When I got back from class late this afternoon, I heard the news that former Chicago Bulls player and broadcaster Norm Van Lier was found dead in his apartment at age 61.
It was a big blow, considering he died so suddenly. I began to think about the times I saw him in the studio before and after Bulls games on cable. The first time I saw him was over a decade ago when he appeared on a TV station promo regarding Bulls tickets.
He played for the Bulls in the '70s, before my time, but I knew he was significant in team history. He was part of those defensive-minded squads that brought the Bulls the most success in the pre-Jordan era, which included a division championship in 1975.
Movie fans may have seen his cameo in the 2002 flick Barbershop. The studios at Comcast SportsNet won't be the same without him.
And if this day wasn't bad enough for Bulls fans, we learned just after midnight last night that we had also lost Johnny "Red" Kerr, the Bulls' first head coach and a team broadcaster for many years.
Kerr was hired for the coaching job fresh off his playing days and led the team to 33 wins, still a record for an expansion franchise. The Bulls made the playoffs and he won Coach of the Year honors. A few years later, he moved on to coach the Phoenix Suns and, not too long after, he moved to the Bulls' broadcasting team, where he stayed until 2008 and where many Bulls fans grew to love him.
Johnny was more than a broadcaster, though. He was the master of ceremonies for all six Bulls championship rallies as well as the ring ceremonies. At a free scrimmage during the preseason, he would introduce the players competing for roster spots. Maybe most of all, I remember Michael Jordan dusting chalk off on him before games.
Jordan even brought some along during the Bulls' ceremony honoring Johnny on Feb.10. Originally scheduled for the end of the season, the ceremony may have been moved up due to Johnny's battle with prostate cancer. Though wheelchair-bound, he was able to address the crowd and thank everybody. The fact that he was doing so just 16 days ago is just spooky. In a way, he was the Chicago Bulls.
What do these men have in common? In addition to being among the greatest figures in Bulls history, they connected with the fans even more thanks to their broadcasting. I've been watching Bulls games on TV since I was seven, so it's obvious that a part of my childhood just died.
No, two parts just died. On the same day.
It's so hard to believe that two icons of the team I grew up idolizing could be gone so quickly. Every Bulls fan is in mourning. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf will want to pay tribute to them in some way, so we'll have to see what's in store.
May Norm and Red rest in peace and play endless pickup basketball where they are now.