Six games into my first basketball season as the sports information director at St. Francis, I had the opportunity to interview a Red Flash legend and a truly larger-than-life personality.
We were on the road at the University of Illinois-Chicago on Dec. 4, 1999. I was doubling as our play-by-play announcer on the trip and a couple of seats down from me along press row at the UIC Pavilion was Norm Van Lier.
The former St. Francis basketball star was providing color commentary for the Flames' radio network. Before the game, I asked him if he would join me at the half so Red Flash fans "back at the house" could hear from the second greatest player to ever don the red and white. He agreed.
I pulled out a recording of my halftime interview with Van Lier last Friday after learning of his passing in Chicago. Stormin' Norman, who led the Flash to a 55-20 record during his three seasons of varsity action from 1966-69 before going on to star with the Chicago Bulls, was 61.
One thing was clear from the start of our conversation at halftime of that game almost 10 years ago - the man who established his own legacy at the tiny western Pennsylvania school that Maurice Stokes put on the nation's college basketball map a decade earlier still had a special place in his heart for his alma mater.
"Usually, you better root for the people that pay you, but my heart is definitely at St. Francis," Van Lier told me. "I had so much fun going to school there. It was the start of my life a 17-year-old kid going away from home for the first time, and I just loved it up in the mountains there in Loretto.
"I went over to Raymond [Hall] and I started to cry," recalled Van Lier, speaking about his trip back to St. Francis for the Athletics Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 1998. "I just had some great times.
"St. Francis was special, man. Father [Vince] Negherbon they're family. There have been times when people have died, or sickness - they were there. In '65 when I first went there, it was the first time I was away from home and it was a little scary at first."
Even with all his success at the professional level Van Lier was a three-time NBA all-star, eight-time all-defensive squad honoree, and teamed with Jerry Sloan to give the Bulls one of the best backcourts in the league in the 1970s - Van Lier never forgot about that school up in the mountains.
He made his final trip to St. Francis last November for an alumni event and, up until his death, was helping Red Flash head coach Don Friday and his staff in their recruiting efforts.
Friday introduced Van Lier, who led Midland to the 1965 PIAA title, to his players when he visited campus last November.
"I told our guys we all know the history of the program and the St. Francis family tree," recalled the first-year head coach. "Today, you'll see where the roots meet the soil."
That soil remained precious to Van Lier.
"I know I'm out here in Chicago working," he told me in our interview back in December 1999, "but if I can be of any help to the program, I'd sure like to be part of it."
Farabaugh served as sports information director at St. Francis from 1999-2005. He currently teaches journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and resides in Ebensburg.