Thursday, March 5, 2009
Updated: March 6, 4:10 PM ET
A week later, still thinking of Kerr and Van Lier
By Scoop Jackson
The weeklong eulogy ended Thursday afternoon when the family and friends of basketball royalty exited the Hennessy Bruno Funeral Home in suburban Chicago. But this was only half of this story's final chapter. Before the funeral for Johnny "Red" Kerr, there were two other services for Norm Van Lier. The end wasn't supposed to come like this. Not on the same day. Not these two.
Last Saturday, inside the United Center before the first Chicago Bulls game since the deaths of the two Chicago icons two days earlier, everyone's eyes shifted towards the sky. To the JumboTron. We all knew it was coming, but it's not sure everyone was prepared. The first funeral. The one inside the place the dearly departed called home. Inside of an arena. A united center.
Black and white images of their white and black faces next to one another. A montage of file photos and AP scrapbooks that told their life stories of decades spent in the Bulls organization.
Kerr, a Chicago native, was the Bulls' coach in their first season in 1966-67, following his 12-year NBA career, and then spent over three decades as a Bulls broadcast analyst. Van Lier was a tenacious defender and point guard for seven seasons in the '70s, making three All-Star teams, and worked as a Bulls broadcaster since the early '90s.
Sam Smith, the legendary Chicago Tribune writer who knew both men well, just stared up at the screen. "We knew Johnny might not be around much longer, but Norm, that was a shock," he said. Ryan Baker, a local CBS sports anchor, spoke the same. "I can't believe both of them not being here," he said, looking up.
In the sky were two men who told the story of a city's basketball history, the story of a basketball team. Men who weren't necessarily polar opposites as much as they were the Actinium and Zirconium of one of the most renowned and revered franchises in the sport.
Johnny Kerr and Norm Van Lier are who they once were. Known to us Bulls fans as, simply, Red and Stormin'. Norman was the one called a hero, Red the one anointed the ambassador. They were the Chicago Bulls; they were Chicago basketball. The only living being more significant, a guy named Jordan. And on this day, some in the crowd even questioned that.
In the week since they both passed away within hours of each other, there have been public testimonials, printed salutations and tributes, four separate funerals and wakes. But none like the encomium inside the 21,000-seat chapel where there is a statue of Kerr and where Van Lier has a rep that served as the requiem to their resting in peace.
Van Lier was colorful as a Coogi sweater; Kerr, as conservative as a pair of Keds. As I stood there looking up at the electronic tributes that continuously played throughout the game -- the first Bulls game since the United Center opened in 1994 that neither one would be in attendance -- a personal history with both invaded my thoughts.
Thoughts of sitting next to Red at some games, watching Jordan do his resin bag ritual, where Jordan would clap his hands together, sending dust flying all over Kerr. Remembering him telling me stories of radio days with Neil Funk and Jim Durham, finishing every one with, "Don't tell them I told you that." Asking me on more than one occasion, since he knew Terry Pluto was one of my favorite basketball authors, if I had finally read their book, "Bull Session." Which, before he died, I never got the chance to tell him that I finally had.
Thoughts of talking Ohio Players and Jack Daniel's with Norm. Thoughts of how for the last two years of his life, every time we saw each other we'd make plans to hang out, but I'd never get around to making that happen because there was a huge part of me that wasn't ready to hang with someone I grew up idolizing. Thoughts of how we did the final "Sports Page" with Lou Canellis on CLTV together. Thoughts on how I hugged him after the show and said goodbye, not knowing that it actually was goodbye.
Between the two of them: six All-Star games, three first-team All-Defense honors, an NBA championship, a Coach of the Year, an assist leader, Jerry Sloan's better basketball half, half of the greatest announcing duo in Chicago Bulls history, over 20,000 points, almost 14,000 rebounds, a havoc reeker, a tragedy absorber, passion and compassion. An enigma. An emissary.
A pair of voices silenced but still heard. Even when it's only their pictures being shown on a JumboTron.
Funny thing about those who broadcast, especially ones who have had iconic playing careers with the same organization. They become a part of your life in ways deeper than just putting points on the boards or collecting boards by snatching round leather off glass. Kerr and Van Lier found a place within a family that refused to let them go. As fans, we often grow closer to broadcasters than we do most players, since there is usually no free agency in play-by-play.
Instead, there is a belovedness that we carry from childhood to, often, our own deaths. Their faces, their voices, their names, their phrases. Without even knowing or realizing it, our loyalty is to them as much as the teams we love. Win or lose, year after year, it is them -- not always the players or the team -- that we find comfort in. It is them we will miss the most when they are gone.
Here's the loss in perspective: In Boston, if Johnny Most and Tom Heinsohn passed away on the same day. For the Knicks, imagine if Marv Albert and Clyde Frazier's lives ended unexpectedly one Friday afternoon.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The second and third presidents. July 4, 1826. Lives end. Same day. Same coincidence.
And there they were, above us all. In the sky. Images of the time we spent with them, the lives they shared with us, are all that are left. One death expected, the other a shock. Opposites until the end.
They say death comes in threes, strength comes in numbers. With just under six minutes left in the game, the team that Kerr and Van Lier so passionately believed would return to prominence was down by 17. But indicative of the never-ending faith of the broadcasters, the Bulls came back. Back to life. NVL and JRK still -- and always -- in the building. A 23-3 run. A three-point victory. A miracle. From above.
There is no definite or infinite number that can be placed on a spirit. Especially when they join forces. Last week, as the Chicago Bulls released info on the future wake and funeral arrangements for Van Lier and Kerr, there was an air in the building that felt final. Like a storm was about to come. A quiet Red Storm.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.