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Bulls Family talks about President and Fallen Friends
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 27
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Talk about your highs and lows.
The Bulls family still was reeling Friday after a day that started with a visit to the White House to meet President Barack Obama and ended with the deaths of Bulls basketball legends Johnny “Red” Kerr and Norm Van Lier.
It was a day of smiles and tears, of wonder and perspective.
“I’ve been there twice,” veteran Lindsey Hunter said about going to the White House with NBA champions and playfully nudging Kirk Hinrich sitting next to him and adding how you go there when you win. And then Hunter, whom White House aides with the president said was the most serious of the players, spoke softly.
The fact it was Barack, I was overwhelmed,” said Hunter. “I was excited. The significance of his whole campaign. Me being from Mississippi. I was born in 1970 in segregation. I remember my grandma talking about things she’d never live to see. And it passed over a generation where I felt I’d never see an African-American in the White House. I never could imagine that would happen, and then to be as young as I have and see it and be there, it was fascinating, exciting.”
Though it was a time of consideration as well as the senior members of the organization were in shock as the team rode the bus to the White House with the news of Norm Van Lier’s passing.
“I just walked downstairs to catch the bus for the trip to the White House and heard about Norm,” said General Manager John Paxson. “The older you get these things, you start thinking more about the perspective this puts everything into. It was a very strange day getting that news, then getting that unique opportunity to see the president, and then hearing about Johnny later on. The thing about Johnny was we knew he really was sick and was in a lot of pain. So the fact he’s at peace now is a good thing.
“You’d see Norm in the (Comcast) studio and when things weren’t going well he wore it on his sleeve, he wore it openly,” said Paxson. “And Johnny was the same way. The thing that’s hard for us now is just the fact there is a history to an organization, and when you’ve been with an organization you understand it. Both guys passing on the same day hits home. We’re going to miss them. They were two unique characters that you enjoyed being around. I was around Johnny more all the years we traveled, and he was just a special, special guy. For somebody who’s my dad’s age, he was a young guy at heart. He enjoyed himself and lived life and I know I’m going to miss him.”
Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro sort of saw it all as an outsider just coming to the organization and was equally stunned by the sequence of events.
“It was a great day for the team to get a message from the president, a unique day,” said Del Negro “Then also a sad day. Norm Van Lier and Johnny Kerr meant so much to the organization. Their passion and integrity and class and devotion to the Bulls for so many years. You have to admire that. I got to know them before I came to Chicago and when I got here more. A big loss. But their legacy lives on, what they accomplished as representatives of the organization, as human beings. They are going to be missed, but won’t be forgotten.
“I’d been at the White House before to meet President Clinton,” noted Del Negro. “It’s such am amazing experience as far as history and the atmosphere and getting a message from the president. The president’s message was we’ve got a young team, stay together and work together and a lot of great things can happen. For him to take time out of his schedule to spend time with us is something the guys will remember forever.”
Kirk Hinrich echoed that for many of the players.
“The White House was an incredible experience,” said Hinrich. “I tried to soak it in. I really enjoyed it. It was one of those things where you feel grateful for the opportunity. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity again. It was great to meet President Obama. He seemed like a genuine guy. It was a great day for everyone.
It was really casual. He just basically said he’s very optimistic we’re going to make our push here,” said Hinrich. “He walked around, shook everyone’s hand, joked around a little bit, made fun of BG being too short. Things like that. He talked about putting the basketball court in and how we’ll get a pickup game going. The feeling I got was how down to earth he was and seemed so much like a genuine guy.
And then with Johnny Red and Norm,” Hinrich sighed. “It was shocking with Norm. When I think of Norm Van Lier, I feel like he epitomized what Chicago fans love about their athletes. His toughness and intensity. You think about him and Jerry Sloan, how they made the identity of this team, what the fans look for and what the fans want to see in their professional athletes. Johnny Red. You talk about him and people just identify him with the Bulls. He obviously was a great player, but he meant so much to the organization.”
The deaths of Van Lier and Kerr also brought this reaction from former teammate of Van Lier and one of Kerr’s favorite players as coach, Jerry Sloan The following is a statement from Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan on the passing of Norm Van Lier and Johnny “Red” Kerr.
“Norm Van Lier was a great teammate and a close friend. He was a terrific competitor and was very difficult to play against,” Sloan said in a statement. “We always had a strong bond, to the point he babysat my kids on a number of occasions when we were playing together. Even though we didn’t get to see each as other as often as we would have liked in recent years, there was always a great friendship there. My deepest sympathies go out to his family.
“Johnny Kerr was a teammate and coach of mine,” Sloan continued. “He was the man responsible for me being in Chicago, and once there, he was the guy who gave me the confidence to play in the league. I had the good fortune of speaking with him just a couple weeks ago and I’m glad we were able to have that time. He was a tremendous person and will certainly be missed. My condolences go out to his family.”