Broadcaster of the Week: Johnny Kerr, Chicago Bulls
Posted Feb 22 2007 5:20PM
I've been involved in this game a long time, though most fans today know me as the Chicago Bulls announcer. But prior to broadcasting, I was a player in the NBA a center that averaged a double-double for 12 seasons with Syracuse, Philadelphia and Baltimore and a coach.
My last year as a player was 1965-66. I was playing for the Baltimore Bullets at the time and Chicago got an expansion team. Baltimore wanted me to stay and become their coach. Their coach at the time, Paul Seymour, wanted me to replace him. But with Chicago getting a franchise, I thought, wow, this would be great chance to go home to a place where I was raised. Remember, basketball had failed here in Chicago several times. It had the Gears, the Stags, the Majors, the Zephyrs, and the Packers. I thought, well, maybe just by luck I could help a team stick around and stay in Chicago. I wanted to be able to go to an NBA game in Chicago when I was done playing. So I told Baltimore that since I was going to retire anyway, to put me in the expansion pool. They decided to do that. I met with Dick Klein who was the general manager with Chicago at the time and he offered me the job. He said, "We're going to select you first out of the pool and name you coach." To me, that sounded like a good deal. So that's really how I started out here in Chicago.
Nobody has ever done with an expansion team what we did that first year in 1966-67, which was to make the playoffs. People asked Richie Guerin, who was coaching St. Louis at the time, what kind of record he thought we would have and he said we wouldn't win 10 or 12 games. Well, we posted that up in the locker room and that became our charge for the year. We ended up winning 33 games. No other expansion team has won that many or made the playoffs in its first year. That was quite an honor. As a matter of fact, the Philadelphia 76ers posted the best regular-season record with a 68-13 mark and eventually won the championship. What a job Alex Hannum did with that team. But when the voting came out for Coach of the Year, I won the award, which was ironic since Alex had been one of my old coaches when I was a player with the Nationals. What was really funny, that first season we even beat that Sixers team in the regular season.
I didn't stay with the Bulls as a coach for long, though. Jerry Colangelo, now the head of the Phoenix Suns, worked in the Chicago Bulls office. He was a jack of all trades. He sold tickets; he arranged the schedule; he did a bunch of things. He left and got the general manager job out with the Phoenix Suns. In my second year, I had an argument with our owner Dick Klein. He said that if I wanted to go somewhere else, then I was welcome to go and do what I wanted. I mentioned it to Colangelo, and he suggested that I come out there since we had worked those first two years in Chicago together. It's kind of easy to work with someone you know I guess. So I went out to Phoenix and I coached there for a few years.
I left the team my second year and did some broadcasting. In fact, Hot Rod Hundley and I were the radio team. That was really something, Hot Rod and I. I'll never forget one of the first games we did, I had just quit coaching the Bulls and now I am doing the radio with him or television with him. Phoenix is playing the Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee has a one point lead. There's seven seconds left to go. There's a timeout and Hot Rod says, "All right Red. There's seven seconds to go, you're down by one, what do you do?" I said, "Rod, hell, if I knew I'd still be coaching."
After that Al Bianchi, my long time roommate and teammate with the Nationals and 76ers, and also my assistant coach in Chicago the year we had that great success, called me. He was working with the American Basketball Association with the Virginia Squires. So he called me and said they needed somebody. They had a young franchise that was playing throughout Virginia. He was going to be the general manager and he needed somebody in the front office to do some things. I wasn't doing anything, so I went down there and took that job with him. I guess our biggest success was the signing of two players that eventually made it to the Hall of Fame. One was Julius Erving. The other we found playing in a sandlot up in Michigan. His name? The Iceman, George Gervin.
But our franchise was floundering as were a lot of teams in the ABA at the time. I read a thing in the paper that Ben Bentley of the Chicago Bulls was retiring. Now Ben Bentley had worked with us was a PR director. I decided that I was going to call up Dick Motta who had replaced me as coach of the Bulls and recommend one of my PR guys for the job. So I called him up and did just that. In doing so, he told me that Pat Williams, their general manager, had left too. Dick was playing the role of general manager, but didn't have time to do things in the front office. He told me that he would make the trades and do all the basketball-related stuff, but that he needed somebody to run the front office.
I said to Dick, "Funny that you mention it because that's what I'm doing here with the Virginia Squires and I'm thinking of getting out."
He says, "You are? Why don't you come up here. Let me call you back."
So he called back in about 10-15 minutes and said that he had just talked to Eric Worst and he wanted me up in Chicago at 10 o'clock the next morning to meet with him in his office. So I flew into Chicago, met with him and he offered me the job as business manager of the Chicago Bulls. I came back and did a lot of the stuff in the office and worked with Dick Motta. I made it clear to Dick that I didn't want to coach anymore and that I hoped that he didn't think that I was sitting in the office sitting over his shoulder. Coaching was fun and four great years of my life, but I was done with that. He assured me that he wasn't worried about that and that I should just do what I had to do in the front office. So that is what I did, which is how I came back to the Chicago Bulls.
How I got into broadcasting is another story. Jim Durham, one of the great, great, great announcers still doing the games for the NBA was doing a broadcast and I was sitting there at the table watching the game. He asked me a couple questions, passed the mike to me, and I commented. That went on for a couple of games before he said to the engineer, "Hey, hook Red up with a mike." So he had a microphone for me and we just talked back and forth. Then the station we were with asked me if I wanted to do a halftime show, Kerr's Corner, which I thought would be fun. So I did that. Isn't it amazing that an announcer such as Jim Durham, as good as he is, would say, hey get the kid a mike? You would think he wouldn't want to help anybody along, but JD was not that kind of guy.
For years we did the Bulls simulcast together. Matter of fact, the first Bulls championship they won against the Lakers, Jim and I were doing a simulcast. Now you know you can only do so many rounds of television locally and then national television takes over. We were able to continue doing the radio of it. One time in my life, we did the entire championship series even though it was on radio. We were going to have a locker room celebration. They wanted me in the locker room if we won. Well the game was so close, I didn't know whether to leave JD or what. So with about a minute and a half left, I'm standing in the aisle with a microphone. He's talking and I'm talking. Then Paxson started to hit a couple shots and it looked like we were going to win. So I ran down to the locker room, just beat the team in there and everybody crazy, absolute bedlam. Champagne sprayed all over the place. It was Red Kerr live in the Bulls locker room.
Michael and I had a great relationship and I even became part of his pregame routine. We were doing a game in Gary, Indiana, a preseason game. They didn't have any air conditioning in the building. They had these powerful fans that were blowing. It was a warm, early fall night. I had on a black blazer and a cup of black coffee sitting in front of me. Michael put resin on his hands which they used to keep the ball from slipping, and he sort of clapped his hands in front of me. The fans picked up the dust and just blew it all over me. I looked like I had the worst case of dandruff you'd ever seen. My black coffee was loaded. It looked like I had cream in my coffee. I said, whoa, what is this? He looked and he laughed. He thought that was so funny.
Well the next night he comes over and does the same thing. And the next night. Athletes are funny how they incorporate superstitions into their pregame, and he just sort of kept that up his whole career. He would look for me. There were times when I would pop an umbrella out or I would have on a mask of him. I would do different things. Some guy sent me a battery operated hat with a propeller on it and he said that when Michael slaps that dust in your face, press the button, and the fan will blow it right back in his face. And I thought to myself, yea, I can see it now. The resin gets in Michael's eyes and the next thing you know, I would be saying, "This is Red Kerr from Keokuk, Iowa " The whole things started early in his career and he just incorporated that. It got to be such a highlight that the television cameras would follow him doing that. The game couldn't really start until he dusted the old man off.
Michael was one of the most giving guys. The demand on his time off the court was really something. The Make-A-Wish Foundation always had something going on. There wasn't a game where Michael wasn't led prior to the pregame activities to some room where there was usually a young person sitting in a wheel chair, bald head, had gone through chemo, and their wish was to meet Michael Jordan. And there he was with the ball and talking to this young kid. He did that so much, you can't believe it.
My wife passed away in 2005 and she was a big fan of Michael. He always gave her a big kiss whenever he saw her. At the hospital she was in intensive care. When flowers came you couldn't bring them up to intensive care. One time, the orderly brought some up and suggested that I would probably like to have them because Michael Jordan sent them up for Betsy. He is just the kind of guy that thinks about everything even when he has so much demand on his mind. I just think he is great.
The tremendous drive he has to be perfect. I've seen him get off planes with a three piece suit on, looking immaculate. If you see him in casual wear he is always very nice and very well coordinated. If I was a conglomerate of a commercial company, that's the kind of guy I would like representing me. He just always looked like somebody you thought was successful and would want to be like.
Throughout my career, my timing has always been wrong. In 1987 I wrote a book in which I talked about the Bulls being able to win and I said at the time that they were in a position to win at least one, two, three, maybe four or five world championships. And I said this knowing a guy is going to come after me with a butterfly net and put me in the loony house. But in the opening of that book, I said, I've got the greatest job in the world. I get to watch Michael Jordan play 82 times a year and they pay me to talk about him. When he retired they said, "Red what do you miss most of all about Michael?" I said, "The replays."
Now 33 years into my broadcasting career, I still have the greatest job in the world. The replays are a little bit different, but the memories will remain forever.
Johnny Kerr's Top Five Bulls Memories
1) M.J.'s The Shot vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, Game 5, 1989 First Round
2)M.J.'s 63 Point Game vs. Boston Celtics, Game 2, First Round, 1986
3) M.J's Game Winner vs. Jazz, Game 6, 1998 NBA Finals
4) John Paxson's Game Winner vs. Phoenix Suns, Game 6, 1993 NBA Finals; Steve Kerr's Game Winner vs. Utah Jazz, Game 6, 1997 NBA Finals
5) Toni Kukoc's Game Winner vs. New York Knicks, Game 3, 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Johnny "Red" Kerr enters his 33rd season as a Bulls broadcaster ... he has been part of both Bulls television and radio broadcast teams ... Johnny's name is synonymous with professional basketball in Chicago ... "Big Red" was the first coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1966 and earned NBA Coach of the Year honors for the 1966-67 season, when he directed the first year expansion Bulls to a playoff appearance ... a native Chicagoan, John starred as a prep at Tilden Tech, collegiately at the University of Illinois and in the pro ranks with Syracuse, Philadelphia and Baltimore ... his NBA record for most consecutive games played (844) was broken during the 1982-83 season by Randy Smith ... he is one of the select NBA players who totaled more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds during his career ... coached the Phoenix Suns and also held several administrative positions in both the NBA and ABA ... he is an insurance investment consultant and holds the title of President of Kerr Financial Services ... his book "Bull Session" was released in October 1989 ... Kerr resides in Riverside, Ill., and has five children, Ed, Matt, Jim, Bill and Essie, and 10 grandchildren.