Never a Dull Moment with Norm Van Lier, 1974

[Norm Van Lier was known as Stormin’ Norman. Or, to his teammates, “Little Rat.” He was the scurrying little guard with the beard and the intense eyes who during the mid-1970s teamed in the Chicago Bulls backcourt with the stoic veteran Jerry Sloan. Nearly 50 years later, it’s still hard to imagine an NBA backcourt that was any tougher than these two hombres. 

What set Van Lier apart from Sloan was his tenacity on steroids. “A virtual midget at 6-foot-1, Van Lier never gets lost,” Bob Logan, then the Bulls’ beat reporter with the Chicago Tribune, described Van Lier’s game. “You can find him where the ball is. If it’s loose on the floor, he’s diving for it. If an enemy has it, he’s jabbing at it. If it’s coming off the rim, Van Lier is up there contesting the big guys for it.”

No big guy was off limits for Stormin’ Norman. In the heat of the NBA moment, the 6-foot-1, 173-pound Van Lier famously grabbed a metal folding chair and eyed Portland’s 6-foot-9, 225-pound Sidney Wicks. “When he went after that chair,” quipped Bulls coach Dick Motta, “I knew he wasn’t going to sit down in it.” Bulls’ temporary trainer Bob Biel heroically tackled Van Lier from behind and held onto him for dear life to prevent more mayhem. Afterwards, Van Lier told teammate Bob “Butterbean” Love, “Butter, if I had hit him, I would’ve cut him down to my size.”

For Van Lier, those who weren’t with him had to be against him—and receiving special treatment. “Jerry West and Gail Goodrich—the Hollywood Stars,” was one of Van Lier’s frequent refrains. “Just breathe on either one, and it’s a foul. I get beat black and blue, go to the basket all night long and don’t get a single free throw.”  

All this Stormin’ Norman against the World left Logan wondering, “There’s no way of knowing if Van Lier would be a better player if he could dampen the competitive flame which turns him into a controversial figure. Probably not. He plays it the way he feels it, and that’s all systems go, all the time.”

Here, Ed Bouchette recounts his meeting with Van Lier in a July 1974 column that truly stands the test of journalistic time. Bouchette, then with the Indiana (Pa.) Gazette, moved over to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the mid-1980s to cover the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers. Today, he’s doing great things at The Athletic.]

Norm Van Lier popped his head from the shower room and announced that he’d be out in a minute. “Hurry up, will ya Norm?” called St. Francis College basketball coach Pete Lonergan. “These guys have been waiting since 10:30.”

It was closer to noon when Van Lier finally entered the St. Francis coach’s office to meet with a small group of area reporters who had gathered the question both the NBA Chicago Bulls all-star guard and Kevin Porter of the Washington Bullets. The two are graduates of St. Francis, and both were in Loretto to instruct Lonergan’s summer basketball camp. 

Van Lier, bearded and dressed in a floor-length, blood-red bathrobe with sandals, leaned against a counter. It was like having a press conference with a Black Jesus. 

But that was before he spoke. Norm Van Lier talks the way he plays basketball—he pulls no punches. Ever since he finished the 1968-69 season at St. Francis, Van Lier has become known as one of the most physical players in the National Basketball Association. He’d look more at home on a roller derby track. 

And because of his style—his style employed by the entire Chicago team—Van Lier and  the Bulls have been tagged with labels ranging from dirty to cheap. And Van Lier despises being classified dirty. 

“We’re dirty because we play defense and because we pick the hell out of you,” he began sarcastically, his voice rising a bit. “We’re dirty because we steal passes. But we beat the hell out of them. We’re dirty because we win. We play the game. 

Residents of Indiana County still talk about the way Norm Van Lier plays the game since the time they saw him in the maiden Indiana Optimists’ Tournament in 1969. Playing for Western Auto, Norm averaged 31.7 points as he led his team to the championship . . . He was named the tournament’s most valuable player that year and his average is still tops for tourney participants. 

But Van Lier has come a long way in the past five years. So far, in fact, that he will demand that the Bulls tear up his contract and write him a new one this year at a considerable raise in pocket money. 

“I have one more year to go on a four-year contract but I want to renegotiate,” he said. “I want a hell of a deal, a package. If I don’t get it, I’ll play out my option. These rookies come in and get big money. I’ve made this team a winner. I’ve made all-pro and all-defense, and I want to be paid for it. I’ve proven myself. 

“I have honored my contract. Why should I have to wait until the fourth year? I want my money now. I’m talking about a $1.5 million contract. Not $100,000. I’m a superstar, and I want to make money like the rest of them.”

At first, he sounded bitter. But as he went on, there was more a feeling that, as on the basketball court, Norm Van Lier just can’t hold back. And now there was no stopping him. 

He particularly lashed out at Chicago coach Dick Motta, who, according to Van Lier, refuses to adjust in the playoffs, to change from a physical ballclub to a running, pressure-type team. 

“The man (Motta) has a system, and he isn’t going to change,” said Norm. “Chicago’s been in the playoffs seven years it hasn’t gotten past the first round yet (until last season). This whole league is based on playoff competition. You go to those playoffs, and there’s no tomorrow. 

“This is where you need coaching, and we don’t have that at Chicago.”

That is Norm Van Lier’s style—blunt. The Midland High School graduate even criticized the press during his hour-long talk with some of its members. “I think the writers stink because they don’t know how to play the game.”

No matter what else people think about Norm Van Lier, no one doubts that he knows how to play the game. 

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