LAST THURSDAY, as general manager John Paxson noted, was "an indescribable day for the Bulls family." And not just because the NBA team, in Washington to play the Wizards, visited President Barack Obama at the White House. On that same day the franchise lost two of its most popular and colorful figures. Former guard turned TV analyst Norm Van Lier, 61, was found dead at his home in Chicago; the cause was still unknown as of Sunday. Hours later former coach and longtime TV broadcaster Johnny (Red) Kerr, 76, died at his suburban Chicago home after a long battle with prostate cancer.
Though linked by their status as three-time All-Stars (Kerr was a center for Syracuse, Philadelphia and Baltimore from 1954--55 through '65--66; Van Lier played for Cincinnati, the Bulls and Milwaukee from '69--70 through '78--79) and as fixtures on the Chicago basketball scene for decades, Kerr and Van Lier could not have been more different. Kerr was 6'9", white and a Chicago native; he was the Bulls' first coach, in '66--67, and led them to two playoff appearances in two seasons. Van Lier was 6'1", African-American and from a small town in Pennsylvania; he was one of the league's best defensive players in the '70s and helped the Bulls reach the postseason five times. As broadcasters, they were polar opposites. Kerr unabashedly rooted for the home team throughout his three decades behind the mike. Stormin' Norman, on the other hand, was unafraid to issue blunt opinions whenever his former team showed a lack of defense or hustle.
And Kerr and Van Lier were not similarly celebrated by their beloved organization. Kerr, whose illness was well-known, was honored at the United Center on Feb. 10 in a ceremony that featured Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and a video tribute from Obama. (A statue of Kerr was unveiled at the United Center.) Van Lier, who had recently told friends that he was having heart problems that were not believed to be life-threatening, was reportedly miffed at not being invited to speak during the on-court celebration that night. Van Lier, whose candor didn't always sit well with management, also was said to have long felt slighted by the Bulls' reluctance to retire his jersey.
Different backgrounds. Different styles. But Kerr and Van Lier never stopped being themselves—and Bulls fans loved them for it.