… So back he came on November 9, 1971, for Jim Fox, another backup center, and with him was created one of the greatest teams that never won a championship: Bob Love and Chet Walker at forwards; bruisers rotating at center; and a backcourt of Jerry Sloan and Van Lier. Their game was defense, relentless defense. They picked, pushed, pulled, and pounded the other team into dumb mistakes. They were the New York Knicks of their day.
Now, I must admit I’m not unbiased in this account. When Van Lier joined the team I was an awkward adolescent at Evanston Township High School, and Bulls basketball was my escape. Van Lier was my favorite. I wrote about him in my diary. I got a friend, Josh, to drive me to the Stadium on picture day and I waited in line for my chance to be photographed with Van Lier. I still have that photo–me looking over his shoulder as he autographs a Bulls team poster, which I hung on my bedroom wall.
To me nothing in sports was as exhilarating as Van Lier at work. He was courageous and smart, the leader on the floor. He employed a wicked hand check, more like a straight-arm, driving opponents back as they tried to advance. He’d flop wildly at the slightest contact, head and elbows banging on the floor, as though he were being fouled. He dived headfirst after loose balls, burned his skin on the stadium floor, banged his way through picks, elbowed the bigger guys out of the way, and fought like hell to get his share of rebounds.
It was a funky team and a wild time, so very 70s in taste and tone (Van Lier himself wore an Afro and a beard). They were coached by Dick Motta, an insanely competitive, strident, and sarcastic man who favored bright-colored jackets, sometimes canary yellow, and horrid plaid pants. The whole squad was nuts. The mascot, Benny the Bull, once got tossed from a game in Milwaukee for giving the finger to the ref. The ref deserved it; he missed the call.
Van Lier and Motta were always at each other’s throats–though it was nothing personal, they declared. “I got nothing against Dick–he’s a great coach,” says Van Lier. “He yelled at me because he knew I could take it. And sometimes I yelled back. A lot of it was about my demand that Motta respect me and my other teammates–respect us as men.” …
That’s a terrific article. Go read the entire thing. RIP Norm.