Friends, relatives remember Kerr

3/5/2009 - Chicago Bulls

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill. -- Laughter flowed while friends and relatives toasted Johnny "Red" Kerr one more time.

Considering he drew smiles from just about everyone he came across, it was an appropriate send-off for the Chicago Bulls' first coach and longtime commentator.

"To me, he was more than a father," son Matthew said during Kerr's funeral Thursday. "He was an inspiration and a friend."

An overflow crowd spilled out of the main chapel at Hennessy-Bruno Funeral Home to remember Kerr, who died of prostate cancer last week at age 76. A tribute video played in the lobby and a floral arrangement with red roses spelling "Red" stood a few feet from his casket.

Kerr, a Chicago native who starred at Illinois, spent 12 seasons in the NBA for the Syracuse Nationals, Philadelphia 76ers and Baltimore Bullets. Who made three All-Star teams and played in a then-NBA record 844 consecutive games.

He led the Bulls to the playoffs during their inaugural 1966-67 season, then worked in the front office and spent the past three-plus decades analyzing their games.

Broadcast partner Neil Funk joked that "Johnny was put on this Earth to torment me," and that "Johnny considered himself my other wife."

General manager John Paxson called Kerr "a very lovable man," and his love for life never seemed to waver, even though he endured some tough times. His son Jay died at age 3, and his wife Betsy died in October 2000.

In failing health, Kerr received the Basketball Hall of Fame's John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award and saw the Bulls unveil a statue of him during an emotional halftime ceremony just more than two weeks before his death. That night, he told the crowd, "I want to thank everybody here in the audience who has seen the Bulls play not because of Red Kerr but because of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and all the other people in the organization."

On Thursday, there were a few tears to go with the laughs -- and they were all for Kerr.

Al Bianchi joked that he earned a medal of honor for rooming with Kerr on the road during their years as teammates in Syracuse, then let his mind drift back to the Bulls' first tryouts.

He and Kerr walked into the gym and were shocked to find several hundred people "with old, beat-up sneakers and shoes who [looked like] they had just come from the farm."

"I say to John, 'What are we going to do?" said Bianchi, an assistant under Kerr. "He looked around and he said, 'Let's line them all up and have them count off by twos, and we'll send all the twos home.' And that's Johnny."