Two people with significant ties to the Suns, Dennis Johnson and John Kerr, are included among the 16 finalists for induction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and one, at least this one, can only hope they survive the final cut when the inductees are announced in April at the Final Four in Detroit.
Kerr was the first coach to be hired by the Suns, and the fact he was also the first coach fired by the Suns detracts neither from what he did for the fledgling franchise nor that general manager Jerry Colangelo could hardly have made a better choice.
Kerr has been nominated in the contributor category, and over more than half a century he has made significant contributions at every level — as a player who set then the NBA record for consecutive games as a center, mostly with the old Syracuse Nationals, a coach, who led the expansion Chicago Bulls to consecutive playoff berth, as the man help[ed launch the Suns, and then as a highly entertaining and informative long time analyst for Chicago Bulls broadcasts.
But as impressive as those credential are, they are not the most compelling argument in favor of his Hall of Fame candidacy.
The thing that would make his continued omission from the Hall a felony was the good humor and passion with which he promoted basketball throughout his career in his role as the world’s tallest standup comedian.
In introducing Kerr to Phoenix, Colangelo called the 6-10 redhead “one of the greatest coaches in the NBA – a man who knows how to handle players very well.” That view, alas, would change in just 18 months, but his dismissal never altered the view here that he was the perfect choice for first-year coach for a newborn franchise in virgin basketball territory.
At opening a new basketball supermarket he WAS “The Greatest”. It was just staying around to run them that got him into trouble and led Colangelo (like Kerr, a former Illinois star) to reluctantly dismiss him early in Year Two. His resume includes one Coach of The Year award, but if there had been an “Emcee of The Year” NBA award he would have at least a dozen.
And for this rookie writer getting his first taste of NBA coverage, he was an absolute godsend. His encyclopedic knowledge of the game and friendships with just about everyone in it and his willingness to share both was a short cut to an advanced degree in hoopology for me.
Whether we were in New York for a game against the Knicks or in Podunk (and the NBA played a lot of Podunks in those days), John knew all the right people and right places, and thanks to him I soon did too.
And everywhere he went he sold the game of basketball (which needed every salesman it could get in those pre-boom years), not in obscure and pedantic X and O terms, but in humorous and informative story telling.
He used to joke the working title for a biography he was planning to write was “Twelve Years In The Pivot Without the Ball,” but of course had had the ball long enough to develop into one of the three or four best pivot passers in NBA history.
He was always poking gentle fun at almost everybody and everything, including himself. Especially himself. “I’m okay from the front and the back,’ he used to say, “but from the side I’m cantilevered.”
“John had a real passion for the game,” said Colangelo.
Good as he was, Kerr obviously doesn’t qualify as a Hall of Fame Player, or coach (I used to think it was the only part of the game he wasn’t really into). But as a contributor, nobody is more qualified.