Johnny "Red" Kerr : : One of a Kind
Kerr attended the University of Illinois, where he scored 1,299 points during his three years with the school’s varsity. In 1952, he helped the Fighting Illini capture the Big Ten Championship and advance to the Final Four.
Moments before tip-off at every Chicago Bulls home game, fans look skyward toward the large United Center scoreboard hanging high above center court to check out a video montage showing off the wonderful sights of their city accompanied musically by Frank Sinatra’s timeless classic “Chicago.”
For Johnny “Red” Kerr, a Bulls broadcaster the last 33 seasons and a quintessential Chicago guy, there’s a pretty good chance that the affable man of Scottish and Swedish descent has joined in the civic pride sing-along with Ol’ Blue Eyes and the Windy City’s faithful fans.
With eclectic musical tastes ranging from modern rock to the snappy salsa ringtone on his cell phone, Kerr also happily sings the praises of the three “loves” of his life: his family, the Bulls and Chicago.
“When I attended the University of Illinois, I dated a girl, Betsy Nemecek, who was from Riverside, Illinois,” says Kerr, who married her in 1954. “When I first saw her, wow, I think if you looked in the dictionary under the word ‘mesmerized’ you would’ve seen my picture. During the summers, I tried to figure out all kinds of ways to visit her.”
Riverside, one of the first planned suburban communities in the country, ultimately served as an integral part of the Kerr family plan as well. They moved to the tranquil suburb in 1978—four years after Kerr landed his gig as color commentator for the Bulls.
“I’ve loved Riverside for so many years,” Kerr says. “I’ve always said that I wanted to live in a very quiet, staid village that’s near a jumpin’ city.”
When not spending time at home, Kerr’s second residence ostensibly is located at 1901 West Madison—home of the Chicago Bulls. As the Bulls first head coach, former business manager and current television broadcaster, the Chicago native has pretty much seen it all.
“There are very few guys that have been around the game as long as Johnny has that still have the same passion that I remember him having when we first met some 30 years ago,” says Bulls radio play-by-play announcer Neil Funk. “He still feels strongly about the NBA and basketball in general. More important, his biggest passion is for the Chicago Bulls. Not only is Johnny a great friend, he’s a guy you can count on in so many ways.”
Like a proud father watching his children grow up, Kerr embraces the opportunity to critique his favorite team in his hometown. Among a plethora of Bulls players and squads, Kerr reserves a special place in his heart for the inimitable Michael Jordan and the 1990’s Bulls dynasty, which produced six NBA titles and worldwide celebrity.
“I’ve seen every basket that Michael made while he wore a Bulls uniform,” notes Kerr. “Back then, the team bus would pull in at a hotel around 3 a.m., and there would be 700 people waiting for us. It was like a traveling show.”
Conversely, the earliest years of basketball in The Second City were run more like a three-ring circus.
“Professional basketball was unheard of in Chicago,” Kerr recalls. “There were several teams—like the Stags, Zephyrs and Packers—that all failed. When I found out Chicago was getting another pro team and I had a chance to be the coach, it was a dream come true.”
After a successful 12-year NBA playing career with Syracuse, Philadelphia and Baltimore, highlighted by winning a championship his rookie season with the Syracuse Nationals and three NBA All-Star selections, followed by a short spell with the Bulls during the inaugural and second year of the franchise, Kerr moved on to brief coaching/broadcasting and administrative stints with the expansion Phoenix Suns and the ABA’s Virginia Squires.
During his year as the Vice President of the Squires, Kerr signed Julius “Dr. J” Erving, a relatively unknown at the time, who went on to become arguably the most graceful, acrobatic player basketball has ever seen.
“I signed Doc to his first pro contract and people didn’t really know who he was,” Kerr says. “It wasn’t like when Michael Jordan came along and people knew about him from his North Carolina days or certainly like today with LeBron James. Julius averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds at the University of Massachusetts. He was really good.”
Years after their business transaction, Kerr met up with the Good Doctor when Erving made a house call to the old Chicago Stadium as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
In 1966, Kerr was able to bring his family home to Chicago after being named the first coach of the expansion Bulls.
Although finding gifted young phenoms like Julius Erving and George “Iceman” Gervin (Kerr discovered him on a playground court) was rewarding, the 6’9” former Tilden Tech soccer and basketball star desperately wanted to come home.
“Johnny is great for the city of Chicago because that’s what he’s always been about,” says former Bulls guard and current Comcast SportsNet pre-game commentator Norm Van Lier. “When you look at the history of the Bulls—and we have a lot of it—Johnny is a very important part of the organization’s success. He’s been great to me. I absolutely love him.”
As fate would have it, Red Kerr took advantage of a fortuitous “help wanted” scenario in 1966 involving the newest Chicago pro hoops franchise. That year, Kerr was hired as the first head coach in the storied history of the Chicago Bulls.
Reflecting the colorful tradition of Windy City politics, Kerr received some creative lobbying help from a few old buddies during the hiring process.
“One of my boyhood pals, Stinky Fryer, and his brother Reggie started a petition and collected over 1,600 signatures from my neighborhood asking the Bulls to hire me as their coach,” Kerr reflects with a laugh. “All these people who signed the petition promised to buy season tickets, but actually Stinky faked a lot of the signatures. Who was going to check anyway?”
During the Bulls rookie campaign, Kerr validated Stinky’s signing spree by garnering NBA Coach of the Year honors while guiding the expansion Bulls to a 33-48 record and playoff appearance. Although the team enjoyed relative success by first-year club standards, the ultra-competitive Kerr would search for any winning formula, often implementing more brands of psychology than Freud to pump up the players’ collective psyche.
Says Kerr: “I told Jimmy Washington, pretend you’re the greatest defensive rebounder in the NBA; Guy Rodgers, pretend you’re the best point guard to ever dribble a ball; Jerry Sloan, pretend you’re the best defensive player in the history of the game; Bob Boozer, pretend you’re the best 15-foot jump shooter in the history of the game, and Erwin Mueller, pretend you’re the premier center in the league.”
Kerr’s only omission during the impassioned rallying cry for his charges that night was mentioning Chicago’s opponent: the mighty Boston Celtics, led by the ultimate winner, Bill Russell.
“I was walking off the court, hands in my pockets and my head down,” Kerr remembers after the humbling 17-point defeat. “Mueller came up to me and said, ‘Hey coach, pretend we won.’”
Kerr became a VP with the ABA’s Virginia Squires and signed one of basketball’s greatest all-time players, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, to his first pro contract in April, 1971.
“John Capps was a policeman who used to help the Bulls with team security back at the old International Amphitheatre during our first season.” says Kerr. “He was on duty one day and I told him, ‘John, hold up traffic on Michigan Avenue because we’re going to have a parade for the Bulls.’ Capps was expecting all these floats like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade when suddenly he saw me, [Bulls owner] Dick Klein and [Bulls public relations manager] Ben Bentley all wearing cowboy hats standing next to a live bull on a flat bed truck. That was our parade.”
During his brief but unforgettable tenure at the Bulls helm, the coup de theatre for Kerr had to be the infamous “Father-in-law Attacks Referee” incident. With the Bulls off to a miserable 1-15 start during the 1967-68 campaign and Kerr feeling the escalating need to avoid another loss and more significantly his job, he received a technical one game from referee Don Murphy.
Kerr picks up the rest of the story: “Murphy was out there acting as if he needed a throat operation because he had swallowed his whistle. Our players were getting clobbered and getting no calls. My family was in the stands—being subjected to this fiasco. Finally, my father-in-law, Ed Nemecek, tried to climb out of the seats to get on the floor to go after Murphy. Betsy and my mother-in-law were able to hold him back. When they let him go, Ed took off again running around the police and everybody else, catching Murphy just before he went into the officials’ locker room. Although I didn’t see what happened, a ball boy told me that somebody went berserk and attacked Murphy trying to pull off the NBA official’s patch from his jersey.”
Newspapers flew off the racks the following day featuring a picture of Nemecek with a caption bluntly stating, “Johnny Kerr’s father-in-law, Ed Nemecek, attacks official Don Murphy.”
In stark contrast to today’s corporate, micro-managed world of pro sports, Kerr retrospectively relishes the humorous, often bizarre days of early Bulls basketball, which also included Klein bringing in a hypnotist, as well as the improvisational on court rapport shared between Kerr and characters of the game like Walt Bellamy, Izzy Schmissing and referee Mendy Rudolph.
Drafted by the Chicago Packers as the first overall pick in the 1961 Draft, Walter “Bells” Bellamy was one of Red Kerr’s all-time favorite players primarily because of his clever on court antics as much as his considerable playing ability.
“I liked players who wouldn’t speak directly to the ref, but use another method in order to get their point across, especially when it came to the officiating,” Kerr says. “One of my favorites who used an interesting technique was Walt Bellamy. Bells used to say, ‘The foul is always on Walter. Why is the foul always on Walter? Walter was just standing there, doing nothing and they give Walter a cheap foul’. Finally, [NBA referee] Norm Drucker tapped Bellamy on the shoulder and said, ‘Tell Walter that he just got a technical.’”
Despite Kerr’s recognition as the NBA Coach of the Year in 1966, Klein never fully appreciated his first coach, ultimately forcing Red to leave the Bulls two years later. True to the Scottish proverb, “Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead,” Kerr followed the advice of his ancestors by taking the high road all the way to Phoenix.
“It was strange in the early years, but we had some great laughs,” Kerr says. “We just didn’t have the magic name that we do now. When Michael Jordan arrived, it really changed everything.”
Kerr might be one of only a handful of people on earth to have personally witnessed every basket, foul, steal, blocked shot and rebound Michael Jordan collected while playing in Chicago.
“I think Magic Johnson and Larry Bird truly revitalized the NBA when they came into the league,” Kerr asserts. “It suddenly became ‘Showtime’ basketball, and the game was played above the rim.”
When assessing the current Bulls, who went 49-33 last season before being dispatched by Detroit during the second round of the playoffs, Kerr feels the best is yet to come.
“The Bulls are a no-nonsense, young team that’s on the rise,” he says. “When John Paxson took over, his job was to straighten out the team and get it back on a winning track. He’s done that by making some tough decisions. He first brought in Scott Skiles as his head coach, who wasn’t necessarily the most popular choice, but Scott had a good record and a lot of impressive qualities about him. The team on the floor today is a reflection of what John values, and I really think it’s one of the best situations in the league.”
For a guy who has seen every Bulls celebration, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, Kerr hopes Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng can eventually lead the franchise back to glory via a seventh championship gold trophy.
Win or lose though, Johnny “Red” Kerr is a Bulls fan on a visceral level who has lived the life, to paraphrase novelist Tom Wolfe, of “A Man in Full.”
“I’ve had a great life,” says Kerr, a father of five with ten grandchildren. “People talk about what you would do differently if you could do it over. I can’t think of too many things I’d want to change.”
The lyrics of Johnny Kerr’s life revolve around love, laughter, loss and loyalty. To the people of Chicago, the basketball balladeer offers one special dedication: “Thanks for the Memories.”