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Friday, February 27, 2009

Johnny "Red" Kerr Loses His Battle with Cancer

"How fragile life is--we've got to enjoy every single second of it, man"--Doug Collins, just after TNT announced that Johnny "Red" Kerr passed away.

Chicago lost two of its most beloved basketball legend on the same day. Just hours after Norm Van Lier passed away, Johnny "Red" Kerr lost his battle with prostate cancer. Younger fans know Kerr as a color commentator on Chicago Bulls telecasts--and the recipient of Michael Jordan's pregame clap of talcum powder, the forerunner of LeBron James' pregame ritual--but it is important to remember that Kerr made the All-Star team three times in his 12 year NBA career, finished sixth in MVP voting in 1963 and as a rookie he was a member of the Syracuse Nationals' 1955 NBA championship team. He played in a then-record 844 straight games, a streak that could have lasted even longer if his coach had not simply kept him out of a game in which Kerr was healthy enough to play, a tough pill to swallow after Kerr had played hurt so many times.

Kerr won the 1967 Coach of the Year award after guiding the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs in their first year of existence. He coached one more season in Chicago and a season and a half in Phoenix before moving over to the ABA and working in the front office of the Virginia Squires, where he helped find players like Julius Erving and George Gervin; when I interviewed sportswriter Woody Paige, who had covered the ABA at that time, he marveled that one short-lived, cash strapped franchise had discovered two future Hall of Famers, one right after the other. As Paige put it, "The Boston Celtics did not come up with Larry Bird and then another Larry Bird. You don't come up with Magic Johnson and then another Magic Johnson."

After seeing Erving play for just a few minutes in rookie camp, Kerr told Virginia Coach Al Bianchi to get Erving off of the court lest some overzealous rookie injure Erving--it was already evident that the unheralded junior from the University of Massachusetts was going to do big things. Here is how Kerr described that moment to Terry Pluto (as recounted on page 226 of Pluto's oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls):

Julius was on the floor for a few minutes in that tryout camp and then a shot banged against the back of the rim and went straight up. It was one of those rebounds where it seems that all five players were jumping for it. Out of the middle of the pack came Julius...up...up..up. He cupped the rebound with one hand and then slammed it through the rim, all in one motion. The gym went silent. All the players just stopped for a few seconds. This was a tryout camp and I had just watched one of the best plays I had ever seen in my life. That's when I told Al to get Julius off the court. We had to save this kid. It wasn't long after that when I told some of the writers who covered the Squires, "You guys are going to think I'm crazy but one day Julius Erving will be going into the Hall of Fame." I didn't know he'd become a living legend, but he had greatness about him you could just sense.

Kerr is a Finalist for Hall of Fame induction this year and he recently received the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest Hall honor other than being inducted.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 AM



At Friday, February 27, 2009 10:57:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

A terrible day. Listening to WGN and hearing Kerr...he was the Bulls. Whats crazy is I was just rereading Loose Balls and The Legend of Dr J and remember Kerr in the ABA. He will definitely be missed.


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