A few hours before the Bulls paid tribute to Johnny ‘‘Red’’ Kerr on Tuesday night during halftime of the game with the Detroit Pistons, a couple of cynical sorts on sports talk radio were speculating whether both Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen would show up.
What the radio hosts didn’t understand was the effect Kerr has had on everyone he has met during his more than four decades with the organization as its first coach, a broadcaster and general goodwill ambassador. ‘‘For me to come back here and honor him,’’ Jordan said before the ceremony, ‘‘they didn’t have to ask me twice.’’
The Bulls wore their red road uniforms in honor of Kerr and countless clips of him as a player (at Illinois and in the NBA with the Syracuse Nats) and broadcaster were shown on the United Center scoreboard during stoppages in play throughout the game.
The halftime tribute ran long, lasting at least a half hour, but no one was complaining.
With the ailing Kerr (who is battling prostate cancer) sitting courtside in a makeshift wheelchair — a regular one isn’t designed for the frame of a former center — the program began with a proclamation from Mayor Daley declaring Tuesday as Johnny ‘‘Red’’ Kerr appreciation day and was followed by a video message from NBA commissioner David Stern.
The first live speaker was former NBA legend Dolph Schayes, who was a teammate of Kerr’s. Illinois native and Phoenix Suns founder Jerry Colangelo presented Kerr with the John W. BunnLifetime Achievement Award from the Basketball Hall of Fame and Jordan and Pippen paid their respects with comments about what Kerr meant to them. Before the game, there was speculation he might not be well enough to attend, but the UC crowd first caught a glimpse of him in a suite during the first half and let out a loud ovation.
‘‘For him to battle all that and come out and give us a chance to say goodbye, say hello — just reminisce,’’ Jordan said outside the suite during the first half. ‘‘He may not even feel good today, but he’s gonna come.
That’s why I came. I owed him that and the fans owe him that. He made many people smile for many years.’’
One of those people was President Obama, who taped a video message that was played toward the end of the ceremony. The final speaker — besides Kerr and his son, Matt — was Bulls general manager John Paxson, who presented him with a glass-enclosed photo collection and unveiled the bust (from the waist up) of Kerr that will be displayed on the UC’s main concourse.
‘‘He’s deserved that for a long time,’’ said Jordan, whose statue stands outside Gate 4. ‘‘He should have probably been out there before me. He started it all.’’
Matt Kerr spoke for his father at the end of the ceremony, thanking everyone for the tribute. But despite his voice being weak, Red Kerr grabbed the microphone to say a few words.
He called Tuesday ‘‘the happiest day of his life’’ — a fact, no doubt, enhanced by the Bulls’ stunning 107-102 comeback win — and also said: ‘‘You’ll see me here on occasion. What I miss most of all is this hardwood floor at the United Center.’’
Beforehand Jordan paid Kerr the ultimate tribune. ‘‘Johnny is the face of the franchise,’’ he said. ‘‘You could say Michael Jordan, you could say Jerry Sloan, you could say a lot of people. To me, it’s Johnny ‘‘Red’’ Kerr.’’
Although the tribute was emotional, Jordan provided a light moment when he went over and clapped his hands as chalk dust fell on Kerr — just like before games.
‘‘I don’t know how it started,’’ Jordan said. ‘‘I think he had a nice suit on and I wanted to mess him up a little. It became a pregame ritual.
‘‘Now LeBron [James] has taken it to another level. You see LeBron do it, I think of Johnny way back when.’’