Let me start off by saying that tonight’s game against the Pistons was a footnote to Johnny “Red” Kerr’s moving halftime tribute (which you can watch again or for the first time at Comcast SportsNet Chicago). It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to not caring about whether the Bulls win or lose. (But not really; I still cared.) It was the best, most-fitting ceremony I’ve seen since Larry Bird Night at Boston Garden back in 1993. There was a stirring video homage with footage of Johnny both as a player and a color commentator. They gave him a collage of pictures and mementos for display in his home. A bust (representing his broadcasting days) was unveiled, and it will be prominently displayed in the United Center as long as that building still stands. Last, but certainly not least, Johnny was presented with the 2009 John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
And there were some very special guests on hand, including Kerr’s lifelong friend and NBA Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, Jerry Colangelo (who convinced Johnny to coach in Phoenix many years ago), Kerr’s old broadcasting buddy Jim Durham, NBA commissioner David Stern (who made his cadaverous appearance via video), the great Scottie Pippen, and the even greater Michael Jordan (who, in honor of their past together, clapped some rosin powder in Johnny’s face). I didn’t think it would be possible to top Jordan’s speech, but then they aired a video tribute from Barack Obama, otherwise known as the freaking President of the United States! Kerr earned his reputation as the NBA’s original iron man for playing in 844 consecutive regular season games, but the fact that he wasn’t weeping like a child after all that is proof positive that he has a heart forged of pure steel. I know I was crying. (But in a manly way. While crushing rocks with my bare hands.) Even MJ was misty-eyed throughout. It was everything Johnny deserved.
The only part of the event that hurt was seeing Johnny — who had always been so vigorous — appear physically diminished. In case you didn’t know, Kerr was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year and his declining health has been something of an open secret around Chicago (to long-time Bulls fans, anyway). In fact, his condition is the reason that the organization moved up the ceremony, which was originally scheduled for April. Johnny’s son, Matt Kerr, had to read a statement that Johnny had prepared. And when Johnny finally did speak, it was obviously with great effort. I can only hope that Johnny’s health will improve, at least enough for him to enjoy this long-overdue honor for many years to come.
Then there was the game. For a while, it looked like the Bulls were going to ruin the feel-good vibe that swept through the UC during halftime. The first half was hotly contested, but the Bulls came out flat in the third quarter. (I saw the same thing happen when Magic Johnson’s number was retired by the Lakers in 1992; L.A. came out listless at the start of the second half and their opponent, the Celtics, quickly built an 18-point lead.) The Bullies couldn’t defend their own shadows, let alone the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace was particularly devastating, scoring 15 of Detroit’s 34 points in that 12-minute span. The Bulls started the final period down 85-71 and I wrote “we lost this game in the third quarter” in my notebook.
I’m happy to say I was way wrong, but I wouldn’t know it for several more minutes. Chicago continued to struggle and fell behind 100-90 when Tayshaun Prince hit a 19-foot jumper with 3:33 left…and then the amazing happened. The Bulls finished the game with a 17-2 run that would have had Johnny screaming himself silly at the broadcasters’ table. The comeback started with a 9-0 spurt that pulled the home team to within a single point. ‘Sheed hit a couple free throws to give Detroit a three-point cushion with a minute to go, but the Bulls scored the final eight points in — you guessed it — dramatic fashion.
First, Derrick Rose (23 points, 10-for-15, 4 assists) hit a driving layup with 46 ticks left. Then Rasheed forced up a terrible fadeaway jumper despite the fact that Detroit still had about 12 seconds to go on the shot clock. It wasn’t even close. The Bulls got it back, and Rose drove in for a layup that was blocked by Wallace. But, incredibly, Rose grabbed his own rebound and passed it out to Ben Gordon (24 points, 8-for-18, 5 rebounds), who was wide open for a corner three (Rodney Stuckey had collapsed into the paint to help out on Rose). Stuckey bolted toward Gordon and bulled him over as the shot left his hand. That shot went in as the two players were collapsing into a heap. Gordon went on to hit the foul shot, completing the four-point play and putting the Bulls up 105-102 with 16.7 seconds left. And the rest was played for posterity.
I should also point out that Tyrus Thomas (22 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals) was a HUGE part of the comeback, with 8 points and 4 boards in the fourth quarter. Overall, he shot poorly from the field (6-for-14), but he grabbed 6 offensive boards and hit 10 of his 13 free throw attempts. By the way, that was T-Time’s sixth double-double in the last seven games. Speaking of big men coming through, how ’bout Joakim Noah? He scored 12 points (5-for-11) and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, including 8 on the offensive end. Yes, they made mistakes — Thomas tied Gordon with a game-high 5 turnovers — and, at times, struggled on defense. But those two guys gave the kind of pedal-to-the-medal effort that makes good things happen. And they did. Very good things.
As always, there were reasons for concern. Like how the Bulls defense was exploited by Wallace and Rip Hamilton (30 points, 11-for-21, and a game-high 8 assists). They committed 16 turnovers, which led to 19 bonus points for the Pistons. They also missed nine foul shots. So, yeah, there are still some kinks to work out. But they seem to be clicking offensively, having scored at least 100 points in eight of their last 10 games. They’re playing together, and they’re playing with energy. That’s the kind of thing that Johnny was sure to love. And it was perhaps the best tribute the team could have given him.
Possible injury: During Detroit’s next-to-last possession, Antonio McDyess set a moving pick on Rose, hitting our guy in the face with one of his extra-large shoulders. Rose was pretty shaken up, in NBA parlance, and was shown to be in pretty serious pain on the sideline. He ended up going to the locker room with a towel over his head before the game even ended. It might be nothing, and I can’t find anything in any of the recaps, but his nose looked a little mashed. Maybe he broke it? Update! Apparently, he’s fine.
Truthiest quote of the night: President Obama noted that Johnny wasn’t just a broadcaster, that he was “the fan on the barstool next to us.” I couldn’t agree more.
Funniest on-air quote of the night: While broadcasters Neal Funk and Stacey King were discussing a game in which Johnny had grabbed 34 rebounds against Wilt Chamberlain, Funk tried to put the feat in perspective by exclaiming: “34 rebounds is a lot against a midget!”
Update! Funniest on-court quote of the night: From By The Horns reader Mark: “I’m sorry to disagree, but the funniest quote of the night was when Johnny Red was asking his son for the piece of paper with his speech on it and his son wasn’t giving it to him. When he finally did, Johnny quipped, ‘The kid never did listen.'”