A Basketball Legacy Before the Superstar

Michael Jordan was, and to a small degree still is, an athlete that transcended sports. If you were alive in the ’90s, you couldn’t go turn on your TV and not see Jordan pitching sports drinks, cheeseburgers or cartoon characters.

And, oh, by the way, he led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships.

But if you grew up in the Chicago area, you actually knew the Bulls existed before Jordan was drafted out of North Carolina in 1984. It’s hard to blame you if you didn’t, because other than a brief stretch in the mid-’70s, they were pretty awful.

It was a much different time for the NBA. There were no mega-marketed superstars, no cable networks or Websites to provide round the clock coverage. Much like the NFL when it had to fend off challenges from the rival AFL in the ’60s, the NBA had to deal with the upstart ABA with its red, white, and blue ball and an artist formerly and currently known as Dr. J.

For the Bulls, two of their cornerstones were Norm Van Lier and Johnny “Red” Kerr. Van Lier was a key part of the few successful ’70s teams and Kerr was the team’s first head coach, starting in 1966.

What they are both remembered for more recently is broadcasting. As much of an icon as Harry Caray was to the Cubs and White Sox, Van Lier and Kerr were the two primary voices of the Bulls on TV and radio for decades.

It was then surprising and saddening when both men died within hours of each other last Thursday. I don’t think there’s a great statement of faith that needs to be made here, but calling it a coincidence is short-sighted as well.

Jordan will always be a titan of Chicago sports, much the same way Magic Johnson was for Los Angeles and LeBron James is for Cleveland. Yet there always has to be somebody before the superstar who grinds it out before the glory days, and that’s a legacy that should always be honored.

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