Before Jazz coach Jerry Sloan ever met Larry H. Miller, he played alongside Norm Van Lier in a Chicago Bulls backcourt that was as hard-nosed as any in the NBA, and Johnny "Red" Kerr stood next to him as both a teammate and coach.
Friday — on the eve of the funeral for longtime Jazz owner Miller, and with basketball his bond to each — Sloan mourned the deaths of all three.
He willingly reminisced, recalling fondly crazy playing days with Van Lier, who on Thursday was found dead of still-unknown causes in his apartment near the United Center in Chicago, and the opportunity presented to him by Kerr, who succumbed to prostate cancer later Thursday at his suburban Chicago home. He practiced his team, which tonight faces Sacramento.
And then he attended a public viewing for Miller, the man who employed him as head coach in Utah for two-plus decades — and who stuck with him through good times and bad.
"It's a tough day," Sloan said.
One week after Miller's passing, the news about Van Lier and Kerr was a double dagger of added pain.
When Sloan was an NBA rookie in 1965-66, Kerr — who spent the last three-and-a-half decades as a broadcaster for the Bulls — was playing his last season in the league.
The two were teammates with the Baltimore Bullets, and Kerr's decision to retire and become coach in Chicago paved the way for him to bring along Sloan — a dispersal-draft selection of the expansion Bulls — for a return to the home state of both.
"Red," Sloan said, "was really the reason for me being in Chicago."
The Bulls made it to the NBA playoffs in their first season of existence, a point of pride for Sloan.
"At that particular time," he said, "I thought it was quite an accomplishment. Still think it is."
The Bulls drafted Van Lier in 1969, but they immediately traded him to the Cincinnati Royals.
Shortly thereafter, he and Sloan fought.
Van Lier once recalled that it happened during an exhibition game at Illinois State University in Normal. Sloan remembered it being in Macomb, home of Western Illinois.
In any case, what unfolded was hard for either to forget.
"We got into it," Sloan said Friday. "We were, unfortunately, in front of Cincinnati's bench."
A half-dozen or so players tumbled through a set of push-doors and into a hallway. Once they returned to the gym, two were missing.
As lore goes, Sloan and Van Lier still were pounding on each other in the hallway.
"It was a pretty tough deal to be involved in," Sloan said.
No wonder Sloan held out open arms when the Bulls decided in 1971 to bring Van Lier to Chicago, where he wound up spending most of his NBA career — and even spent some time baby-sitting Sloan's children.
"Norm was a terrific competitor," Sloan said. "He was a great teammate to play with. And he put it out there every day in practice.
"We had a guy come in one day and (he) didn't want to practice very hard, and (Van Lier) was on him about as hard as you get, (saying), 'We practice here. We don't come and take a vacation. We've got to do everything we can to try to win.' "
The relationship between Van Lier, who in recent years also did TV broadcast work for the Bulls, and Sloan remained tight for seasons to come.
And the fighting never stopped — though by then it was with each other, not against, and Dick Motta, not Kerr, was coach of the Bulls.