We live in a world filled with meaningless tributes and bogus ceremonies — would you believe there’s actually an ‘N Sync tribute CD?! — but every once in a while one comes along that is both well-deserved and long overdue. In that spirit, the Chicago Bulls plan to honor Johnny “Red” Kerr during a special ceremony that will be held at the halftime of tonight’s Pistons-Bulls game.
Kerr has been a part of the Bulls broadcasting team for 34 years. That’s longer than many NBA fans (myself included) have been alive. But he’s so well-known in that capacity — who can forget Michael Jordan’s pregame ritual of clapping rosin powder in front of a laughing Kerr? — that many people may not realize Kerr has a rich hoops history outside the booth. As K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune put it: “Kerr’s Illinois basketball roots — he led Tilden Tech to a Public League title and Illinois to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four in 1952 — and long-standing association with the Bulls make him as much a candidate for the Bulls’ Mt. Rushmore as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bob Love, Jerry Sloan or Phil Jackson.”
And his greatness wasn’t limited to the Prairie State. In 1954, the Syracuse Nationals selected Kerr with the sixth overall pick of the NBA Draft. The Nats won the league title during his rookie season, as Kerr averaged a pretty respectable 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds (he was the team’s fourth leading scorer and rebounder and their best percentage shooter). He would go on to earn three All-Star appearances (1956, 1959, 1963) as a member of the Nationals. For the sake of perspective, those are three more appearances than any of the current Bulls have.
In 1963, the Nats relocated to Philadelphia and became 76ers, and Kerr was eventually traded to the Baltimore Bullets. After the 1965-66 season — during which he averaged 11.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game — Kerr was selected by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Expansion Draft. However, Kerr voluntarily retired so that he could coach the team instead, wrapping up a career in which he scored 12,480 points and ripped down 10,092 rebounds. He also held the league record for consecutive games played (844) until 1983.
Under Kerr’s guidance, the Bulls went 33-48 in 1966-1967 and thereby became the first and only expansion team to earn a playoff berth in its first season. (However, they were quickly dispatched by the St. Louis Hawks.) That feat rightly earned Kerr the NBA Coach of the Year Award. The following season, the Bulls rallied from a 1-15 start to go 29-53 and once again earn a trip to the postseason (where they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers). Sadly, various disagreements with Bulls team owner Dick Klein forced Kerr to leave the Bulls during the summer of 1968 and sign on to coach the Phoenix Suns.
Kerr spent a season and a half running the show in Phoenix before being forced to resign (the team couldn’t win), then spent time as a Suns broadcaster alongside the famous Hot Rod Hundley. He also spent time in an administrative position with the ABA’s Virginia Squires before returning to Chicago in 1974, when he began his long tenure as the Bulls color commentator.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience most of that. I’m too young, and every time I go to the past in my time-traveling phone booth, I end up either fighting Nazis with Abraham Lincoln or battling Martians on the back of my pet Dinosaur, “Crackers” (long story). But I did get to spend 20+ years listening to Johnny talk me and a couple generations of Bulls fans through game after game. Kerr loved to laugh and tell stories, and he’d also get pretty riled up whenever the team was playing poorly (for example) or when the calls weren’t going their way (my college roommate and I actually created a drinking game based on how many times Johnny would complain about various violations — traveling, in particular — that were committed by the opposing team without drawing a whistle).
The one thing I’ll take away from listening to those broadcasts was this: Kerr loved the Bulls. I mean, he loved them in a way most men never even love their wives. And he knew the game in a way that went beyond numbers and APBRmetrics. He was a homer, sure, but that was a natural extension of his passion for the game and for his team. I miss that. I miss old Red. And I’m not the only one.
BULLS: Johnny “Red” Kerr
NBA.com: Johnny “Red” Kerr Summary
Johnny Kerr – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Johnny “Red” Kerr – SI Vault
Red Kerr Statistics – Basketball-Reference.com
Red Kerr Coaching Record – Basketball-Reference.com
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