it in Midland."
He was a sports player and fan, a lover of the Pirates, the kind of kid who stayed up late at night to catch the west coast games on the tiny radio he kept by his bed. He played baseball, quarterbacked the football team, and led the Midland Leopards to the state high school basketball championship. He was the point guard, the little guy who told the bigger guys where to go and fed them the ball once they got there. On some weekends he hitchhiked to Harlem to play New York's best. "It was all black kids on those playground courts, except for one skinny kid from Brooklyn. His dad dropped him off and picked him up. That kid was Billy Cunningham. Yeah, he could play. As Richard Pryor used to say, he made the brothers look ridiculous."
Van Lier attended Saint Francis College in Loretto, Pennsylvania. He was a double major--history and special education--who graduated with a B average a few months after being selected by the Bulls in the third round of the 1969 NBA draft. "I saw Norm play against La Salle," says Jerry Krause, now the Bulls general manager, then a scout. "He was a tough kid, tough defender."
Van Lier signed for $17,500 and got a $5,000 bonus, but after training camp he was traded to the Cincinnati Royals for Walt Wesley, a backup center. In his second year Van Lier led the league in assists, passing off to his backcourt mate Nate Archibald, the league's most prolific scorer. "I liked Cincy, but [coach] Bob Cousy told me, 'Norm, with you and Archibald our backcourt's too small. I'll accommodate you and send you where you want to go.' I said, 'Send me back to the Bulls.'"
So back he came on November 9, 1971, for Jim Fox, another backup center, and with him was created one of the greatest teams that never won a championship: Bob Love and Chet Walker at forwards; bruisers rotating at center; and a backcourt of Jerry Sloan and Van Lier. Their game was defense, relentless defense. They picked, pushed, pulled, and pounded the other team into dumb mistakes. They were the New York Knicks of their day.
Now, I must admit I'm not unbiased in this account. When Van Lier joined the team I was an awkward adolescent at Evanston Township High School, and Bulls basketball was my escape. Van Lier was my favorite. I wrote about him in my diary. I got a friend, Josh, to drive me to the Stadium on picture day and I waited in line for my chance to be photographed with Van Lier. I still have that photo--me looking over his shoulder as he autographs a Bulls team poster, which I hung on my bedroom wall.
To me nothing in sports was as exhilarating as Van Lier at work. He was courageous and smart, the leader on the floor. He employed a wicked hand check, more like a straight-arm, driving opponents back as they tried to advance. He'd flop wildly at the slightest contact, head and elbows banging on the floor, as though he were being fouled. He dived headfirst after loose balls, burned his skin on the stadium floor, banged his way through picks, elbowed the bigger guys out of the way, and fought like hell to get his share of rebounds.
It was a funky team and a wild time, so very 70s in taste and tone (Van Lier himself wore an Afro and a beard). They were coached by Dick Motta, an insanely competitive, strident, and sarcastic man who favored bright-colored jackets, sometimes canary yellow, and horrid plaid pants. The whole squad was nuts. The mascot, Benny the Bull, once got tossed from a game in Milwaukee for giving the finger to the ref. The ref deserved it; he missed the call.
Van Lier and Motta were always at each other's throats--though it was nothing personal, they declared. "I got nothing against Dick--he's a great coach," says Van Lier. "He yelled at me because he knew I could take it. And sometimes I yelled back. A lot of it was about my demand that Motta respect me and my other teammates--respect us as men."
Van Lier's greatest moment came in the 1973 playoffs against the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers. In game six, down three games to two, facing elimination, with Walker out with an injured leg and Love saddled with fouls, and the Stadium rocking, Van Lier outplayed them all. "Stormin' Norman came up with more loose balls than the rackman in a billiard academy, finishing with 10 steals," wrote Bob Logan of the Tribune. "Afterwards, as Motta noted, 'you saw the Van Lier we've been watching all season.' And in between dashes down the floor to set up the offense, he put the clamps on the Lakers' Gail Goodrich, limiting him to two baskets in 11 shots and four points."
The Bulls won 101-93, and back they went to LA for game seven, a game still painful to recall. They led by six points with three minutes left, and then they fell apart. It came down to one play with seconds remaining and their lead sliced to one. The only Bull not afraid to shoot, Van Lier drove the lane, but his shot was blocked by Wilt Chamberlain, who scooped up the loose ball and hit Goodrich for a game-winning layup. In his account of the game, Logan called that play "the cruelest blow of all." But he didn't blame Van Lier, who scored 28 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and "did everything humanly possible to carry the Bulls thru in a tremendous performance. Everywhere the ball was, there was Van Lier. It seemed he had turned things around in the greatest one-man show since Horatius did his stuff at that bridge, but it was not to be."
By that year Van Lier had become a legend in the league, known for his fast temper and quick fists. He had one fight with Sloan, when they were on opposing teams, that started on the court and wound up in the locker room. "You could hear us out in the hallway, pounding away at each other. People on the court are sayin', 'Where's Jerry and Norm?' 'Oh, they're out fightin' in the hallway.'"
He harangued and baited refs and was usually among the league leaders in technical fouls. He was suspended for three games for knocking over a referee (the fans took up a collection to pay his fine). He was suspended for one game when he went after Sidney Wicks, a much bigger player, with a chair. "Wicks hit me in my throat with an elbow," says Van Lier. "He was arguing with Sloan, but he hit me. I couldn't breathe. Well, I went after that son-of-a-bitch, not realizing or caring that he was six-foot-nine and 240 and I was six-foot-one. The equalizer was that chair. The team trainer saved my ass. He grabbed me and kept me from getting to Wicks. The story about me and the chair went all around the country, but I tell you this--I never had another fight in my career after that. The word got out, 'Don't mess with Van Lier, man, he's crazy.' Wicks treated me real nice after that."
In 1973 Sports Illustrated ran a feature calling him a "doberman pinscher in sneakers." The article described the frenzied passion with which he played, as well as the "bumps on Van Lier's elbows swelled to the size of oranges, bumps on his knees to that of lemons. They had become full of water from being dribbled on the floor."
It also detailed his bright-lights life-style. He had a Gold Coast apartment and rock stars for friends. He kept a horse in the country ("an Arabian Appaloosa--I called her Led Zeppelin 'cause she was an electric horse"), knew the most powerful pols (got them choice tickets for the big games), and made the Rush Street scene. "I was into some drug stuff back then. I'd be sitting back in the old beanbag smoking the stuff, I won't deny it. At the same time, we weren't violent like the scene today. We weren't smokin' crack and pullin' out guns and shooting people. It was peace and love, a hippie thing."
On and off the court he defied the racial stereotypes of his day. Basketball was just starting to define itself as the black man's game. Dr. J., Jordan's precursor, was emerging as the paramount star. As for Van Lier, he was--in the words of an Ebony article written by Bill Rhoden, "an anachronism and a 'white sheep' in the milieu of pro basketball, a sport which boasts as its most prized characteristics, silky smoothness, grace, economy of movement and, of course, 'cool.'
"Van Lier is none of the above," Rhoden continued, "in fact, the stormy playmaker seems to be constantly moving against the yin and yang of pro basketball's black aesthetics: he dives on the court for loose balls, crashes into the scorers table for errant passes and he consistently throws his body in front of players who are twice his size in hopes of drawing a charging foul."
The Ebony article came out in 1977, when Van Lier was 30 years old, his career on the wane. The old Bulls team had fallen apart amid discontent and accusations of racism. Love, Walker, and Sloan retired; Krause was fired; Motta quit. "Losing Sloan hurt the most because I took all the hits the big guards intended to give Jerry. I got knocked down and stomped. They kept running me into picks. Man, I was getting beat up."
In 1977 Van Lier led the Bulls on one last miracle run when he took center Artis Gilmore and a ragtag collection of castoffs into the playoffs against Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers. Again Van Lier gave his all, and again the Bulls lost.
After the deciding game, played in Portland, Walton invited Van Lier to his home. They listened to music, passed the pipe, and Van Lier kept Walton and his friends in stitches with stories of his stormy life in the league. He said his knees were aching and he knew his career was ending. They told him there would always be a place in the game for a gritty team leader who knew the fundamentals. Probably as a coach.
That would be nice, Van Lier thought. He'd be willing to start as a scout and work his way up. He wanted to stay with the Bulls. Maybe they'd finally win a championship with him as a coach.
He never imagined that within a year or so he'd be out of the game for good.
The end came on October 11, 1978. "They didn't have a day for me, there was no thanks or public appreciation. General manager Rod Thorn called me up and said I was being waived. I won't lie, that hurt. It took me years to get over that feeling of hurt and betrayal. I took a physical beating for that team. I put my life on the line. And they just dropped me like a hot potato when they didn't think I was good anymore. That tells you something right there about dedication and loyalty. Now Thorn sees me from time to time and it's all smiles. 'Hey, Norm, you look good.' What do you expect me to be, some fat, out-of-shape drugged-out person?"
The Milwaukee Bucks picked him up, and he lasted there for two months. He was addicted to Quaaludes. "I'd been taking painkillers for years; it was the only way I could make it out on the court sometimes. I had muscle spasms in the lower part of my back left over from that fight with Wicks. My body was a little crooked, I looked like the Elephant Man. The team doctors gave me a prescription. The attitude was take them and go out and play. They didn't care--they just put you on them. You wanted to take them because they made you relaxed.
"Don Nelson, God bless him, he was coach of the Bucks and he cared more about me the human being than me the player. He brought me up, I think, to help Quinn Buckner and some of the other young guards. But I couldn't play. It was over. Don Nelson got me in with a doctor by the name of Basil Jackson. He got me off of Quaaludes through hypnosis. I was clean of those drugs, but my playing career was over. And no one wanted to hire me."
Apparently, some NBA coaches and executives were intimidated by Van Lier. They won't talk about it today--at least not openly--perhaps because to do so would expose more about themselves and their attitudes than they would want to reveal.
There was no doubt an element of jealousy at play, just as many sportswriters and league officials clearly envy the fame and fortune of today's young superstars. There was also a touch of racial paranoia. The 1970s were a time of uncertainty and change; the usual hierarchal arrangements--whites on top, blacks below--were threatened. A proud, outspoken black man like Van Lier was viewed with suspicion, as if he were Nat Turner plotting insurrection.
"The book on Norm was that he was a troublemaker and unpredictable," says Chet Coppock, the former WMVP talk-show host who works in television in New York City. "Too many club executives saw a younger Van Lier who would have been happy to go 15 rounds with Ernie Terrell and thought, 'My gosh, put this guy on my payroll?' I've always felt race had a role in these attitudes, and it's too bad because I believe Norm could have made a great coach."
Van Lier made it clear that he wanted to coach, but no NBA team would hire him.
"Am I bitter?--hell, yeah! Anyone would be. It's the oldest thing in the world, this prejudice against black people, like we don't have the brains or the fortitude to coach. I was the point guard--I ran that team. But now I'm too stupid to coach? I've seen some of the most dishonest people get jobs coaching in the NBA. But black guys, we're lucky to get one token assistant. They make coaching seem more sophisticated than it is. They make it seem like some sort of complicated computer science that a black man can't understand. Oh, I see, we're smart enough to run the plays but not to call them.
"Look at all my teammates who wound up coaching: Jerry Sloan, Matt Goukas, Bobby Weiss. I'm not taking anything away from them, but what do they have in common? They're all white. And by the way, I asked every single one of them for a job and not one of them hired me. Bobby was the only one with any honesty. He told me, 'Norm, we already have a black assistant coach down here.' He didn't play any games. He told it to me straight and I can appreciate that. God forbid you have more than one black guy on the bench.
"They say, 'Oh, Norm, he got in too many fights.' You mean to tell me Jerry Sloan didn't get into fights? Jerry Sloan was the same type of player I was. Only he's white so he's aggressive, he's brilliant. But me? I'm a troublemaker, I'm out of control.
"They'll say, 'Oh, Norm, he did drugs.' Well, guess what? I wasn't the only one sittin' back in the old beanbag. There's plenty of guys--many of them coaches--who were smokin' that stuff. They didn't try to hide it then. This was the 60s, man, let's get real."
In 1980 he moved with Susan, his wife-to-be, and her two daughters to Seattle. Then to Los Angeles, then Chicago, then Boston, then back to LA. "I did a little of everything to put food on the table for my family," he says. "I worked construction, digging in the dirt, installing cable. I sold cars. I booked music acts at the Cubby Bear lounge. I had a gig on WVON for a while doing color when they had the Bulls games. I kind of dropped away from Chicago. I don't consider this time a fall or a failure. I just left the scene. Folks didn't hear about me. They may have wondered--where's Norm? But I was doing first things first, taking care of my family."
In 1985 Van Lier thought he might catch a break when Jerry Krause was hired as general manager of the Bulls. "When I played for the Bulls Jerry Krause was our scout, and he used to call me every day--I didn't call him--asking about players," says Van Lier. "I gave him the time of day when no one else would. We had breakfast together. I thought he was my friend."
But Krause refused to hire him, says Van Lier. "Jerry told me straight up, 'As long as I'm runnin' this team you will never have a job with the Bulls.' I wrote him a letter--'Jerry, if there's something I've done, I apologize.' But he never wrote back. And to this day he's not told me what he has against me."
For his part, Krause says, "What happened between Norm and me is a personal thing that I'd rather not discuss. I don't listen to sports radio--it's a bunch of reporters talking to each other, taking calls from people who don't have any lives, and being negative. I wish Norm well, but I don't know why we should relive the past."
And what about retiring his jersey, like the team retired Sloan's and Love's?
"That's not my decision."
For a while Van Lier was an assistant coach at Chicago State and for a while after that he coached the CBA team in Rockford. "I lasted 15 games in Rockford and then I was fired," says Van Lier. "I grew up a lot in that job. I was working for an owner who I thought was ridiculous. He'd come into the locker room and tell people they played well when the guys had played lousy. I spent that summer getting that team together. And he'd have his relatives in to try out for the team. I was serious and he was a joke. After 15 games they said good-bye and I said good riddance."
In 1989 he coached the Worcester Counts, a team in the now-defunct six-foot-five-and-under league. When the Counts folded he went to work for a Boston-based not-for-profit organization called the Center for the Study of Sports in Society. "It's run by Professor Richard Lapchick, and they sent me all over the country to speak to college athletic departments and prisons and youth homes about sports and race and society. It was a great experience. Dr. Lapchick helped me get my mind focused on a lot of the inconsistencies about the way sports are run. I began to pull away from this need to be in basketball and to coach. I began to see that this game is so much ego-tripping. I realized I had invested so much of myself in the game that I couldn't feel good about myself unless I was coaching."
The final break came when the NBA asked him to work as a counselor at one of its predraft camps for prospective players. "It's a meat market. You had 500 people--scouts, coaches, general managers--sitting in the stands, and of those people maybe 20 of them are black and of those 20 maybe 5 have real power. On the floor you have 80 players, all of them are black. And the NBA brings in me and five other black guys to, you know, control the kids. Jerry Sloan comes up to me and says, 'Hey, Norm, what's with the earring?'--I was wearing one by then--'You won't get a coaching job with that earring.' He's looking at me with this patronizing grin and I'm thinking, 'You were my backcourt mate. I took years of hits for you. Now you want to talk about my earring. What does my earring have to do with my ability to relate to people?' I said, 'Man, you didn't hire me when I didn't have the earring, so what difference does it make if I wear one now?'
"That was it. That's when I cut the cord. That's when I let go of the dream of coaching. I was sick and tired of other people holding me hostage to their image of who I was. And you know something? The minute I let go, all the hurt and frustration just went away. And I got on with it, man--I got on with my life."
Van Lier's first big break came at a sports banquet in 1990 or 1991, no one's exactly sure of the date, where he met John Tuohey, executive producer for SportsChannel. "We got to talking and I said I'd love to work on Bulls games, and Tuohey said, 'Let's give it a shot.'"
They started him with postgame commentary. "From a mechanical standpoint, his first several appearances were rough," Tuohey recalls. "He looked nervous and uptight. But he caught on, and after a while it was like greased lightning. What he brings you can't teach him--passion and knowledge about the sport."
They teamed him with Steve Kashul, who acted as the straight man, setting up Van Lier with questions. Over time, Van Lier became more passionate, more forceful, and a new side of the public man emerged. The guy who once raised eyebrows with his off-the-court rock 'n' rolling had become a likable curmudgeon--a "young geezer," as one fan put it--sort of like the old coach at the high school gym who castigates the freshmen for their lack of discipline and heart.
He said there was too much trash talking and not enough defense in today's pro game. It was better in the old days. Guys hustled more. They knew the fundamentals--how to box out and set picks. They passed the ball more, they worked it around the court, none of this one-on-one mentality, one guy trying to beat a whole team by himself.
He started wearing brightly colored jackets, shirts, and ties--in red, pink, and chartreuse. "I wanted people to turn on the TV wondering, What's Norm wearing tonight?" He began to crack jokes and smile, catching Kashul--the ultimate straight man--off balance, keeping him loose.
In the fall WMVP, which had switched to an all-sports talk format, put him on at night. It was a tryout deal; he still hadn't moved full-time to Chicago, he still had a home in LA. They wanted to see if he could fit into what had become a growing movement in talk radio away from experienced radio practitioners and toward celebrity jocks, cops, and politicians. The new personalities didn't have to be smooth or know the jargon of the radio trade. All they needed was a big name, an eagerness to make caricatures of themselves, and a willingness to talk.
Well, Van Lier always could talk--he could talk all night if he had to. And he was different from the others on sports-talk radio. He wasn't personal in his criticism, he wasn't afraid to defend unpopular figures. When a caller referred to Krause as Tubby, Van Lier said, "The man's name is Jerry Krause. Let's show respect."
He developed his own style. Sometimes he had a 70s soul-man rap: "Weather's a little--ugh, sort of kicking back, you know, laying in the beanbag, whatever." Other times he came on like a fight promoter, barking big and bold.
He attracted black callers that white talk radio had never heard from before, and he was not reluctant to force white callers to confront their biases. To the callers, for instance, who maligned Spike Lee for his courtside antics, Van Lier asked, why didn't you complain about Jack Nicholson?
In a field dominated by simpleminded reactionaries and borderline bigots, he was as close as talk radio would come to a sophisticated--or more complicated--point of view. It was certainly not a point of view people might have expected from Van Lier. In a fundamental sense he was wrong in his appraisal of himself. He wasn't the same as he'd been 20 years ago. He had changed--he was changing all the time. He used a favorite phrase, "at the same time," as a bridge between the conflicting points of view wrestling in his mind.
For instance, yes, he knew the average guy had a hard time feeling sorry for a baseball player making millions who wanted to strike for the right to earn millions more. But at the same time he knew, better than most, that sports was a ruthless business, and that owners could discard you, as they'd discarded him, when you were of no further use. "I can't blame an athlete for doing what he can to get what he can while he can," he told one caller. "And that means going out on strike--as you would do, too!"
Yet at the same time it disturbed him to see young men leaving college early to sign multimillion-dollar deals, then demanding to renegotiate one year later. The game, it seemed to him, had been corrupted by money.
In general, it seemed to him that many ideals his generation had stood for were being trashed. Yes, he had rebelled against Dick Motta, and yes, he had demanded respect from the NBA. But that was all part of a larger rebellion in which important issues of race, war, and politics were being challenged. In contrast, so many athletes today seemed so empty-headed, so without values or ideals. They allowed themselves to become buffoonish caricatures of showboating jocks. Yes, he was glad that young athletes, particularly young black athletes, were getting a fair chunk of the billion-dollar sports-entertainment pie. At the same time he worried that they were losing control of who they were, what they wanted to be, and, most importantly, how they influenced the kids who watched them.
"I go to schools and tell kids to be yourself--you don't have to run with the crowd. Then they turn on the tube and see gym shoe commercials with young brothers dressed up like gang members. It's all about selling shoes to gang members. I guess the shoe company figures--gang members have cash, gang members need gym shoes. I can tell kids about doing homework and getting a good education, but what good is it when we got sneaker companies glorifying gangs. We're preaching one thing and doing something else and then acting surprised with the results. At the same time, I don't blame it all on the kids. Where are the coaches? Where are the parents? Why aren't they involved?"
At times he'd go off on three- or four-minute tangents, darting down whichever road popped into view. They were fun to listen to, like watching a daredevil perform without a net. You had to wonder if he'd make his way back. When he did, he'd offer a self-deprecating apology (a "but that's just me") to whichever caller had set him off.
Many listeners called to talk about the old days, to say thanks for his years with the team, to berate the Bulls for not retiring his jersey. There was a lot of ego stroking, especially when fellow jocks came on the show. Some callers accused him of revisionism. "Norm, you were a dirty player," one caller said.
"No, no, I wasn't dirty. There's a difference between playing hard and playing dirty. We didn't taunt you, we didn't talk trash. Do that and you'd have problems on the other end of the court--a little elbow in the face."
He began to build a loyal audience, and what started as an experiment turned into a job. In June, Van Lier's wife, who is also his agent, negotiated a deal: one year with an option. And WMVP tagged him with a sportscaster named Lance McAlister and gave them the afternoon-drive spot.
So far the show is a work in transition. It opens Van Lier to a wider audience. But at the same time his spontaneity is stifled by the extra commercials and traffic reports, as well as by McAlister, who for all his polish and professionalism often cuts into Van Lier. The high-wire tension of his nighttime act is missing, and his biggest supporters would love to see it back.
"He's like Sinatra," says Coppock. "You might give him a backup group, or in Norm's case someone who slides the news in at 15 and 30, but he was meant to play solo. You leave the mike wide open and let Norm take off the gloves. If 'MVP promotes him and gives him time to get off of his feet, there's no doubt in my mind that Norm will be a smash."
I caught up with Van Lier in late May, just after the Bulls were eliminated. I told him about my high school diary, and the picture day with Josh, and some of the great games I had seen. "Do you remember," I asked, "game seven against the Lakers in 1973 when--"
"Chamberlain blocked the shot."
"He fouled you, man."
Van Lier shook his head. "It felt good leaving my hand. But you know something? They were better than us. It took me a long time to realize it--as good as we were, we were never the best. I'll tell you something else. After that game Wilt came up to me in the locker room and said, 'You're the best. I never seen a little man play like you.' That was something, coming from big Wilt. I'll remember that for the rest of my life."
A photographer and I tagged along as he drove in rush-hour traffic along Harlem Avenue from the SportsChannel studios in Oak Park to a restaurant on 127th Street in Alsip. He was going there to address a group of southwest suburban plumbers, of all things. He had the air conditioner going, and a tape playing 70s songs by Boz Scaggs, Chicago, Tower of Power, Steppenwolf, America, Earth, Wind & Fire, Electric Flag.
He said he loved music--he'd made this tape himself--and he loved to go to the clubs, but he didn't go out much anymore because the world had gotten too violent. "Look at a guy wrong and he's pulling out a gun."
We arrived at the restaurant an hour early, and decided to kill the time in the cocktail lounge. He bought a round of drinks: a club soda for himself (he doesn't drink), a gin and tonic for me, and a beer for the photographer. Then he regaled us with stories about growing up in Midland. "We played tackle football in the streets," he said. "We used a coffee can wrapped with tape for a ball 'cause we couldn't afford the real thing."
A fellow named Frank at the other end of the bar felt compelled to chime in. "Kids today would be insulted if you asked them to play with a can."
"That's the problem with kids today," the bartender added. "No imagination."
Soon our money was no good at that bar. Frank bought the next round, the next one was on the house.
Van Lier also went over big with the plumbers. He gave them everything they wanted to hear, including his obligatory denunciation of trash talking, but he didn't patronize them and he sternly chided one unknown member of the audience for making a wisecrack that he took offense to. He left them laughing with a reference to a pink sport jacket he wore on a broadcast: "I looked like Willie the Pimp."
"I got that line about Willie the Pimp from a Zappa song," he said as he walked to the car. "The great Frank Zappa. He was a genius."
A few days later we met across the street from Wrigley Field on the roof of one of those three-flats that get rented out for private gatherings. It had a glorious view of the ballpark, right above the right-field bleachers, and was outfitted with a few rows of seats and a grill. The Cubs were playing the Pirates, but Van Lier didn't watch a pitch.
He sat at the back of the roof, greeting fans and friends. There was David Abrams, the rooftop manager, who worked with Van Lier with the CBA team in Rockford. "I wasn't gonna go there without my man Dave," said Van Lier.
And Simeon Henderson, the grill man--a gorgeously built wide receiver at Elmhurst College.
"Simeon, my main man--the man with the electric speed," Van Lier boomed.
"You've got to see me play this year," Simeon said.
"Hey, you get me a schedule and I'll be there."
And Danny Shworles, the grill assistant, a skinny kid from Evanston Township High School who said he'd have gone out for the school basketball team if not for his heart condition. "I'm the team manager," he said, "and I give it all I got."
"Danny, Danny," said Van Lier, as Danny stood there beaming and blushing. "Look at you. You got the baggy shorts and the big looping shoelaces and the baseball cap on backwards, looking like a boy from the 'hood."
Van Lier was the life of the party, everybody wanting to meet him, get his autograph, take his picture. Danny ran off to fetch him a soda, Simeon grilled him some chicken, and people kept stopping by to ask his opinions on this or that. It was a little like his radio show--he even worked himself into a lather when a guy named Ed said this year's Bulls-Knicks series was fixed to guarantee a larger television market.
"That's dumb," countered Van Lier.
"Oh yeah, was that foul on Scottie legit?"
"I'm sick of Bulls fans whining about that call. It was a bad call. But if the Bulls had played defense and hadn't thrown the ball away they'd have won that series and no one would be talkin' about the officials."
"But, Norm, come on, the Knicks play dirty . . ."
By now Van Lier and Ed were face-to-face, their voices ringing out over the rooftops. "The Knicks don't do anything that Jerry Sloan and I didn't do 100 times before. Man, Sloan and I would have sooner thrown you in the alley than look at you."
"Did you hand-check as hard as the Knicks guards?" I asked.
"Hell, yes. Harder."
Right there on the rooftop I started backing up like I was a guard closing in on the hoop, and Van Lier popped me with a hand check that sent me back almost a foot.
"Show me, show me," said the photographer, jumping from his seat. And Van Lier hand-checked him too.
He might have hand-checked Ed if Ed's girlfriend hadn't dragged Ed away. Van Lier returned to his chicken and our conversation drifted to other topics as the sky turned orange from the setting sun and the game ended with the Cubs on top.
"It's a damn shame they don't have your jersey hanging from the rafters," someone said.
Van Lier shrugged. "There was a time when I might have died to have that. But I'm past that. I see the banners they've got--Sloan and Love--and I know there's a little piece of me up there with them. I was the point guard. I fed them the ball. I gave up my blood for the Bulls. They can't take that from me. Now we move on to other things."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.