On Thursday, the Bulls lost perhaps their two biggest fans.
Scottie Pippen said Johnny “Red” Kerr, 76, was responsible for “making Bulls basketball what it is.”
Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said “Norm Van Lier was one of the all-time greats ever to put on a Chicago Bulls uniform.”
Van Lier, 61, was found dead Thursday morning in his Chicago home by members of the city’s fire department after they broke down his door. Kerr died Thursday night at 76 after a long battle with prostate cancer.
Kerr’s passion for the Bulls, which shone through during his game broadcasts during a four-decade span, became a trademark and will be a trait for which he is long remembered.
“If you care anything about the history of this franchise, then you know who Johnny Kerr is,” said Neil Funk, one of the broadcasters who worked alongside Kerr during his Bulls announcing career, which began in 1975 and lasted 33 years.
Van Lier, a Bulls analyst since 1992, could be tough and critical while assessing the team in the studio. But Kerr wore his Bulls “fandom” on his sleeve while calling games at courtside.
Kerr was born on the South Side in 1932 and spent most of the rest of his life in Illinois.
After his NBA playing career with the Syracuse Nationals in the 1950s and ‘60s ended, the Bulls hired Kerr as their inaugural coach in 1966. He exceeded most expectations despite lasting only two seasons.
By 1973, after jobs with the Phoenix Suns and the ABA’s Virginia Squires, Kerr rejoined the Bulls as business manager. Two years later he moved to broadcasting, and stayed, doing radio and then TV, until his health forced him to step aside early this season.
The Bulls held a halftime ceremony Feb. 10 to honor Kerr. Pippen and Michael Jordan were among those who made the trip to speak during the event. President Barack Obama sent a videotaped message, saluting Kerr’s energy and enthusiasm for the game.
The Bulls also unveiled a life-sized bust of Kerr that will be displayed on the main concourse of the United Center. Jordan said Kerr probably should have gotten a statue before Jordan himself because “he started it all.”
Kerr used a wheelchair to get onto the court that night, but he surprised team officials by taking the microphone. After thanking the fans and the team, Kerr said: “This is the happiest day of my life.”
“He may not even feel good today,” Jordan said before the ceremony, “but he’s going to come. That’s why I came – I owed him that and the fans owe him that. He made many people smile for many years.”
Bob Love affectionately referred to Van Lier as “The Little Rat” because of Van Lier’s tenacity as a basketball player.
“That basketball was like a little piece of cheese for Norm,” Love said. “He would run all over that court chasing that piece of cheese.”
Love was stunned Thursday to learn of the death of Van Lier, his teammate on the Bulls during the 1970s and later a longtime studio analyst for the team.
Comcast Sportsnet officials requested a well-being check on Van Lier because he did not appear at the studio for the Bulls’ pregame and postgame shows the previous night and did not answer the phone.
A cause of death was not announced; Van Lier had been suffering from heart problems and had a pacemaker implanted within the last few months, but was said to be energetic and in good spirits in recent days and weeks.
“Me and Norm were just together Tuesday night,” Love said. “As usual, he was expressing his love for the team and the franchise. We hugged and laughed and talked about the old times together. He gave me no indication that [would be] the last time I’d see him alive. He was the same old Stormin’ Norman.”
Van Lier earned a reputation as a passionate, no-nonsense player and later brought those traits with him into the broadcast studio.
Van Lier joined the Bulls in 1971 after two seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, and stayed until 1978. Nicknamed “Stormin’ Norman,” he made three all-star teams and eight times was a first- or second-team all-defense player.
The backcourt tandem of Van Lier and Jerry Sloan led the Bulls to the conference championship round in 1974 and 1975. Van Lier ranks third behind only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the franchise record listings for assists and steals.
Kendall Gill, who sat alongside Van Lier in the Comcast Sportsnet studio the last three years, said he learned from listening to Van Lier.
“I’m going to miss him terribly,” Gill said.
Van Lier recently had not been on the best of terms with the franchise, which did not invite him to be part of Kerr’s halftime ceremony.
Bulls officials reportedly were upset by comments Van Lier made the month before to the Chicago Tribune. Van Lier said Bulls fans during his playing days were more passionate than today’s crowds.
That was Van Lier – never afraid to say what was on his mind.
Love said Van Lier told him: “ ‘Butter, a lot of times I may sound critical on TV, but it’s just because I love these guys so much and I want them to win.’ People might have taken that the wrong way. But he had passion like nobody else.”