Johnny “Red” Kerr was a three-time All-Star during a 12-year playing career that included one of the longest consecutive-game streaks in NBA history. As a coach he guided the first Chicago Bulls team, took the club to the playoffs and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1967. Later he was the first coach of the Phoenix Suns and then a broadcaster for the Suns and the Bulls. But despite this lifetime of achievement in basketball, Kerr is probably remembered less for his wins and losses than for his wit and one-liners.
On superstition: “When you coached expansion teams how superstitious can you get?” he asked the Chicago Sun-Times. “I used to tell people, ‘I’m wearing my lucky suit, because I only lost six in this one.’” On the NBA allowing the Suns’ Connie Hawkins to join the league after banning him for his alleged involvement in gambling: “I thought it was ironic we won him in a coin flip,” he said in the Phoenix Gazette.
On what he missed most about Michael Jordan during his brief retirement: “The replays, because I needed something to talk about,” he told the Sun-Times. On former Suns Coach John MacLeod’s early days as a boxer: “I told him he should have sold advertising on the bottom of his shoes.”
Kerr was not only quick with a quip but quick with success in basketball. He won titles in his first year of playing at every level: high school, college, and professional. At Tilden Tech in Chicago, he grew eight inches in his senior year, switched from soccer to basketball, and led his team to the city championship in 1950. At the University of Illinois, he helped the Fighting Illini win the Big Ten Conference championship in 1952 (the team lost to St. John’s in the Final Four).
The Syracuse Nationals selected Kerr in the first round of the 1954 NBA Draft. In his rookie season, 1954-55, he joined Dolph Schayes, Paul Seymour, Earl Lloyd, and Ephraim “Red” Rocha on a team that won the Eastern Division. The Nats then rode over the Boston Celtics and the Fort Wayne Pistons to capture the team’s only championship while in Syracuse (the Nationals became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963).
Kerr spent 11 of his 12 seasons with the franchise — nine in Syracuse, two in Philadelphia — before playing his last year with the Baltimore Bullets. Although overshadowed by the more prolific Schayes, the 6-foot-9 Kerr was the steadiest of forces. He averaged double figures in scoring for 10 straight seasons, beginning with his rookie campaign. He also pulled down more than 12.0 rebounds per game in eight straight seasons from 1956 through 1964, with a high of 14.7 boards per game in 1961-62.
Most remarkable, however, is the fact that Kerr played in 844 consecutive games from 1954 to 1965, setting an NBA record that would stand until Randy Smith broke it in 1983. Kerr prolonged the streak with his own brand of therapy: he packed his sprained ankles in freshly shoveled snow from his driveway. Playing the same position as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Kerr was an All-Star in 1956, 1959, and 1963. He retired in 1966 with 12,480 points and 10,092 rebounds.
The Bulls entered the NBA for the 1966-67 season after Chicago had experienced decades of disappointment with professional basketball teams. “They’d had the Stags, the Packers, the Zephyrs,” Kerr told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We were trying to sell something in a city that was a failure for it.” The Stags had lasted four years in the 1940s before folding; the Packers, who became the Zephyrs, had spent two seasons in Chicago, then became the Baltimore (later Washington) Bullets.
Kerr was brought in as the Bulls’ first head coach, and he tabbed close friend Al Bianchi as an assistant. Jerry Colangelo was in the front office. Colangelo and Kerr played pickup games in the preseason against the Bulls’ top draft choices and weren’t heartened by the results. “Johnny and I didn’t lose a game all summer,” Colangelo later told the Sun-Times. “I knew we were in trouble.”
Kerr struggled through the bumpy days of an expansion team in his typical style. In the midst of a losing streak, Kerr tried to pump up the team in a pregame talk in Boston. He told Bob Boozer to pretend he was the best scorer in basketball, Jerry Sloan to pretend he could stop anyone in the game, Guy Rodgers to pretend he was the top point guard in the league, and Erwin Mueller to pretend he was a rebounding machine. “We played the Celtics at the Garden — green banners hanging everywhere — and lost by 17,” Kerr recalled for the Phoenix Gazette. “I was pacing around the locker room afterward, trying to figure what to say when Mueller walked up, put his arm around me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, coach. Just pretend we won.’”
But he didn’t always have to pretend. Owner Dick Klein enlisted a psychologist to inflate the players’ confidence, and the Bulls fought to a 33-48 regular-season record and a berth in the playoffs. Kerr was named NBA Coach of the Year. His work that season helped lay the foundation for a franchise that would eventually prosper.
The next season the Bulls went 29-53. Kerr then followed Colangelo to Phoenix to start another franchise that would also thrive — but not immediately. The Suns stumbled to a 16-66 record in 1968-69, and in the offseason they lost a coin flip to the Milwaukee Bucks for the right to draft Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). After Phoenix started 15-23 the next season, Colangelo fired Kerr and took the coaching reins himself. Kerr then moved into broadcasting, where he began a lengthy career as a wisecracking commentator for both the Suns and the Bulls.
Early in Kerr’s broadcasting days, the Suns were down by one point with five seconds left, and they had the ball. According to the Phoenix Gazette, announcer “Hot Rod” Hundley asked Kerr what he would do in the situation. Kerr’s response: “Hell, Rod, if I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting here with you.”
Over the years providing color commentary on Bulls’ broadcasts, Kerr became as much a Chicago staple as the teams he covered, and was with the team for the entirety of Michael Jordan’s career.
Kerr would remain in the booth for the Bulls through the 2007-08 season. In 2009, the Bulls unveiled a statue of Kerr during a halftime ceremony of a game that would stand outside the United Center in Chicago. During the ceremony, he also received the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award.
On February 26, 2009, Kerr died of prostate cancer, just hours after the death of fellow Bulls legend Norm Van Lier.