Commentary

Norm Van Lier's memory lives on

Prep all-star game benefiting charity will help unite Chicago, fight violence

Updated: April 29, 2011, 4:45 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- While the basketball world can debate the Chicago Bulls' chances to win the Eastern Conference and Derrick Rose's worthiness as Most Valuable Player, there is no question where Rose and the Bulls stand in Chicago.

[+] EnlargeNorm Van Lier
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenNorm Van Lier was passionate about basketball, but he also was troubled by the violence and poverty affecting Chicago.

The Bulls are back to being the team of the city. The South and West sides, the cradle of basketball in Chicago proper, are buzzing over their native son.

"It's been a while, a long time since the fever has been there," said Rose's high school coach, Robert Smith. "It seems to be back right now. You can definitely feel the fever every place you go. It's all people are talking about. Houses are loaded up with people watching games again."

If there's one person who would have loved to watch Rose and the Bulls uniting a city, it was Norm Van Lier. The popular ex-Bulls great passed away at 61 during Rose's rookie season in 2009, on the same late February day as his broadcasting peer Johnny "Red" Kerr.

"I'm not a sports fan, that's not a lot of what we talked about," his wife, Susan Van Lier, said in a phone call from her home in California. "But he did mention to me, maybe 2 years ago, that there's this kid Derrick Rose and he said he's really going to make it happen. He was excited about Derrick."

Norm, she said, was also passionate about the city and its citizens. He was born and raised in steel mill country along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, but he cared deeply about the violence and poverty that plagued his adopted hometown. That is something Susan and Norm talked about a great deal.

So after Norm died, Susan said it took her a while to recover. But she wanted to honor his memory in Chicago.

The result is a new basketball all-star game that pits West Side players against peers from the South Side and will benefit the entire city at the same time.

The new tournament, the Chicago United Hoops Classic, will take place at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at DePaul's Sullivan Athletic Center on campus. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7 for students.

Van Lier was known as a hard-nosed player in the pros, and when he was a broadcaster, for his impassioned ideas. He enjoyed basketball at all levels, Susan said.

"Sometimes he would go out and watch basketball games on the West Side," she said. "High school basketball was his favorite, because of the purity of the game. And his high school coach was one of the most important figures in his life."

Proceeds will benefit the Norm Van Lier Scholarship Fund and a local anti-violence charity, Purpose Over Pain.

"Norman's whole thing, when he would speak to kids throughout his life, was that education was the way to get out of poverty," Susan said. "That's why when I thought about doing something in his name, I thought what Norm would want me to do was set up a scholarship fund for him."

She said she wanted to help provide assistance to Purpose Over Pain as well, because it not only helps families of gun violence, but it also promotes nonviolence.

"He was always distressed about violence in the West Side particularly," she said. "The South Side too."

Farragut coach William "Wolf" Nelson said he can see resources for kids drying up all over the city, and he sees the results. Every day, it seems, there's bad news to report.

"A 12-year-old kid was shot in the back yesterday," he said. "That's crazy. Who shoots a 12-year-old in the back?"

Nelson was talking about a shooting that happened outside Cook Elementary School on Tuesday. The police had a 14-year-old suspect in custody not long after the shooting.

Crimes like that are why Susan Van Lier said she wants "everything involving the game to have a deep meaning behind it."

Pastors from both sides of town will lead a moment of silence, winners of essay and art contests for elementary students will be announced at the game. The Chicago Public Schools and the Bulls took an active interest in the event.

[+] EnlargeFrank Kaminsky
Scott Powers for ESPNChicago.comBenet center Frank Kaminsky will be playing for the West.

Humanitarian ideals can only go so far to attract a crowd. The real draw is that it could be a very good basketball game. Both head coaches, Smith for the South and Nelson for the West, said the game will be competitive.

"Me and [Hillcrest] coach [Don] Houston broke it down on how big this is," Smith said. "We want this game to be more competitive than typical all-star games. We definitely made sure we put that in mind Monday at practice. The scrimmages were intense and the individual drills were intense."

Nelson said this could be the start of a "fun rivalry." Both sides of town have had their days in recent years and there will be debates about styles and stomping grounds.

"I think it could be pretty big," he said. "We always have that conversation about which side of town is best. We used to say the West Side was more rough-and-tumble when it comes to basketball, while the South Side tries to be more finesse. Our conference, we said, that was it as far as basketball. We had Westinghouse, Crane, Marshall and Farragut. But in recent years, the South has risen. You have Simeon, Morgan Park, Brooks is up and coming."

While stars like Wayne Blackshear (Louisville) and Anthony Davis (Kentucky) will be absent, there are still some very strong players playing.

Wisconsin has two recruits playing on opposing teams. Brooks guard George Marshall is playing for the South while Benet center Frank Kaminsky is suiting up for the West. Kaminsky's Benet teammate David Sobolewski will play for Northwestern, while Marshall's teammate Mike Powell will play for Rhode Island.

South guard Phillip Greene, who played in Florida this year at the IMG Academy, is headed to St. John's. Jerome Brown, Ahman Fells and Greg Travis will play for Illinois-Chicago.

Of course, it wouldn't be Chicago if there wasn't a question about eligibility. Nelson joked about Greene, who transferred to IMG from Julian, playing for the South team.

"Well, I guess Florida is south," he said, laughing. "Maybe we'll get a player from California. That's west."

For more information, visit www.chiunitedhoopsclassic.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.