Bulls legend Van Lier mourned

CHICAGO -- They shed tears, of course, and they smiled because Norm Van Lier simply had that effect on his friends.

They mentioned his love of music and TV shows, the passion he brought to the Chicago Bulls as a star guard in the 1970s and as an analyst the past two decades, and they laughed Monday as they told stories during a funeral for Van Lier at a church on Chicago's Michigan Avenue.

Mostly, they mourned the loss of a loyal friend.

"Norm was always one of the guys I could call, I could talk to, I could express myself to," former teammate Bob Love said. "And he could do the same for me. He always had my back off the court, and on the basketball court, I had his back. We were really, really good friends. I'm going to miss him. He's going to be missed by Chicago, period."

A defensive standout who teamed with Jerry Sloan in one of the toughest backcourts before becoming a popular commentator in Chicago, Van Lier was found dead last week in his home just a few blocks from the United Center. "Stormin' Norman" was 61.

A three-time All-Star, Van Lier began his NBA career with Cincinnati in 1969 after Chicago drafted him and traded his rights. He returned to the Bulls and spent more than six seasons with them before finishing his career with Milwaukee in 1979, but he is most remembered for his time with in Chicago.

An analyst in Chicago since the early 1990s, Van Lier most recently worked for Comcast SportsNet. Station officials became concerned when he didn't show up to work the pre- and post-game shows last Wednesday, when the Bulls visited New Jersey, and they sent an employee to his home when they were unable to reach him Thursday.

Authorities responding to a well-being check found Van Lier unresponsive and pronounced him dead at the scene. More bad news hit hours later when word came that Johnny "Red" Kerr, the longtime analyst who coached the inaugural Bulls team to the playoffs, succumbed to prostate cancer.

Two icons. Two friends. And one sad day.

Kerr's funeral is scheduled for Thursday in suburban Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., but Monday belonged to Van Lier.

Former Bulls guard Kendall Gill, now a Comcast analyst, called it a "sad day for us. Sad day for Chicago. We're putting a warrior to rest."

Longtime friend and sportscaster Chet Coppock referred to him as "our basketball Pied Piper" and said, "Everybody wanted to touch Norm Van Lier" during his eulogy. He also touched on Van Lier's love of music, calling him Mick Jagger "with razor sharp elbows" and saying Chicago has "lost our Frank Sinatra."

Van Lier loved rock, particularly Boz Scaggs, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Earth, Wind and Fire. He also loved watching "Law & Order," "Perry Mason," and "Hawaii Five-O" along with the Bulls -- even if it was painful at times.

When they won, Van Lier was as happy as any fan, but when they struggled he sounded like a coach during a halftime rant with his team trailing by 20.

Van Lier brought the passion he had as a player to the airwaves, always saying what was on his mind, and that endeared him to Bulls fans. He had no patience for slackers.

"He was real," longtime Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lacy Banks said during his eulogy. "He kept his game real."

And he connected with Bulls fans.

"This is a city that works, and Norm worked hard," former teammate Mickey Johnson said. "He worked hard. A lot of people sometimes took it the wrong way, but that's what their image of Norm was."

His friends have a different image, a different memory.

As he approached the church, Coppock said, "God obviously had to have a crying need for a point guard." And then, he added: "I would imagine that Red Kerr and Norm Van Lier are sitting upstairs thinking, 'What's all the fuss all about?'"