A Look at the Head Coaches of the Chicago Bulls
Coaches come in all shapes, sizes, dispositions and backgrounds. Some are ex-players who never wanted to leave the game, while others might not have been great athletes, yet make-up wise they are as competitive as any 10-time All-Star.
Over the years the Chicago Bulls have hired all kinds of coaches. Current headmaster Fred Hoiberg is the team’s 19th head coach since the franchise’s inception dating to the start of the 1966-67 season.
In this series, we’ll take a look at each of the men who have served as Head Coach of the Chicago Bulls.
Johnny “Red” Kerr
John Graham “Red” Kerr was born on July 17, 1932 in Chicago. An affable ginger-haired Scotsman, Kerr grew to be 6’9” and approximately 230 pounds in his prime. He was a three-time NBA All-Star during a stellar 12-year playing career that included one of the longest consecutive-game streaks in the history of professional sports. As a coach he guided the first Bulls team, twice led the club to the playoffs and was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 1967. He later became the first Head Coach of the Phoenix Suns, and eventually he was a radio and TV broadcaster for both the Suns and the Bulls. But despite a lifetime of basketball achievement, Kerr is probably remembered least for his wins and losses than for his remarkable wit and funny one-liners.
For example, on the topic of superstitions: “When you coach expansion teams how superstitious can you get?” he once said. “I used to like to tell people, ‘I’m wearing my lucky suit today. Why is it lucky? Well, we lost by only six points the last time I had it on.’”
Kerr was not only quick with a quip but quick with success when it came to basketball. He won titles in his first year of playing at every level: high school, college, and pro. At Chicago’s Tilden Tech, he grew eight inches in his senior year, switched from playing soccer to basketball, and led his team to the city championship. At the University of Illinois, he helped the Fighting Illini win the Big Ten Conference Championship in 1952 (unfortunately the Illini eventually lost to St. John’s at the NCAA Final Four).
The Syracuse Nationals selected Kerr in the first round of the 1954 NBA Draft. In his rookie season he joined future Hall of Famers Dolph Schayes and Earl Lloyd, as well as perennial All-Stars Paul Seymour and Ephraim “Red” Rocha to lead the team the league’s Eastern Division crown. The Nats then rolled over the Boston Celtics and the Fort Wayne Pistons to capture the Nats’ only NBA Championship while calling Syracuse home (the Nationals later became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963).
Kerr spent 11 of his 12 pro seasons with the franchise — nine in Syracuse, two in Philadelphia — before playing his final year with the Baltimore Bullets.
Often overshadowed by the more prolific Schayes, Kerr, in truth, was the Nats’ 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 rebounds per game in eight straight seasons (1956-1964), with a high of 14.7 boards per game in 1961-62.
The one remarkable aspect of his otherwise workmanlike career was his ownership of the most blue-collar of all records, most consecutive games played. For 11 straight years, Johnny Kerr played in every single game. He never even missed a playoff contest, either, although those games didn’t figure into his official ironman tally. In his final pro season, at the age 33 — ancient by early NBA standards — Johnny finally failed to take to the hardwood one evening, snapping a consecutive-games streak of 844. What’s more remarkable than the length of that streak is the way it ended.
In his final season with Baltimore, he was being coached by one of his former teammates with the Champion Nats, Paul Seymour. Seymour decided on his own that Kerr’s consecutive-games streak was a distraction to his team (the Bullets were 3-7 at the time), so he benched Johnny for a night. So, in truth, there was no reason Kerr couldn’t have started and played in that November 5, 1965, game against Boston for which he got his first ever DNP-CD. The streak did not have to end, and rightfully could have stretched throughout the rest of the season, ending at 914 straight games. Essentially Johnny Kerr could have ended a highly successful playing career having pitched a perfect game, playing in every contest for a dozen straight seasons.
Afterwards Kerr claimed he didn’t have any regrets about the streak, saying only that he “hated to have it broken that way.” In fact it was his lovely wife, Betsy Kerr, who had nursed Johnny through any number of breaks, bruises and dings all those years, who was most furious.
“Oh boy! I had to hold her back. Betsy wanted to punch Seymour right in the nose,” Kerr use to joke of his late wife.
The Bulls entered the NBA at the start of the 1966-67 season after Chicago had experienced decades of disappointment with a number of other professional basketball teams.
“Chicago use to be home to the Stags, the American Gears, the Packers and the Zephyrs,” Kerr reminisced years later. “So after Dick Klein (the Bulls original team owner) was allowed by the league to start the Bulls, he felt he needed to hire a Chicago legend to coach — and that “legend” wasn’t me. He went after Ray Meyer. But Ray didn’t have any interest in leaving DePaul for something as iffy as an NBA expansion franchise. Thank god for that because afterwards Klein then called me.
“I thought my interview went pretty good. Klein asked what kind of team I wanted to coach, and I told him I wanted one that could run up and down the court and play defense. I thought that sounded pretty smart — besides what coach doesn’t want a team that can run and play defense?”
Kerr, who had been making $30,000 a year as a player in his final season wanted the Bulls job so much he agreed to accept a base salary of $15,000, which could go up to $20,000 if the team won 25 games, and $25,000 if they won 30.
“It definitely was a gamble,” Kerr admitted. “I had a wife and four young kids at home. We were also trying hard to sell the idea that the Bulls were something different, something better, to a city that didn’t seem to care at all.”
After Kerr was tabbed to be Chicago’s first head coach, he hired close friend Al Bianchi to be his assistant. Longtime friend and fellow former Fighting Illini Jerry Colangelo was also part of the team’s front office that year. Together, Colangelo and Kerr played pickup games during the summer against some of the Bulls’ top draft choices and weren’t all that encouraged by the results.
“Johnny and I didn’t lose a game,” Colangelo, who currently is a special advisor to the Philadelphia 76ers as well as the Managing Director of the United States Men’s Basketball Team (Team USA) and Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, recently recalled with a chuckle. “We knew we were in trouble.”
Kerr struggled through the bumpy days of an expansion team in his typical outgoing style. In the midst of a long losing streak, he attempted to pump up his team with a pregame speech. He told forward Bob Boozer to pretend that night that he was the NBA’s best scorer. He then turned his attention to guard Jerry Sloan and instructed him to pretend he was the best defensive player the NBA had ever seen. He then said to Guy Rodgers he needed to pretend he was the NBA’s top point guard and that nobody could stop him. Lastly he told Chicago’s undersized starting center, Erwin Mueller, to pretend he was a rebounding machine and that Bill Russell, Boston’s future Hall of Fame pivot, needed to take lessons from Mueller on how to play the position.
“That night we played the Celtics at the Boston Garden — giant green banners hanging everywhere — and we lost by 17 points,” Kerr recalled many years later. “I was down and pacing around the locker room afterward, trying to figure out what to say to the guys when Mueller walked up to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said to everyone in the locker room, ‘Don’t worry about it, coach. Just pretend we won.’”
As the season went on Kerr didn’t always have to pretend, as the Bulls fought their way to a respectable 33-48 regular-season record, earning a berth to the playoffs. He was then named the league’s Coach of the Year. His work that season also helped establish a sturdy foundation for a fledgling franchise that would eventually wind up being one of the NBA’s very best.
The following year Kerr had to coach without the help of his friend, Al Bianchi, because Bianchi jumped at the opportunity to be the first head coach of the expansion Seattle SuperSonics. He also had to do without Guy Rodgers, who had been an All-Star with the Bulls that first season. Klein was under great deal of financial pressure from his partners, so in an effort to cut expenses he traded Rodgers to Cincinnati during the opening week of the season. Chicago’s inaugural starting small forward, Don Kojis, was also out of the picture as the Bulls lost him to the San Diego Rockets in the expansion draft.
The Bulls went on to lose 15 of their first 16 games that second season, which certainly didn’t help at the gate. Crowds consisted of as little as 1,000 fans inside the team’s new home, the 18,000 seat Chicago Stadium. The small turnouts and the lack of a rabid fan base also made some members of Klein’s ownership group even more nervous, and soon some began to talk about cutting their losses and selling the team, which led to a great deal of friction. Kerr and Klein were also seemingly at odds a lot at that time, as Klein often would draw up plays during games and pass them along to Kerr on the bench. Yet somehow the team rebounded and began to turn things around, winning seven of 10 during a stretch in late November to lift themselves back into the playoff race. Boozer led the Bulls in scoring that season, averaging 21.5 points and was named to the All-Star team. Chicago ended the year with a 29-53 mark, and believe it or not, made it back to the playoffs, thanks largely to the presence of the league’s two new expansion teams (Seattle and San Diego).
The Bulls drew the Lakers in the opening round and kept the first two games respectable, dropping Game 1 in LA, 109-101, and Game 2, 111-106. They then came back home and posted the franchise’s first ever playoff victory, 104-98, behind 41 points from Flynn Robinson, the player the Bulls received from Cincinnati for Rodgers earlier that season.
The Lakers then switched future Hall of Famer Jerry West onto Robinson for the next two contests, shutting down him down, and went on to win 93-87 and 122-99 to claim the series in five games.
The opportunity then presented itself for Kerr and Klein to agree to part ways, with Kerr deciding to join Colangelo in helping start up another new NBA franchise — the Phoenix Suns in 1968.
Phoenix staggered to a 16-66 record in their first season, and if that wasn’t enough aggravation, they also lost a coin flip to the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 overall pick and the opportunity to draft Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). After starting 15-23 the following year, Colangelo felt pressure from ownership to relieve Kerr from his coaching duties and take over the Suns’ reins himself.
Kerr eventually found his true calling as a broadcaster, beginning a lengthy career as a radio and TV color analyst, first with the Suns and then after a couple of brief stints running the rival ABA Virginia Squires, and rejoining the Bulls as the team’s business manager. By the start of the 1977-78 season, Kerr was back on the air for good where he became as much a Chicago staple as the teams he covered. In fact he called every single game of franchise icon Michael Jordan’s career, and would continue to working the mic all the way through the end of the 2007-08 season.
In 2009, during a halftime ceremony celebrating Kerr’s life and tenure with the team, the Bulls unveiled a bust of Kerr that currently stands inside the United Center. During that same ceremony, Kerr was also presented with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s prestigious John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award by his old friend, Jerry Colangelo.
A couple of weeks later, on February 26, 2009, Johnny Kerr passed away due to prostate cancer, just a few hours after it had been announced earlier that day that fellow Bulls legend, Norm Van Lier, had died from a heart attack.