Let's take a moment to place Norm Van Lier in perspective. He has given the skin off his back—and his knees and his elbows—for his team. He has thrown a basketball at an unwary referee and missed, and thrown a punch at a wary referee and connected. He has led the NBA in selflessness, passing the ball instead of shooting it. He has fought with seven-footers and lost, and battled six-footers and held his own. He had the temerity to date a coach's daughter and has the charm to serve as weekend host for another coach's young son. He has led a mass assault on a police station. One question. Is this a basketball player for the Chicago Bulls or a Doberman pinscher in sneakers?
In Norm Van Lier there seems to be a morsel of something for all of us. Something to swallow, something to spit out. Something to love, something to hate. A bit to respect, a bit to ridicule. A facet to admire, another to loathe. Is he youth's noble example or law and order's recalcitrant enemy? Who is Norm Van Lier and why is he doing these things?
When Van Lier came into the pros in 1969, he was a third-round draft choice of the Bulls, a 6'1", 175-pound guard from St. Francis of Loretto, Pa. He did not have a no-cut contract and just before the start of the season the Bulls traded him to the Cincinnati Royals.
Other players and opposing coaches scoffed at the rookie's frenzied style of play. They did not understand the way he stood in front of—and was bowled over by—hard-running big men to draw charging fouls. Bumps on Van Lier's elbows swelled to the size of oranges, bumps on his knees to that of lemons. They had become full of water from being dribbled on the floor.
Van Lier was regarded with amusement by some, with contempt by others. They said he could not shoot. He would improve. They said he was too small. He would become one of the best rebounding guards in the league. They claimed he would burn out, that he was frail. He would miss only two games because of injury or illness in his first four seasons. "I think the superstars should worry about me instead of me worrying about them," said Van Lier. "I'm here to make it and I want them to prove to me that they're better."
One day last month Van Lier sat in his apartment high over Lake Michigan; he was traded back to Chicago last season. He needed only to look around him for assurance he has it made. The walls of a hallway were lined with photographs of him during games. In most, strain showed on his face—guarding his man, shooting, passing, yelling at a referee. Two years ago Van Lier led the league in assists. Last year he was sixth, although the players ahead of him logged between 550 and 1,300 more minutes of playing time. This year he again is among the league leaders, averaging 7.2 assists per game. He is also the Bulls' third highest scorer, with a 13.5 average, and he has pulled down 300 rebounds. He is a starter on one of the best teams in the NBA and has a four-year contract that brings him close to $100,000 a season. He was self-confident enough to marry a white girl from his hometown of Midland, Pa. His wife Nancy this day was gathering Norm's clothes for a road trip to Boston, listening as Norm talked of a little man's view of a big man's game.
"You really grow used to playing with pain," said Van Lier, looking at his right elbow, in which the fluid had slowly solidified, forming a calcium deposit. "It doesn't hurt anymore, although the doctors say it will someday. It's not bad. The only guy who tries to hurt me is Walt Bellamy. If I'm pestering those big guys, they're going to be upset. But nobody does it like Bellamy. I watch for it every game. He's trying to hurt me for real."
Bellamy's annoyance stems from a night when he was driving to the basket and Van Lier refused to budge from in front of him. There was another game when the Atlanta center, who is 6'11", knocked him down three times. Each time he came back for more. The fourth time he stayed down, a big gash on his head. After a few minutes on the bench he was back, blood trickling down his neck. "You got to make a stand," said Van Lier. "If you're small, they'll take it out on you all the time. I'm not going to take that. I'll get back some way, if I have to go get a folding chair."
Earlier this season John Block, who is 6'10" and 220, was taking the ball out of bounds when he elbowed Van Lier. "I don't mind getting hit because the way I play I know I'm going to get that," said Van Lier, who went after Block with his fists flailing. "But I'm not going to stand there and take a dirty shot from a person because I'm not a dirty ballplayer." While Van Lier and Block were fighting, Referee Jake O'Donnell intervened and Van Lier swung at him, too. "He tried to hit me," says O'Donnell. And Van Lier did.
Van Lier has often fought with the referees, using mostly words although a couple of seasons back he fired a basketball at Referee John Parker's head after, Van Lier claims, Parker whispered an insult. "He thinks he's being cheated on the floor or something," says O'Donnell. "He thinks because of his size he's being picked on. Off the court he's a completely different guy." Says Van Lier: "I don't get a fair shake out there. They protect the superstars. I have to handle every superstar that comes in and he's going to the foul line all the time and I'm leading the league in fouls and getting thrown out of every game. I'm handling the ball 90% of the time for my team and I can't get to the foul line. They protect some people. It depends on what team you're on. Like when Gail Goodrich was at Phoenix you could get all over him, but now he's at L.A. and you can't touch him. I play as hard as any superstar in this league. I have to."