NBA fans outside of Chicago may or may not have taken notice in February of the death of Chicago Bulls legend Johnny “Red” Kerr. Kerr was a longtime broadcaster for the Bulls and the team’s first coach. Casual fans of the game might recognize him best as the guy in whose face Michael Jordan clapped chalk at the start of every game, but Kerr spent the majority of his life - entire life, not just professional life - working in one capacity or another for the storied NBA franchise, including 33 years as color commentator on the team’s telecasts.
But before Kerr was a coach and commentator, he was an NBA veteran center. In fact, at one point he held the record for most consecutive games played in the NBA; the man was pro basketball’s Cal Ripken, Jr. Baseball fans in the 1990s remember Ripken’s dogged pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record and the utter joy amongst most baseball fans and in the media when he broke one of the game’s most sacred and seemingly-impossible records. Now, imagine that Ripken had been forcibly denied that record - not by injuries, but by a spiteful coach. Because that’s what happened to Johnny “Red” Kerr.
CNN columnist Bob Greene has long been accused of maudlin sentimentality in his columns, and today’s column regarding Kerr’s injustice is no different. That doesn’t excuse the raw deal a legend like Kerr got:
One night, the night that would have been his 845th straight game, he came to the arena for a contest against the Boston Celtics. His new coach in Baltimore — Paul Seymour — didn’t start him, which was unusual. Red figured that Seymour just wanted to change the rotation a little. He figured that he would get into the game after the first time out.
“But I sat on the bench,” Red told me, “and the first quarter went by, and the second, and the third.”
This was a man who had played in more consecutive basketball games than anyone in history. The captain of the team. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t sick.”The fourth quarter went by,” Red told me. “We were losing — that’s the worst part, the team could have used my help. I looked at the clock, and I just got this terrible, sinking feeling in my stomach.”
At the end, he said, he couldn’t even look — he had his head down. The game concluded; the streak that had meant more to him than anything else in his professional life was over.
Imagine the outrage if Cal Ripken had been forced to ride the pine one game. Sure, back in Kerr’s days, coaches were the end-all be-all of team authority; what they say, went - heck, they usually made more money than their players. When Kerr’s record was broken in 1982 by Randy Smith (whose record was subsequently broken by the virginal A.C. Green), Kerr died a little inside. That’s a surprise for anyone who ever encountered Kerr, and is perhaps why this story resonates with me.
A little background: despite growing up outside Chicago in the 1980s, I was never a huge sports fan until the Chicago Bulls first became dominant in the early 1990s. They were the original reason I became interested in sports. On a family vacation in early 1995, I had the fortune of meeting Johnny Kerr in the lobby of the Anaheim Hilton while the Bulls were in town for a game with the Los Angeles Clippers at Arrowhead Pond. I was nobody; I was a short, insecure high school freshman. Kerr put me at ease, recalling times he’d been to my hometown and asking me about my family and my interest in sports apart from the Bulls. He’s the reason I worked in professional sports after college, and indirectly one of the reasons I’m writing this post right now.
So to hear that something so dear to Kerr was brutally ripped from him by an egomaniacal coach was something I was surprised to hear. Many players would take a slight like that and refuse to play, or refuse to show up to practice. Not Kerr. Nobody even knew that this had happened until late in his life. Yes, Greene is as sappy and saccharine as columnists come - he’s been criticized on that aspect for years - but I can’t help but feel for Kerr. As Greene says in his column, we’ve all had crappy bosses, and maybe that’s just one more way that Kerr can connect with the common fan as he did so many times in his long career.