Thoughts on the Passing of Johnny “Red” Kerr

I was working at a radio station in central Illinois, in 1992.  I was 22, an “old hand” on the radio by then; I didn’t get too worked up about talking to people by that point.  I had called up congressmen and senators in Washington.  I had asked questions of mayors and the governor.  I had talked to famous comedians as part of the “morning crew” and a playmate of the month.  I would have asked Dan Quayle a question the time I covered one of his press conferences, but – frankly – I couldn’t think of anything he’d know the answer to.

I wasn’t the only one who felt blasé, of course.  We were all pretty cool when dealing with people.  The sports reporters covered all aspects of the Fighting Illini and were used to quizzing the coaches and players.  The promo people had brought in bands like They Might Be Giants to play their latest in the studio.  I don’t think the term “fanboy” was in vogue at the time, but we all knew what it meant and we took great pains to avoid it.  None of us wanted to be caught gasping like a fish in the presence of someone famous.

I can remember one time when fame overwhelmed us all.  Johnny “Red” Kerr was invited to be the Grand Marshall of the Illinois homecoming parade that year.  He had helped the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team to the Final Four in 1952 before going on to have an All-Star career in the NBA.  When Chicago got its own NBA franchise, Kerr was traded to the Bulls.  He retired, so he could be their first coach instead.  He had been covering the Bulls on television as their color commentator since the mid-seventies.  Before every game as Kerr broadcast live from the sidelines, Michael Jordan would walk past and slap some talcum powder on him before he hit the court for some final warm ups.

So, a group of us from the station drove out to where the parade was being organized.  In Chicago circles – where most of us were from – Johnny “Red” Kerr was larger than life.  That was saying something; he was 6’9″ in life.  We found him just hanging out at the parade grounds.  I think one of the promo people asked if we could ask him some questions and called him “Mr. Kerr”.  He smiled down at us and said sure.  And the fanboy barrage of softball questions began.

Someone asked if he remembered our station (which had started back in 1954).  “WPGU?  You guys were on AM then,” he said.  “They could here you in the dorms, but I was living in a fraternity then.”  One of the sports guys asked about Michael Jordan.  “He’s a great guy,” Kerr responded.  “He’s a real class act.”  The ultimate fanboy question came from me.  I’ll never forget the answer.

Sure,” he said.  I handed him my press pass and got it signed.  It’s the only autograph I ever asked for in five years on the air.  Johnny “Red” Kerr died this week at 76 after a long bout with cancer.


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