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M. Spencer Green, AP
Johnny Kerr

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.

"We had some donnybrooks," Sloan said, smiling as he retold the tale of one particular favorite.

"Norm and I, we set a lot of screens on our team. Coach Motta, when we were playing for him, he had a play we called a 'diagonal' — (designed to) try to get one of the guys open. I got in a fight in Portland over it.

"It was against Sidney Wicks, I believe. I went down and set a screen, and he just tried to take my head off. And I didn't particularly like that. So, I said I'll run it again. This time I went after (Wicks) a little bit. So we kind of got in a little scuffle."

Part II unfolded when the Trail Blazers visited the Bulls.

"We go to Chicago, and play there and run the same play," Sloan said. "Only Norm says, 'I'll run it this time.' So he entered the ball to the forward, and went to the set screen. It didn't work very well the first time. So he said, 'I'll do it again.'

"That's when he got into it with Sidney. He (Van Lier) went down to the bench and picked up a chair. And our trainer stopped him — grabbed him and held him. Otherwise, he was headed for … Sidney with the chair."

With that, Sloan smiled again, his recounting of good ol' days gone by clearly cathartic at the end of one very long week.

"We were fairly competitive," the Jazz coach said. "To say the least … we had some fun times. That's what you like to remember, you know?"

Sloan indicated he probably won't attend services for either Van Lier, 61, or Kerr, 76.

Instead, he'll simply continue doing what he does best.

"You've got to do your work, and the other things will take care of themselves," Sloan said.

"I think those guys … would expect you to go ahead and do what you've got to do," he added. "And I would feel the same way."

Sloan did get to say goodbye to Kerr — whom he saw at least once a year in Chicago, and often more frequently — via telephone a few weeks ago, shortly before the Bulls honored the NBA All-Star turned popular radio-TV analyst with a statue.

He didn't get to spend as much time in later years with Van Lier as hindsight suggests perhaps should have been the case, but the two did have a surprise get-together when Utah played host to Houston in last season's NBA playoffs.

"Somebody said, 'Norm Van Lier's gonna be here to see you,'" Sloan said. "I thought, 'Is he doing TV for Houston?' … It wasn't that. He was just coming out here to say, 'Hello.'

"And little do you know."

With that, Sloan — who lost his wife, Bobbye, to pancreatic cancer in 2004 — trudges onward.

Sixty-six and remarried, he'd have it no other way.

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Even after losing three friends so close in such a short span, he sees no reason to slow down, no reason to do anything but coach a club that has won six straight and hopes tonight to make it seven.

"I have a job I do and do the best I can," Sloan said. "I'm not 19 any longer. It will happen, I'm sure, one of these days."

But, he added, "I'll probably not change because of (the week's circumstances). If that had been the case, I probably would have quit when Bobbye passed away."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com