Sam Smith: Johnny Kerr the original iron man
Johnny Kerr the original iron man
There are loads of stories Johnny Kerr tells, and they all make you smile.
Like when he was the first ever coach of the Bulls and was working out the matchups: "Sloan, take Wali Jones, Guy Rodgers you've got Hal Greer, Bob Boozer you've got Luke Jackson. Erwin Mueller, you watch the big guy."
So it's halftime and Wilt Chamberlain has 42 points and Kerr is fuming at Mueller: "I thought I told you to watch the big guy?"
"I did, coach," said Mueller, "and he's great."
My personal favorite is the old coin flip among the league's worst teams, then to decide who would get to select Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The next best prospect was considered Neal Walk. This was after Kerr coached the expansion Bulls two seasons and old buddy Jerry Colangelo wooed him to Phoenix to coach the expansion Suns.
It was dubbed by Phoenix sportswriter Joe Gilmartin as SuperFlip in the wake of the Super Bowl.
The teams got on a three-way call with the commissioner, and when the coin came up tails for the Milwaukee Bucks, Kerr and Colangelo could hear the Bucks' staff celebrating. Colangelo was devastated.
"Jerry," Kerr offered. "Maybe they'll take Neal Walk."
Or the time Kerr set the record for most consecutive games played, actually not missing a game until his final season when his coach didn't play him (today's DNP-CD), even though Kerr wasn't hurt, then 917 straight games including playoffs, 844 in the regular season. Johnny Kerr didn't ask out of a game his entire playing career.
"I was proud of the record," Kerr recalled. "And then a friend sent me a telegram that read, "Congratulations. You're only 1,286 behind Gehrig."
Johnny Kerr was the original iron man, but with a cotton candy heart. He and his beloved late wife, Betsy, adopted the three children of Betsy's sister when she died and raised them along with their five children. There wasn't a civic institution in Chicago that couldn't claim Johnny Kerr as a former speaker.
Little League, bowling banquets, golf outings, Lions' Club. Heck, one time Kerr was selling Israel bonds while coaching the Bulls and making 25 appearances a month. It would be difficult to play in a summer time Chicago golf outing the last 50 years and not see Johnny. Though my favorite scenes were all the times I'd be on the El riding to a Sox game—Johnny is a South Sider from 67th and Racine—and run into John heading for a game.
He was an NBA star, three times an All-Star playing in the same conference with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. "My bridge work is courtesy of Mikan and Chamberlain," he used to say. Yet, you'd more often find Big Red playing 16-inch against the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko and the guys at Ogden Park. He went to Tilden Tech with the hope of getting a job in a foundry.
"People from Tilden didn't go to college," Kerr once told me. "They went to work. My courses were shop, woodworking, auto mechanics and foundry."
College was for other guys. John said when he showed up at Illinois on a basketball scholarship, they asked him about Chaucer. He said he didn't know him but looked forward to getting together. They were serious, John recalled. You actually took books home.
You could write a book about Johnny. But the Bulls are doing that one better Tuesday when they host the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls are going to honor a Chicago guy and arguably one of the most successful and accomplished men in the history of professional basketball.
Johnny Kerr was an All-Star and won an NBA championship with the Syracuse Nationals. He won a public league championship and went to the Final Four at Illinois. He held the NBA's iron man streak. He remains the only coach in NBA history to go to the playoffs with an expansion team. He was the general manager in the ABA who discovered George Gervin and Dr. J. He was business manager for the Bulls and has been the team's popular broadcaster for decades.
He's a man who's known exhilarating triumph that you only dream about, and unspeakable tragedies that you have nightmares about.
His first born, John Jr., known as Jay, the sparkle in his parents' eyes, died suddenly and unexpectedly with just the symptoms of a stomach ache when he was three of meningitis. It was Mother's Day and when Betsy was seven months pregnant. His niece, one of his late sister-in-law's children was murdered while at college in Michigan in a never solved crime believed to be committed by a serial killer.
How's this? When Johnny Kerr was 3 years old, his 32-year-old father, a stockyards meat packer, died of pneumonia. When Kerr was 32, his 3-year-old son died of meningitis.
Johnny Kerr is a guy who just went to work, basically never missing a day in the NBA. He experienced the highs and lows of life with dignity and grace, knowing success and heartbreak like the rest of us. He wasn't a rich man, except for all the right reasons. He was in the insurance business because he never made more than $30,000 as a basketball All-Star or coach. As a pro, he drove guys to practice for the $1.50 per day extra mileage money. He is a family guy and a guy who never left the city and the neighborhoods. He's a humanitarian and friend, a Chicago guy.
They should build a statue to a guy like that.
And the Bulls are.
Good for them.
The Bulls Tuesday will have a night to honor Kerr during the game against the Detroit Pistons and will unveil plans for a statue to be placed in the United Center concourse, Big Red forever at the Bulls games.
Johnny Kerr's story makes you smile, though not because of the clever one liners and quips. More than a Chicago legend, he's a Chicago institution, representing and reflecting the character of the city with broad shoulders and a bigger heart.
As John liked to say in his usual opening line at a banquet: "I was born in Chicago at a very young age."
It was a simpler time, as we know, a time of neighborhoods and kids out late without a concern from the parents, who were hard working, often taking on two jobs and some softball and beer on the weekend. Richard Daley was The Boss, not Bruce Springsteen, and a baby's first word was "Democrat," then "Mom."
John's dad was from Scotland. After he died when John was three, his mom worked for the War Department and later Continental Can. They also made room in their house for her four siblings and a cousin. John's dad was a top soccer player, and that was John's first sport, though his personal favorite was 16-inch. Chicagoans know what that means. At Tilden, he didn't play basketball until his senior year when coach Bill Postl persuaded him to join the team even though John, now 6-9 after entering high school at six foot, rarely played. But Tilden won that public league title in John's one season, and the scholarship offers poured in.
Two of his Tilden teammates were at Bradley, so he decided to go there despite offers from numerous colleges. He'd never been on an airplane and didn't want to start. So he visited IU and Notre Dame, but a guy he knew from Marshall, Irv Bemoras, was at Illinois and liked it and persuaded John to visit. He loved the place and committed. Freshmen weren't eligible then, and John was a sixth man as a sophomore but led the team in scoring and Illinois won the Big Ten.
Though the highlight then, and always, was Betsy—then Betsy Nemecek—his first and really only true love. I'd known them for years and I can't say I knew a more compatible, dedicated and supportive couple. As John wrote eloquently in his dedication when he wrote a book about the Bulls: "To my No. 1 draft choice, Betsy, who has a no cut contract and the six players in the deal who were to be named later."
Ever read a better dedication?
They were the best matched couple I've ever heard of or encountered.
So John gave her a ring and showed her the $15 per month bill for payments he'd have to make to Leonard's Luggage and Jewelry store.
And sentimentalist that John was, they drove around on lazy summer nights listening to Sox games on the radio and seeking out 16-inch games, loser buys the keg.
Yes, a storybook romance.
Johnny and Betsy.
Johnny and the kids.
Johnny and Chicago.
Johnny and the NBA.
Johnny and the Bulls.
Though it started for Kerr in Syracuse, N.Y., and owner Danny Biasone, who invented the 24-second shot clock. Biasone saw Kerr at a college All-Star game and decided then to make him their draft pick, sixth in the first round. Averaging 25 a game as senior at Illinois wasn't bad, either. John got $5,000 and a $500 signing bonus. But there was the $5 a day meal money, too. The seven-hour train trip for games in New York City and when they went west to Ft. Wayne by train, they'd get off in nearby Waterloo, Ind., for breakfast at 5 a.m. and pay kids in their hot rods to drive them into the city. Talk about your back to backs.
John recalls the time he had a foot problem and had heard about players using this ultrasound machine. He asked for an ultrasound and was told to put a radio on his shoe. True? Who knows? Good story, though.
Johnny was always the guy keeping things loose. He'd sprinkle salt on teammates' suits and note their dandruff. When someone needed a break he'd pretend to have lost a contact lens and crawl around on the floor looking for it, a common sight in the NBA in the 60s when the eyewear was popular with players and expensive.
Though the big man shed his share of tears and more.
I talked with Johnny at length about this when the All-Star game was in Chicago in 1988 and he was coaching the then legends game. The NBA eventually traded it for the rookie/sophomore game when so many of the legends began suffering severe knee injuries in the game.
It was after the 1959-60 season and they were visiting Betsy's parents for Mother's Day. Jay was upstairs watching commercials, which he loved more than the shows. Dad always recalled how Jay ran the bases backward when they played baseball and how much he loved it when John told him he was then losing because he gave up a run by going backward. Jay had a cold and then vomited. The doctor prescribed some stomach medicine. He went into convulsions and within a few hours had died.
"It really hit us hard. I didn't know what I wanted to do," Johnny told me then. "Should I quit basketball? You always pick up the paper and read 'Boy, 3, falls out of window' and you say, 'That's terrible,' and you wet your thumb and turn the page and say that'll never happen to you. And then one day you're one of those people, and I wish I could say you grow up in a hurry, but you don't. It's something I can talk about now. But I couldn't for a long time.
"Alex Hannum was our coach at the time, and we had some strong conversations. He said: 'What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to be a man and a father or quit, be a coward?' I told him he couldn't talk to me in my house like that. To step outside.
"But the key was to go on for the other kids, and I think somewhere along the line it helped Betsy and me solidify the bond we had. It made our love for each other stronger.
"Sure, I've gone through a lot of things in my life, and I guess there's a little of the Pagliacci there," he said, referring to the Italian opera about a clown who must hide his feelings. "People sometimes expect for you to have a smile on your face. 'Hey, Red, tell us a story.' Don't get me wrong. I'm a gregarious person, and I love people.
"But sometimes you have problems. I'll tell someone I really hurt my arm today, and he'll tell me a story about some friend who broke his collarbone. And I'll tell someone about getting my car door hit in the parking lot, and he'll tell me about a friend of his who was in a head-on collision. Sometimes you just want to say: 'Pay attention to me. Listen to my problems.' "
As a rookie, Kerr helped lead the Nats to their first NBA championship. All that was missing was the man in the middle since when Kerr got there 6-6 Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in the NBA, was playing center. It was a seven gamer, though perhaps not your classic against Ft. Wayne since the then Pistons home court was being used for a bowling tournament and their "home" games had to be played in Indianapolis, which they won, anyway.
Syracuse won Game 7 by a point and the players received plaques from the Syracuse Optimist Club reading, "Congratulations, World Champions."
That dynasty would end soon with Bill Russell and then Wilt Chamberlain coming into the NBA. Still, Johnny was an All-Star playing against Russell, Chamberlain and George Mikan in his career. Wow!
Though overshadowed by those all timers, Johnny was no slouch, despite saying his story was Fifteen Years in the Pivot Without the Ball.
John was a classic high post big man with a clever hook shot and uncanny passing ability. He finished his career having averaged a double/double, with more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds and one season averaged 17.8 points and 14 rebounds. And with nine teams then, that was with almost a third of his games against Russell or Chamberlain.
The Nationals moved to Philadelphia to become the 76ers and John played 11 seasons with the franchise and was traded to Baltimore his final season in 1965-66, when coach Paul Seymour, his teammate on the champion Nationals, sat him out and merely explained, "The streak had to end sometime." Red was in the playoffs every season of his career.
Not seeing John's name in the box score the next morning, Betsy called, worried.
"That s.o.b!" Betsy exclaimed.
She always stood by her man.
John's knees were going, so he was done that season, anyway.
As John related, he was driving the lane and was called for three seconds while still going to the basket.
The Bullets wanted him to coach, but he didn't want to coach his former teammates. Kerr had long been something of the go to guy for the media in the locker room, the guy with the quick comment and the astute analysis. The New York writers began to write as his career wound down that Kerr was destined to be a coach.
What the heck, Johnny decided.
The expansion Bulls wanted Ray Meyer, but he was persuaded to stay at DePaul. A bunch of Red's buddies from the old neighborhood led by Stinky Fryer and his brother got 1,600 signatures on a petition for Red to be the first Bulls coach. He got the job, anyway.
It was NBA expansion, circa 1966, and it was wild, and wildly unpopular. Chicago was considered a pro basketball graveyard then with the Zephyrs having left for Baltimore.
They had open tryouts and eventually Kerr had to ask all the attendees to count off by two and told the even numbers to leave, a story I heard from veteran Bulls beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, the late Bob Logan. The team drafted 6-7 Bill Buntin from Michigan to play center. Owner/general manager Dick Klein said Kerr could teach him the position. "But I can't teach him to grow," John explained.
Money was short and they were selling draft picks and players to keep operating. Kerr and legendary impresario Ben Bentley sold the team on radio and TV and in the neighborhoods. They scheduled a parade and only one flatbed truck showed up carrying Kerr and Bentley, the latter the original Benny the Bull. They played that first season at the old Stockyards Amphitheater and averaged close to 5,000. The following season it was at the Chicago Stadium, where they averaged just under 4,000, "just moderately padded," as Logan would say.
St. Louis Hawks coach Richie Guerin before playing the Bulls in the opener said they wouldn't win 10 games.
Opening night: Guy Rodgers and Jerry Sloan at guard. Bob Boozer and Jim Washington at forward and Mueller at center.
The original Baby Bulls.
The Bulls beat the Hawks and made the playoffs; no other expansion team before or since has. Kerr was named coach of the year over Alex Hannum, who led the 76ers to the championship and a 68-13 season. Third was Bill Sharman.
And Kerr turned out to be something of an innovator.
He incorporated perhaps the first regular alley-oop play with athletic reserve Don Kojis, who called it the Kangaroo Kram, taking a backdoor from Rodgers.
Red also invented the hack-a-(fill in bad free throw shooting center's name).
It was Wilt that first season, shooting about 45 percent from the line.
So John came up with the idea of purposely fouling him, which never had been tried.
Down six to Philadelphia with about four minutes left, he called for it and Wilt was fouled away from the ball three times and missed his free throws. Wilt, by far the strongest person in the league and perhaps most sensitive, started running away from the ball, screaming at Bulls players, "I'll break your nose if you foul me."
Hannum finally took out Wilt and the 76ers hung on to win, but the league was furious and passed a rule for the next season—since overturned—making the tactic a technical foul.
Klein began to blow up the team the following season dealing Rodgers and Kojis and the Bulls fell to 29-53. They made the playoffs, but lost 4-1 and John was fired.
But old buddy Colangelo had gone to the desert and called on John to be his first coach.
John lasted a season and a half, the victim of the lost coin flip and the team's upgrade to sign previously banned Connie Hawkins, described best by Gilmartin who wrote the languid Hawkins was like a work of art: Some nights poetry in motion, other nights still life.
Colangelo took over coaching and John finished the season broadcasting the Suns games with still Jazz broadcaster, Hot Rod Hundley.
And everyone knew this, too, was a calling, like when Red said Toby Kimball was coming into the game and was ambidextrous: Can't shoot with either hand.
John had broadcasting offers to stay with the Suns, but decided to join his old assistant coach in Chicago, Al Bianchi, who was now coaching the Virginia Squires of the ABA.
The NBA still wasn't taking underclassmen, so John went as general manager and they were looking for players. There wasn't scouting in those days. Just sort of asking around, and someone mentioned a kid from UMass named Julius Erving. Kerr said he got a grainy black and white tape, and what the heck, his stats were good so they signed him, and then met him for the first time when he showed up to play. And then with those big hands he started doing some incredible stuff and one of the players, Willie Sojourner, said, "There's the doctor digging into his bag again." Yes, Dr. J.
And then to join him the next season they signed George Gervin. He was a skinny kid who'd been thrown out of Eastern Michigan after a fight. Kerr had heard about the freshman from the Purdue athletic director, George King, an old teammate, when John was coaching the Bulls. John saw him at an All-Star game, told Bianchi, and they put together the perhaps the greatest highlight show team in history, Dr. J and the Iceman.
After one season together going 42-42, Erving was sold to the Nets, and John left for Chicago, deciding never to leave home again.
Pat Williams, later to go onto fame in Philadelphia and Orlando, had left as business manager and John got the job. John was dropped a few years later as the great Bulls run of the early 1970's came to an end in 1975 and he got a chance to do some halftime work with Jim Durham, who was doing Bulls games on WIND radio. Durham, who still broadcasts for ESPN after an 18-year run with the Bulls, took a liking to Kerr and began to feature him in broadcasts, and there John stayed through the great Bulls championship years and beyond, entertaining the city, the nation on WGN and everyone who sat down after the games to have a beer and a reminiscence.
When you'd get John to be serious, he'd say what a lucky guy he's been.
I'd say just how lucky we all have been to know him.