Commentary

Laughing through tears

On the one-year anniversary of their deaths, Kerr, Van Lier live in fond memories

Updated: February 25, 2010, 8:00 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Grief comes in waves, sometimes when you least expect it, sometimes how you least expect it.

Susan Van Lier says it was the start of October that really got to her.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Red Kerr
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesJust over two weeks before he died, Johnny "Red" Kerr was honored with a tribute during halftime of a Bulls game.

"That was when I met him," she said quietly, "before a Bulls exhibition game in 1977. It was also just October, and the rhythm of over 30 NBA seasons. Knowing it was over."

Matt Kerr had just slipped a CD, that a friend of his father's had sent him, into his car stereo when he heard the tribute at the beginning.

"It was a phone message my father had left for him," Matt said, "and you hear my dad's voice saying 'Hey Alex, are you going to be at the Pub tonight? I'm looking forward to singing with you.' I had to pull over."

Matt's sister Essie is flooded with memories, alternating tears with laughter, like the image of their father leaving the United Center for the last time on Feb. 10, 2009, the night of his tribute. Off his meds temporarily so that he could be alert for the ceremony, his family and friends knew he was in tremendous pain, but suffering? That would have to be debated.

"As we were wheeling him out, somebody came over and hands him a beer and someone else hands him a cigarette, which he lights up waiting for the Medivac van to pick him up," recalled Essie. "Of course, he wasn't drinking the beer or smoking the cigarette, but all I could think of was all the city ordinances being violated and here's my dad, with a beer and a cigarette, and who gets off the elevator but Michael [Jordan], who looks at this scene and we all just broke up laughing."

Sixteen days later, a wet and dreary Thursday became decidedly drearier in Chicago with the death of Norm Van Lier at 61 that afternoon, followed by the passing of Johnny "Red" Kerr, 76, later that night.

It was, to longtime Bulls fans and so many others, a punch to the gut followed by a slap in the face, as two of the most upbeat and enduring symbols of the franchise were taken on the same day. Kerr, a Bulls icon, the team's first coach and longtime television commentator, succumbing to prostate cancer, and Van Lier, the tough-as-steel Bulls point guard and later broadcaster, apparently dying suddenly from a heart-related cause.

Except that it wasn't sudden.

"I know it was really shocking to everyone else, but not to his family," said Susan Van Lier, Norm's wife of 28 years. "He was in and out of the hospital a lot over the past five years. He was pretty ill during that time but he didn't want people to know. He would actually conduct his business from his hospital bed as if he was not in the hospital."

Van Lier, who also had diabetes, died of congestive heart failure, and his wife said he was aware of his own mortality.

"Unfortunately, his father also passed away similarly, only about five years older than Norman, so I think he did have a sense of that," she said. "As the kids [daughters Heidi, 39, and Hilary, 35] and I looked back over the past months, we think he did know. It wasn't anything specifically, but we think he did."

Still, up until the last few days of his life, Van Lier was up and about. "Doing his thing as he always did," Susan said.

On the Tuesday before he died, Van Lier coached a team of Bulls sponsors against another team coached by former Bull and color commentator Bill Wennington.

"He was good, like he always was," Wennington said at the time of Van Lier's death. "He sat down and shouted to his players and teased me, like he always does. We always took pictures at the end, and Norm started singing the Beatles song, 'Yellow Submarine,' but he got two verses into it and started making up the rest. He said he wasn't feeling well the week before, but he seemed much better. There was no sign of him being any other way than how he always was."

Two days later, Van Lier was found unresponsive in his Chicago apartment after his colleagues at Comcast SportsNet Chicago, concerned when he failed to show up to work the night before, alerted authorities.

Susan Van Lier said her husband, though a beloved and gregarious public figure, was intensely private about his health.

"Maybe being such a great athlete, he didn't want to admit when he wasn't feeling well. That may have been part of it," she said. "But we also feel like we got more time with him than we should have because he was such a great athlete. An ordinary person going through what he was, we might have lost him sooner. Things that he went through over the years were amazing, things that would have sent someone else to the hospital, Norman would go right on.

"He was very, very strong, his stamina, but also mentally and emotionally. He was shockingly strong."

Van Lier Norman just adored Johnny. They had an excellent relationship, and I find it fascinating that they passed away on the same day.

-- Susan Van Lier, Norm's wife

Susan did recognize one telltale sign though, when something was bothering her husband.

"I could tell whenever he was upset, even when he wasn't saying anything, because he would grab his right knee," she said. "That's where his emotional pain would show up, in his right knee. I also think he was in a lot of pain, even as early as in his 30s, and he just put up with it through the years."

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Matt Kerr and his sister Essie Aggen had been taking turns driving their father to broadcast games at the United Center in late 2008. On Dec. 20, Essie remembers, he stood up before working a game and became dizzy.

"Driving home that night, dad said 'I'm done,'" Essie recalled tearfully. "You can't tell a professional athlete when they're done. They have to do it themselves. He equated it to the last game he played, sitting on the bench when they turned the lights off. He was really sad."

Eleven days later, Johnny was at Loyola Medical Center, dehydrated, the prostate cancer spreading into his bones, desperately ill. Doctors were telling him they were sorry but there was nothing else that could be done, and suggested hospice care. It was also the night of the next Bulls home game and Kerr was having second thoughts about "retiring."

"I said, 'Dad, it's up to you,'" Essie recalled. "And he said, 'Here's my phone, you call Steve [Schanwald, Bulls vice president of business operations, who oversees the team's broadcasting].' He didn't even want to say, 'I'm done, I'm not going to be there tonight,' to the Bulls."

Days later, some friends and broadcasting buddies came to the house to say goodbye to their friend.

"Dad was like, 'Hey, how are you doing? Let's sit down at the table,'" Essie said. "Hospice? They looked at me like I was crazy."

But a couple of weeks later, she said, "they got it."

Kerr was now gravely ill and plans were made to shoot a video at home in which he would give a short thank-you to be played at the ceremony that was to honor him at the United Center on Feb. 10. No longer able to keep it a surprise, his family told him that he was to receive the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, the most prestigious award given out by the Basketball Hall of Fame short of enshrinement. A bronze bust of Kerr that was to be placed inside the main entrance of the United Center, was also going to be unveiled.

By now on powerful pain medication, Kerr, never at a loss for words throughout his life, fought to keep his taped comments coherent but he faded in and out and was plainly frustrated. He told his son Matt he wanted him to write down his thoughts and read them at the ceremony and together, slowly, they wrote his speech, Johnny concerned that he would accidentally leave someone out.

The day of the ceremony, Kerr's children gave him a choice.

"We said, 'Dad, listen, it's up to you, you can be pain-free or you can enjoy the moment,'" Essie recalled. "He felt it was his last game and he wanted to make it. So he was not on any pain meds that night and he was in a great deal of pain."

It was hard to tell. Before his beer-and-cigarette routine, Kerr wept as his old friend Jerry Colangelo presented him with the Bunn Award. The big laugh that night was when Kerr snatched the microphone from Matt to finish the speech himself.

"Back home, we were watching it on TiVo," said Matt, "and when President Obama came on [with a videotaped tribute to Kerr], dad smiled and said, 'Thanks, O.'"

Afterward, Kerr insisted that one of his kids get a photo of himself that he could sign and send to the president as a thank-you.

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Kerr used to joke of the Hall of Fame: "I've made it clear that if I'm chosen posthumously, I will not attend the induction ceremony."

He is certainly a worthy candidate as a three-time All-Star who finished his 12-year NBA career with more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds playing every third game against Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, and leading Syracuse to the NBA title in his rookie season. He also held the record for consecutive games played (844) for 17 seasons and became the only coach in NBA history to guide an expansion team to the playoffs their first year.

But Matt Kerr is not optimistic about his dad's chances for the Hall.

"The game of basketball has grown exponentially since my dad has played, and as time goes on, people forget to talk about the great players like Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple-double [for an entire season]," he said. "As soon as a guy retires now, he's in the Hall of Fame five years later, but there are so many other due-paying players in the league that should be recognized.

"I do think [Kerr's nomination for induction] is something that's going to be forgotten, unfortunately. But one of the nicest things I ever saw was for him to be given the John Bunn award early like that. That was a very classy move and it meant a lot to him."

Van Lier was not a Hall of Fame player, and arguably his statistics do not merit having his number retired, particularly when you consider that the Bulls did not retire the numbers of Chet Walker or Artis Gilmore.

But it is not always about statistics, and in light of Van Lier's deep and longtime passion for the team, it would seem some special remembrance would be nice.

"I think it's something Norman would have really liked to have seen in his lifetime, and it's sad he won't," Susan Van Lier said. "I would love to see it, but I certainly don't harbor any bitterness. ... Norman had a lot of honors over the years, and he knew who he was and what he had done, even though he didn't talk about it."

If Van Lier, never one to sugarcoat his opinions about the team's play, sometimes gave the impression he was not appreciated by the organization, his wife said that was not necessarily the case.

"I think sometimes people don't feel that recognition when they're alive, and then there it is after they pass away," she said. "But the family is very aware of how much he was loved in Chicago, and Norman was very aware of it and really appreciated it."

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They will forever be linked together, which seemed unfair on Feb. 26, 2009, when Van Lier's death seemed overshadowed by the passing of Kerr, who also received less attention because of the tragically full day.

But the two men, friends and family said and any observer could tell, genuinely liked and respected one another.

"Norman just adored Johnny," Susan said. "They had an excellent relationship, and I find it fascinating that they passed away on the same day. They had such a connection for so many years and there was such an outpouring of love for both of them that day that I don't feel, at least for Norman, that anything was diminished."

Matt Kerr said it would not have occurred to his father to worry about the attention he received.

[+] EnlargeNorm Van Lier
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenNorm Van Lier was passionate about basketball, and he didn't sugarcoat his opinions on the air when the Bulls lacked the effort he demanded from himself on the court.

"My dad would call me up and say, 'Let's go over to Petey's Bungalow, I'll have you home early.' Then, an hour after we arrived, there would be twice as many people there," Matt remembered. "People called their buddies when they saw him. And he'd say, 'Have I ever told you why I like going out with you?'

"I'd say, 'No,' and he'd say, 'It's because whenever I'm with you, people send us drinks.'

"He always made everyone else more important. So I don't think he'd ever think it was about him."

Days after Kerr's death, Kerr's longtime broadcast partner Neil Funk and Bill Wennington toasted to Kerr's memory, placing a single malt scotch at his place on the table.

They still half-expect him to walk through the door.

"More than anything for me and Bill, it's Johnny's energy and the companionship that you miss," Funk said. "When we're on the road, we kind of look at each other and one of us will say, 'Johnny would've loved this meal' or enjoyed tonight. Whenever we'd get up, he'd say, 'Another great session, guys.' He's never far from our thoughts, but in some ways, it's almost like he's still here."

Before one game last fall, Bulls director of public relations Tim Hallam, who notifies the broadcasters when the team bus is leaving the hotel, accidentally called Kerr's cell phone.

"His voicemail comes on and it made me so sad," Hallam said. "But then it made me chuckle because you think of all the good things too, and all the life he brought to those trips."

Funk laughs that only Kerr would be upbeat at this point in the season.

"You're on the downward side of the season, you start dragging a little, the weather isn't good," Funk said, "but Johnny was always the one saying, 'Isn't this great? The weather is fine, don't worry about the weather.'

"And he would have loved this team and just the fact that we came back from a lot of adversity and are now above .500. He would have been like a proud papa."

The kids grow weepy.

"My kids are not doing well this week," said Susan Van Lier, who also has a granddaughter, Maisy, 7, whom Norm doted on.

Kerr's kids -- there are three others, Edward, William and James, in addition to Matt and Essie, plus 16 grandchildren -- are having an equally tough time.

Essie jokes that Matt gave her a hard time when she finally turned off their father's cell phone service, though they both admit to pausing on classic Bulls' replays to hear his voice. And Matt said he finds his car steering itself to the Village Pub in Riverside, his father's regular hangout where he sang karaoke with friends every Saturday he was in town.

It is where Essie will be spending a quiet evening with friends on Friday night, the one-year anniversary of her father's death. And it is there where she will close her eyes and hear him singing his favorite, "On the Seashores of Old Mexico," and his regular finale, "Mack the Knife."

One night a couple of years ago, Johnny coaxed his only daughter with a well-known stage-fright problem, to get up and sing.

"He said, 'Come on honey, it's not crowded at all, you have to do it,'" Essie recalled. "It was the longest two minutes of my life. It was the most horrible thing. Then we get in the car to go home and he says, 'You know, honey, you don't sing.'"

She had to laugh.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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