Born: July 17, 1932
Died: February 26, 2009
Syracuse Nationals (NBA): 1954-1963
Philadelphia 76ers (NBA): 1963-1965
Baltimore Bullets (NBA): 1965-1966
The Syracuse Nationals lost a heart-breaking NBA Finals against the Minneapolis Lakers in 1954. Several of their players were hobbled by injury. Still they dragged the mighty Lakers – winners of three of the last four NBA titles – to seven games. For the Nationals, the loss stung but with a healthy roster they could return to the Finals and win it all the following year.
Indeed, that’s exactly what they did, but they had more than good health. Syracuse was bolstered by a young center who helped shore up the middle: Johnny “Red” Kerr.
The 6’9″ center initially backed up Ephraim “Red” Rocha, but by the 1955 NBA Finals Kerr was the team’s second-leading scorer behind the venerable Dolph Schayes. Schayes was certainly the star, but the Nationals prided themselves on being a selfless well-balanced team. The decisive Game 7 against the Fort Wayne Pistons saw seven Syracuse players score between 10 and 15 points as the Nats pulled out a 92-91 win.
Kerr’s playing style was tailor-made for the Nationals gaggle of talented players. With guards like Larry Costello and Paul Seymour, Kerr would set devastating “big ass screens,” as Warriors forward Tom Meschery called them. Kerr’s sideways picks utilized his ample posterior to knock opponents off balance and he’d then roll to the rim for a bucket.
Kerr was even more dangerous when he was the man with the ball in a screening situation. Those “big-ass screens” would clear a wide lane to the basket for Costello, Seymour, and later Hal Greer to drive to the basket. Sure, Red could pass off the ball normally, but the flamboyant center wouldn’t hesitate to bounce a pass between his legs and hit the cutter perfectly in stride.
Although he played himself into shape during training camp, Kerr rarely missed a game once the season started. In fact, he played 844 games in a row during one stretch of his career. It was a record that stood for almost two decades until Randy Smith claimed the title of Iron Man.
Actual basketball skills aside, Johnny Kerr has been widely hailed as one of the best teammates in basketball history. His gregarious, affable sense of humor surely explains much of the adulation. Chet Walker, a man who had experienced considerable racial discrimination, noted Kerr was a veteran presence who didn’t just ease his transition to the NBA, but also was one of the first white men to treat him simply as a man.
Kerr’s humor often belied that serious sentiment he brought to life and basketball. When asked why he kept playing through various injuries during his Iron Man streak, Kerr joked, “I was afraid if I missed a game my wife might make me do the dishes.” Kerr would go on to decades of work in the NBA as a coach and broadcaster, but when his playing career finally came to an end Johnny “Red” Kerr revealed the drive that made him tick for 12 magnificent seasons and also made him sorrowful he’d never lace up the sneakers again:
“My last game was in St. Louis when Baltimore was knocked out of the playoffs. I spent a long time in the dressing room, just taking off my uniform. Finally, I was down to only my stocking feet. I could look out the door and see that Kiel Auditorium was nearly dark. Guys were folding up the chairs, sweeping up the garbage and I heard the popping of paper cups. I put on some clothes, went into the arena and watched them dismantle the floor. I began to think that there would be no more nights after the games, drinking beer with the guys. No more parties at the house with Betsy and the players and no more times when my name was announced and people cheered. I was 34, I had never made more than $30,000 as a player, and I cried that day in St. Louis. Not because I wouldn’t play again; my body was hurting too much to play anymore. But because I wouldn’t be a basketball player.”
3x All-Star (1956, 1959, 1963)
Regular Season Averages (905 Games):
Playoff Averages (76 Games):