A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement
In honor of Johnny “Red” Kerr, a basketball icon.
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
–Yusef Komunyakaa, “Slam, Dunk, & Hook”
We extol the ballet of basketball, the swoop and swoosh and swirl of constant motion comprising the ultimate in sporting beauty.
But what of the throb and plod, the game of elbows and hangovers and Advil cocktails? That is basketball, too.
There is virtue in simply being called into the starting lineup in front of a modest crowd of regulars, or for assembly-line production in the paint. There was a time when bruises and cuts and broken bones, even, were taped. The inactive list? Not unless you were dead. There was, indeed, old school before floppy ’fros and the Celtics dynasty.
No jazz poet has ever celebrated Johnny Kerr. Flat tops and free verse don’t blend. Komunyakaa himself, who was playing his first games of streetball at the dawn of Kerr’s pro career, at best might tab the redhead as one of his asphalt sea monsters—but not an airborne one.
We look at a photograph of Red Kerr, the player, and it doesn’t fit our idea of beauty. Danny Biasone is the guy known for inventing the 24-second clock, not for falling in love with Kerr’s hook shot at a college All-Star Game and making him a first round draft choice. Biasone chose Kerr not for his style or grace, but because he needed a center, and Kerr could nail a hook.
Kerr and Wayne Embry, another golden era center never renowned for his fancy footwork, both attest to the fact that they were the third- and fourth-best centers in the NBA. Red and The Wall, of course, trailed Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the center pantheon of the Sixties—and in Kerr’s words, “there was a pretty steep drop” between one/two and three/four.
So why celebrate Johnny Kerr, a period or comma in a sentence filled with dashes and exclamation points? Surely honoring him will push us onto the slippery slope toward “Vintage NBA: Dave Corzine” and Joe Kleine Night.
The feisty Scotsman is far too modest to trot out his own resume, and there aren’t many 6-9 dudes who are going to beg to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame—even at age 76. But someone has to step up and spread the word.
Red won a title in his first year of playing as a prep, a collegian, and a pro. At Tilden Tech in Chicago, he won a city title in 1950, the first year he played basketball. At the University of Illinois, the Illini were Big Ten champs in 1951-52 and lost to St. John’s in the Final Four.
With the Syracuse Nationals in 1954-55, the rook played in every game, averaging 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in just 21.2 minutes, contributing generously to the only title the Nats would ever celebrate. Kerr would go on to average a double-double in eight consecutive seasons and finish his career averaging 13.8 points and 11.2 rebounds.
The one remarkable aspect of Kerr’s otherwise workmanlike career was his ownership of the most blue-collar of records, most consecutive games played. For 11 seasons, Kerr played in every game. In his final season, at age 33—ancient by early NBA standards—Kerr finally failed to hit the hardwood, snapping his ironman streak at 844 games. A streak of 844 games made all the more remarkable by the fact that Red was playing at a time when hangovers haunted tipoffs and sprained ankles were iced in snow.
Many may recall that Kerr owned the NBA’s consecutive-games streak for 17 years, but few know the true story behind the snapping. Indeed, more remarkable than the length of Kerr’s streak was the way it ended—for no reason at all. During Kerr’s last season, with the Baltimore Bullets, he was being coached by his former teammate on the champion Nats, Paul Seymour. Seymour decided the consecutive-games streak was a distraction to the team (3-7 at the time and destined to be swept out of the first round of the Playoffs). So there was no reason Kerr couldn’t have started that Nov. 5, 1965 game vs. the Boston Celtics. The streak didn’t have to end, and rightfully could have stretched to 914 games. Kerr could have ended his career perfectly, playing in every game his teams suited up for, for a dozen straight seasons.
Kerr doesn’t have regrets about the streak, saying only that he “hated to have it broken that way.” In fact it was his wife, Betsy, who’d nursed Kerr through any number of breaks, bruises, and dings, who was furious. “Betsy wanted to punch Seymour in the nose,” says Kerr of his late wife. He misses her dearly, and fears he never did thank her enough for the sacrifices she made to enable his basketball career.
Because it seemed inconceivable that a basketball cornerstone like Chicago not have an NBA team, the Bulls were given to Chicago in 1966 even after the failure of the Stags in the 1950s and the Packers/Zephyrs earlier in the 1960s. And the first thing the Bulls did was pluck Kerr in the expansion draft and appoint him the franchise’s first head coach.
He employed humor and guile to guide a modestly talented roster to 33 wins and playoff berth—still the only expansion team in modern sports history to qualify for the postseason in its first year. While Kerr had dreams of setting up shop permanently in his hometown, owner Dick Klein feuded with Kerr and cut him loose after his second season (in which the Bulls started 1-15, finished with only 29 wins, and made the Playoffs again—yes, the expansion-era NBA was a bit out of kilter).
Kerr caught on with another expansion franchise, the Phoenix Suns, and enjoyed less success there after relying on a fan vote to call the coin flip with the Milwaukee Bucks for Lew Alcindor. Among many Kerr aphorisms, Kerr would say of Phoenix’s ill-fated call, “if you listen to the fans, you wind up sitting with them.”
In the early 1970s, Kerr joined the ABA’s Virginia Squires as general manager. All he did helming that club was sign future Hall-of-Famers (Top 50 Players, in fact) in consecutive years.
First came Julius Erving, who set the pro basketball world on its ear as a Squires rookie in 1971-72. The next season, Kerr signed George Gervin to a contract, giving Virginia the most promising young club in all of basketball.
Among all the apocryphal stories Kerr tells and is the subject of, inking Erving—who first had shown up at the New York Nets’ complex and slipped right through Lou Carneseca’s fingers—was a masterstroke. Of course, the humble Kerr would argue it was more a no-brainer than a masterstroke, in turn laughing at the recollection of frustrated Virginia owner Earl Foreman showing up at the Squires tryout camp and being unable to see Erving because Kerr had sent the Doctor home, fearing his instant superstar would get hurt scrimmaging.
The acquisition of Gervin is an even more incredible story. The man who would become the Iceman had left Eastern Michigan and was out of competitive basketball entirely when Kerr, who’d made note of Gervin years earlier, brought him to Virginia to try out for the team. Kerr ended up signing Ice without having ever seen him play competitively, and Kerr has a telling story about Gervin’s first visit to Virginia: The two sat together in the stands watching the game, and afterward Gervin asked why the Squires didn’t shoot more three-pointers. After Kerr told Gervin that the trey was a low-percentage shot, the Iceman walked on the court, lights dimmed, and in his sneakers and jeans started launching threes. He hit on 18-of-20. Kerr’s response? “George, let’s make sure the ink is dry on your contract.”
Kerr would eventually make it back to Chicago as a broadcaster, a position that most of us are used to seeing him in: The unapologetic Bulls fan, the recipient of MJ’s pregame powder showers at the scoring table, a man who over four decades of Bulls broadcasts grew into the dean of Chicago basketball and the prince of the Bulls organization. Add his storied career as a player to having seen nearly all but a handful of Chicago’s 43 seasons, including every one of Jordan’s majestic endeavors, and you’ve got an icon. Not a Chicago icon or even an NBA icon, but a true basketball icon.
It’s too late for John Isaacs, the Renaissance legend who left us Monday without the NBA uttering as much as a peep on behalf of the pioneer. (A search on NBA.com still yields nothing; even at MSG the night of Isaacs’ death, there was no acknowledgement.) When Boy Wonder enters the Hall, he won’t be alive to enjoy the honor.
Let’s not have the same tragic mistake happen to another one of our true heroes. You may have heard that Johnny is in some ill health right now, so don’t hesitate to say a little prayer for Red. And then, raise a glass to, and your awareness of, that princely redhead, Johnny Kerr.