Let's take a moment to place Norm Van Lier in perspective. He has given the skin off his back—and his knees and his elbows—for his team. He has thrown a basketball at an unwary referee and missed, and thrown a punch at a wary referee and connected. He has led the NBA in selflessness, passing the ball instead of shooting it. He has fought with seven-footers and lost, and battled six-footers and held his own. He had the temerity to date a coach's daughter and has the charm to serve as weekend host for another coach's young son. He has led a mass assault on a police station. One question. Is this a basketball player for the Chicago Bulls or a Doberman pinscher in sneakers?
In Norm Van Lier there seems to be a morsel of something for all of us. Something to swallow, something to spit out. Something to love, something to hate. A bit to respect, a bit to ridicule. A facet to admire, another to loathe. Is he youth's noble example or law and order's recalcitrant enemy? Who is Norm Van Lier and why is he doing these things?
When Van Lier came into the pros in 1969, he was a third-round draft choice of the Bulls, a 6'1", 175-pound guard from St. Francis of Loretto, Pa. He did not have a no-cut contract and just before the start of the season the Bulls traded him to the Cincinnati Royals.
Other players and opposing coaches scoffed at the rookie's frenzied style of play. They did not understand the way he stood in front of—and was bowled over by—hard-running big men to draw charging fouls. 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.
Van Lier was regarded with amusement by some, with contempt by others. They said he could not shoot. He would improve. They said he was too small. He would become one of the best rebounding guards in the league. They claimed he would burn out, that he was frail. He would miss only two games because of injury or illness in his first four seasons. "I think the superstars should worry about me instead of me worrying about them," said Van Lier. "I'm here to make it and I want them to prove to me that they're better."
One day last month Van Lier sat in his apartment high over Lake Michigan; he was traded back to Chicago last season. He needed only to look around him for assurance he has it made. The walls of a hallway were lined with photographs of him during games. In most, strain showed on his face—guarding his man, shooting, passing, yelling at a referee. Two years ago Van Lier led the league in assists. Last year he was sixth, although the players ahead of him logged between 550 and 1,300 more minutes of playing time. This year he again is among the league leaders, averaging 7.2 assists per game. He is also the Bulls' third highest scorer, with a 13.5 average, and he has pulled down 300 rebounds. He is a starter on one of the best teams in the NBA and has a four-year contract that brings him close to $100,000 a season. He was self-confident enough to marry a white girl from his hometown of Midland, Pa. His wife Nancy this day was gathering Norm's clothes for a road trip to Boston, listening as Norm talked of a little man's view of a big man's game.
"You really grow used to playing with pain," said Van Lier, looking at his right elbow, in which the fluid had slowly solidified, forming a calcium deposit. "It doesn't hurt anymore, although the doctors say it will someday. It's not bad. The only guy who tries to hurt me is Walt Bellamy. If I'm pestering those big guys, they're going to be upset. But nobody does it like Bellamy. I watch for it every game. He's trying to hurt me for real."
Bellamy's annoyance stems from a night when he was driving to the basket and Van Lier refused to budge from in front of him. There was another game when the Atlanta center, who is 6'11", knocked him down three times. Each time he came back for more. The fourth time he stayed down, a big gash on his head. After a few minutes on the bench he was back, blood trickling down his neck. "You got to make a stand," said Van Lier. "If you're small, they'll take it out on you all the time. I'm not going to take that. I'll get back some way, if I have to go get a folding chair."
Earlier this season John Block, who is 6'10" and 220, was taking the ball out of bounds when he elbowed Van Lier. "I don't mind getting hit because the way I play I know I'm going to get that," said Van Lier, who went after Block with his fists flailing. "But I'm not going to stand there and take a dirty shot from a person because I'm not a dirty ballplayer." While Van Lier and Block were fighting, Referee Jake O'Donnell intervened and Van Lier swung at him, too. "He tried to hit me," says O'Donnell. And Van Lier did.
Van Lier has often fought with the referees, using mostly words although a couple of seasons back he fired a basketball at Referee John Parker's head after, Van Lier claims, Parker whispered an insult. "He thinks he's being cheated on the floor or something," says O'Donnell. "He thinks because of his size he's being picked on. Off the court he's a completely different guy." Says Van Lier: "I don't get a fair shake out there. They protect the superstars. I have to handle every superstar that comes in and he's going to the foul line all the time and I'm leading the league in fouls and getting thrown out of every game. I'm handling the ball 90% of the time for my team and I can't get to the foul line. They protect some people. It depends on what team you're on. Like when Gail Goodrich was at Phoenix you could get all over him, but now he's at L.A. and you can't touch him. I play as hard as any superstar in this league. I have to."
Last summer Van Lier really blew his cork. Sketchy newspaper accounts indicated he had led a gang of young men in a furious assault on a police station in his hometown of Midland and that along with six others he had been subdued and arrested. As Van Lier tells it, he went to the station to talk to an officer, a fellow black with whom he had been less than friendly in the past. "I had heard he was accusing one of my brothers of stuff and I went down to talk to him," recalls Van Lier. "The next thing I know, some cop is hitting me, beating me on the head with a flashlight and spraying me with Mace. And in order to keep my life, I ran." The police version is that Van Lier entered the station and began berating a patrolman for allegedly spreading rumors that Van Lier was a drug pusher. Shoves were exchanged; Van Lier was arrested but he broke away and ran out the door. Whatever, a short time later he returned with a group of friends and relatives and charged into the station. A policeman activated an alarm system that brought police and firemen swarming to the scene. After several continuances, Van Lier and the other six arrested were held for the Grand Jury, but it is expected the charges will be dropped.
"Midland is a typical, backward, prejudiced town," snorts Van Lier. "There are like 13 streets. The black people can't move past Fifth Street. I know because I tried to get a house for my mother and the price went up. That's all right. I don't want any of their raggedy houses anyway. That town hasn't been together since we won the state high school championship in 1965."
Van Lier's father, Norm Sr., has worked for 31 years in a steel mill. Norm's mother, Mrs. Helen Van Lier, has raised four other children, three boys and a girl. Three more boys died after birth, one of them named Elgin Baylor Van Lier I by Norm.
The Van Liers are a close-knit family. Norm frets about his younger brother, Greg, who dropped out of college despite a promising basketball career. Van Lier calls it his biggest blow after the death of his best friend, Sandy Martin, who was struck by a car while they were walking down the street in 1966. Van Lier put his hand through a window when he heard that Martin had died at the hospital. The next day he played in a college game with 33 stitches in his right hand, blood dripping on the court.
"The best thing that ever happened to me was getting traded to Cincinnati," Van Lier says. "I don't think I would have gotten the chance to make the league otherwise. That's why I love Bob Cousy. He let me play. And he let me play the way I play best."
When he was with the Celtics, Cousy came to regard basketball as a game where teamwork and sacrifice would be rewarded. When he returned to it as a coach he discovered that in too many cases the players were going one-on-one. In Van Lier, Cousy found a player of his own ilk. He liked him so much that his wife arranged a meeting between Norm and the Cousys' oldest daughter, Marie. The pair dated for over a year and Norm and the Cousys are still close. "He is one of the finest people I've ever met," says Cousy.
That is a reaction that comes from many people. Off the court Van Lier has a relaxed, easy style, a ready wit. His approach to life is the antithesis of his approach to a game. Dick Motta, the coach of the Chicago Bulls, lets his 14-year-old son Kip be an overnight guest at the Van Liers' apartment. "He's just great," says Motta. "Little kids flock to him like he's the Pied Piper."
Defense is Van Lier's forte. Instead of allowing his opponent to dictate his position, Norm forces him to move where he doesn't want to go, always turning him, turning him. Frequently, out of frustration, the opposing player will make a reckless move to get free and Van Lier will have forced him to commit another charging foul. Jerry Sloan and Van Lier are the roughest backcourt combination in the NBA. Once, during an exhibition game between Cincinnati and Chicago, when the two were opponents, they began fighting underneath a basket in a high school gym and continued brawling right out a set of doors and into a hallway. The doors closed behind them and the crowd and players could hear but not see fists pounding for a few seconds until everyone rushed out into the hallway.
"We respect each other," says Van Lier. "He puts out effort every time he goes out. If you're on the other team, Jerry makes you want to fight him. I want the ball all the time. All the loose balls. Every one of them. I feel I should get them all."
Around the league, people say that Sloan has been known to bite people while scrambling for a loose ball. Sloan denies this, saying that on occasion an arm has been accidentally discovered in his mouth. "You don't go out there and gain respect by being nice to each other," he says. "If guys really don't play hard, I don't respect them. From the first day of camp, Norm always came back at you."
And that is the pith of Norm Van Lier. Who is he? A man who comes back at you, whether you are a player, a referee or a policeman.