Norm Van Lier 1947-2009
Norm Van Lier was born and raised in western Pennsylvania, but during his playing career in Chicago with the Bulls, he was welcomed as one of our own.
He passed away last Thursday at 61.
“Stormin’ Norm” played in the NBA for 10 years, from 1969-1979, for three teams: Cincinnati (two years), Chicago (seven years), and Milwaukee (one year).
Over his NBA career, Norm Van Lier averaged about 12 points, seven assists, and five rebounds. His career assist-to-turnover ratio is over 3-1. He made all-defensive team eight times in those ten years. He also led the NBA in assists in the 1970-71 season.
But those are just stats. Stats are a dime a dozen. Basketball fans remember more about his intangibles: intense, hardworking, competitive, and tenacious, physical defense. And together with Jerry Sloan, a physical and intimidating presence. For the opposing guards, a game against the Bulls meant a street fight, more or less.
Norm Van Lier gave 110%, every single play, of every game. For that, Bulls fans loved him, and opposing fans probably hated him.
There really haven’t been many players in the NBA like him: the skills of a point guard, and the attitude of a junkyard dog.
His first coach was Bob Cousy, the legendary former Celtics’ point guard. About Norm, Cousy offered offered this very high praise: “I have never coached or been around a player who could sustain the intensity that Norm did. He had basically double the intensity of almost anyone else out on the floor.”
After two seasons with Cincinnati, the Bulls re-acquired Stormin’ Norman (they had drafted him and then traded him during training camp).
Those Bulls teams were among the best in the NBA. They won 50 games back when it wasn’t easy, and you had to play the Lakers, Knicks, Bucks, and Celtics many times per season.
But they weren’t quite good enough to do much damage. They lost to the Lakers in the first round three years in a row (1971-3), stretching them to seven games twice. Then, when they finally made it to the Western Conference Finals, they lost both times, losing to the Bucks in 1974 and the Warriors in 1975.
Those failures weren’t due to weakness at the point guard position, I can assure you.
Some years after his playing career was over, Norm became a studio analyst for Bulls games, and he brought the same passion and intensity to those telecasts. He was funny, too. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. Check out this youtube video of his classic comparison of the Bulls’ heart to a mustard seed, from just last season.
As a kid, I knew him as a great player who gave everything to win. Later, via TV, I knew him as funny, down-to-earth, just a regular guy. You knew that if you saw him on the street and yelled “Hey Norm!”, he’d smile and yell right back “Hey! How ya doin’!”.
Finally, a couple of quotes that sum up everything we need to know about Norm Van Lier.
First, John Jackson, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-times: “I didn’t like being around Kerr and Van Lier because they were former great players. I liked them because they were fun people to be around.”
And Norm himself, about his love of music and his pre-game ritual: “For me, it had to be the Stones or Zeppelin or even Steppenwolf back then. Something to send me into the Stadium with attitude. Aht-ti-toode, my friend.”
That’s Stormin’ Norman: “aht-ti-toode, my friend”.
He is already missed.