February 11, 2009
While taking in last night's tribute to Johnny "Red" Kerr, it was hard not to give a few minutes worth of thought to that butterfly, flapping its wings a couple continents away.
What if Johnny "Red" Kerr had never called games for the Chicago Bulls?
What if I decided to pass over SportsChannel with the clicker, more than 20 years ago, in order to give "Small Wonder" another try? What would have happened had the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Michael Jordan? How would things be different if Red's insight and enthusiasm, imploring me to enjoy this transcendent star at every possible instance, never made its way into my parents' den?
Where would I be? Who wouldn't I have met? What would I be doing? Would this all-consuming appetite for all things orange and leathery have been developed some other way, or would I be driving a truck? What pleasures — distinct, jaw-hurting-from-smiling-so-much pleasures — would I have missed out on?
Is this post going to be all about me? Damn right, it's going to be all about me. That's nothing new, because Tuesday night was all about everyone but Johnny "Red" Kerr. From the wire service guys giving the man a standing ovation in the press box to the NBA's greatest player handling the mic at center court with ease, to the freakin' 44th President of the United States ... it wasn't about Johnny. It was all about them.
It was about what Johnny "Red" Kerr, this remarkable man, has meant to them. Every story different, every bit of impact just as strong.
And as much as we tried to make everything about Johnny on Tuesday, and though the night wasn't awkward or uncomfortable in any way, something didn't seem right. As if it's never supposed to be about Johnny.
Because that's the way he's always liked it. The guy could score in bunches, but much preferred nailing a cutter from the high post with a dagger. The man took an expansion team to the playoffs in its first year, and he'd rather talk about being fired (due to personality conflicts with Bulls management, and not ineffective coaching) the next year.
He was the first guy to seek out and sign Julius Erving, but he'd rather deflect the conversation to the size of Dr. J's hands, and how Willie Sojourner gave the Doctor his nickname. Kerr also signed George Gervin to his first deal, after an unheralded freshman season at a small Midwestern school, but the story he really wants to tell you is about how the Iceman nailed 18 out of 20 three-pointers on a dimly-lit court while wearing blue jeans, just minutes after signing a deal with Kerr's Virginia Squires.
You want a story about growing up on Chicago's South Side? Kerr has a million of them. Of course, he's a minor character in each, playing bit parts while a guy named Stinky Fryer takes the lead. I did not make that name up.
You want to know what it took to work as a color guy for over 30 years? You'll have to wait out a few hundred Michael Jordan anecdotes, first. It's just how he works. Kerr's spent a life talking about and pointing toward all that other great stuff, first. It's just who he is.
Though Tuesday night wasn't uneasy, in any way, the idea that the roles had reversed was still palpable. You see, any time that Chicago Bull needed a voice, it got one in Kerr. He provided the color. He ran the (championship, lest we forget) rallies in Grant Park. He led the retirement ceremonies. He was that Bull.
And on Tuesday, though current Bulls play-by-play man Neil Funk did an outstanding job, you still got the feeling that we were supposed to see Kerr running the show. Kerr handing the mic to the assembled guests. Kerr telling the fans to pay attention to the Jumbotron for a very special message. Johnny "Red" Kerr, in his wheelhouse (or one of them, because the high post is still probably his most treasured enclave), running the show, making everyone else look great.
Which brings it back to me, because I'm a blogger, and that's who bloggers talk about.
Johnny "Red" Kerr and Jim Durham (Chicago's longtime play-by-play announcer, pictured above) created something in me that I'll never lose. The players did their part, make no mistake, but it takes a grounded and enthusiastic sort to re-affirm things to you, no matter your age. To tell you that this game is worth your time.
To tell you that it's OK to be as excited as you are. That these aren't feelings to chase away, or worry about. That these are emotions that are to be embraced, and reactions that are typical. Expected. You're supposed to have this much fun when things go in, you're supposed to feel this low when they blow it in the final two minutes, and pity the poor soul who doesn't get to feel this way 82-plus times a year.
And when you're a kid, and you're making that odd jump from what is safe and childlike into a new realm with all the sights and smells and sounds and experiences that the adults seem to be interested in, it's good to have that sort of guidance.
And when you're an adult, and you're still poring over every box score and following every dribble with the same fervor that you brought to the kitchen table some decades ago, it's nice to be re-assured that a child's game can be for grown-ups, too. And, darnit, Aaron. Don't bring the ball down that low. You're just asking to be stripped.
(He used to say that to Tom Boerwinkle.)
(He used to say that to Brad Sellers.)
(He used to say that to Luc Longley.)
If the measure of a man is the shape and form in which he impacts the lives of others, well, then Red Kerr is a giant. I don't know where I'd be for not having been introduced to him, lo those many years ago, and you get the feeling that most in attendance on Tuesday felt the same way.
And because they don't make medals or plaques that properly explain or detail that sort of influence, I guess we'll all just have to take Red's lead, and get to talking about the guy.