Bulls

Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

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Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

Juwan Starks is writing his own page in the history of West Aurora basketball. The 6-3 senior is averaging 22 points per game and is within 316 points of surpassing Billy Taylor as the school's all-time leading scorer.

Remember, this is West Aurora, not Rinky Dink High. Starks' coach is Gordon Kerkman, who has won 717 games in his 36-year career. Only 11 coaches in state history have won more.

Remember, this is West Aurora. Starks not only is on the brink of moving ahead of Billy Taylor on the all-time scoring list but he already has passed Kenny Battle, Bill Small, John Biever, Jim Krelle, Matt and Ron Hicks, Jay and John Bryant, Dameon Mason, Shaun Pruitt and Larry Hatchett.

The truth is Starks used to be an East Sider. His family has its roots in East Aurora. But his family moved to West Aurora so Juwan could attend kindergarten and his mother decided to stay. At 5, he became a West Sider.

At the time, he didn't know the difference. Now he does.

"Some family members say I should be a Tomcat instead of a Blackhawk," he said. "When I was a sixth grader, I watched the EastWest games. My uncle, Aaron McGhee, played for East Aurora and Oklahoma. When I was growing up, I didn't care. To me, it was just a different side of town. I was on the West Side and all the others were on the East Side."

But Starks is highly motivated this season. He is a rarity at West Aurora, a four-year starter. But he hasn't experienced as much success as former stars such as Taylor or Battle or Small. His last two teams were 13-16 and 14-12, hardly the kind of numbers that Kerkman is used to putting up. He won a state championship in 2000, finished second in 1997 and third in 1980, 1984 and 2004.

"Last year, we lost in the regional opener. It was very disappointing, a down year. I couldn't wait to come back this year," Starks said. "I felt I could do more to help my team win. I'm very motivated this year. I'm motivated by trying to win my first regional and by becoming the all-time leading scorer at West Aurora. We want to go Downstate this year."

He also is motivated to find a college. He said he is talking to Jacksonville, Liberty, Eastern Kentucky and Indiana State. But he has no scholarship offers. He hopes his performance this season will attract interest from more Division I schools.

The Blackhawks are 7-1 after sweeping Glenbard North 66-52 and East Aurora 73-42 last week. The Blackhawks will meet York Friday, then compete in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. To win the prestigious three-day event for the first time since 1990, they likely will have to beat Danville, Curie, Warren and Simeon in succession.

"We have been too up and down this year. We lack consistency," Kerkman said. "But Pontiac should be a barometer for us. If we get to the Final Four, that means we will play good teams. You hope to play four games and play good teams. It helps to make you a better team.

"I look for overall team play. Traditionally, we haven't been a team that focuses on one player. We look for balanced scoring. At Pontiac, we usually find out which kids we can depend on for scoring or if other kids will round into form and break into the starting lineup."

Kerkman counts on Starks, 6-foot sophomore Jontrel Walker (14 ppg), 6-foot junior Jayquan Lee (8 ppg), 6-1 junior twins Chandler (7.4 ppg) and Spencer (7.2 ppg) Thomas. But 6-6 junior Josh McAuley is making a good case for a starting spot and 6-foot senior Brandon Gossett also provides spark off the bench.

Last week, McAuley had 16 points and eight rebounds in a breakout game against Glenbard North, then came back the next night to get 11 points and 11 rebounds against East Aurora.

Starks had 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists against Glenbard North and Walker contributed 15 points. But Starks got into early foul trouble against East Aurora and finished with only six points. McAuley and Lee, who also scored 11 points, picked up the slack.

Kerkman recently celebrated his 75th birthday. But he hasn't lost a step. "I have no thoughts about retiring. I still enjoy coaching. When I don't enjoy it, I'm gone. I have fun working with kids. When you can't get them to do what you'd like them to do, it isn't fun," he said.

Practices and games are most fun of all. And he enjoys the challenge of teaching. "Right now, we're having a problem with decision-making. Unfortunately, I don't know how to correct it. I'm trying all kinds of passing drills to indoctrinate them into decision-making," he said.

He relishes the opportunity to match wits and X's and O's against good teams and good coaches. He acknowledges that the game has changed, that players have more athleticism and teams apply more ball pressure than in past years. But he doesn't agree with the common assessment that kids have changed. Not his kids, he insists.

"Most people say the kids have changed...more distractions, like video games...but they haven't changed in terms of attitude," Kerkman said. "We do things differently, new drills. Practices are better than 20 years ago, more organized. I'd like to think I'm doing a better job of coaching."

Starks has observed Kerkman up close and personal for four years. He admits it is easy to get "star-struck" over his winning record and stories about what a great coach he is. "But once you get to know him, he is so passionate about the game. He will do what it takes to win. He motivates us a lot, gets us hyped up for games," he said.

He reminds that former West Aurora star Dameon Mason once told him: 'Coach can be mean. But he's really trying to help you succeed and motivate you to be a better player.' Starks and his teammates often mimic Kerkman, the way he talks, the way he yells, how he sometimes forgets a name or a play, how he gets bright red in the face when he tries to drive his message across.

"We look at him as a father figure," Starks said. "He is always going to be there for us. He never puts anyone down. He always picks us up. He is always consistent. He never changes. He has a great basketball IQ. He does the same things, the same drills, but he doesn't do what others do."

He still conducts three-hour practices, something he adopted from his mentor, John McDougal. And he doesn't pressure the ball as much as he did when Kenny Battle was playing. This team isn't as quick as the teams of the 1980s so he has slowed down the game a bit and relies more on solid defense.

"I don't think I have changed much," Kerkman concluded. "I don't get on referees as much as before. I used to worry more about officials' calls. But the more I officiated, the less I coached. I'm not as concerned about their decisions as I used to be."

Oh, one last thing. Practices are more tiring. Just as long but more tiring because his knee might get sore or pain in his lower back might force him to sit down. "I don't like to do that," he said. He still is having too much fun.

Bulls' treasure Johnny 'Red' Kerr was a walking basketball encyclopedia

Bulls' treasure Johnny 'Red' Kerr was a walking basketball encyclopedia

With the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals games largely shifting to network coverage, the broadcasting work from Tom Dore and Johnny “Red” Kerr for the 1996 playoffs is mostly over.

But what a treat it has been hearing that duo work together again during NBC Sports Chicago’s re-airing of the 1996 playoff run. Covering the games meant you didn’t get to hear the humorous interplay between the two, or Dore’s economical play-by-play work, or Kerr’s heart-on-his-sleeve bemoaning of missed boxouts or official’s calls.

Not that those of us around that team didn’t hear such moments off the air. It was fun to catch up with Dore on a recent Bulls Talk podcast. And I’d call getting to know Kerr one of the highlights of my two decades-plus around the franchise.

Red was there when John Havlicek stole the ball. And he was there when Michael Jordan held the pose.

Yes, Kerr was a walking, talking basketball encyclopedia who bled Bulls red. A storyteller supreme.

Beyond basketball, Kerr graciously sat for a tear-stained interview about his 46 years of marriage to Betsy after she passed away in October 2000. He did so because he wanted to share their love story, because her support allowed him to pursue his passions and because of her Bulls fandom.

At the time, Kerr shared how he hand-picked the three songs played at his wife’s funeral. This sparked a discussion about our shared passion for music.

From that day on, Kerr used to burn me CDs of artists he liked or he thought I’d like or I had told him about. In fact, having a 68-year-old Kerr thank me for introducing him to Uncle Tupelo is a career moment that may be hard to top.

Kerr became the first coach in sports history to lead an expansion team to the playoffs when he guided the 1966-67 Bulls. His knowledge of the game burned through every broadcast. His humor played out in lines like this one as the Bulls eliminated the Knicks to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the Magic:

“The Bulls are trying to send the Knicks to play golf tomorrow. The Bulls might play golf, too.”

A bust of Kerr stands in the atrium of the United Center, a fitting tribute to a wonderful player, coach and broadcaster. And above all, a gem of a man.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Cubs-Cardinals games in London officially canceled

Cubs-Cardinals games in London officially canceled

The Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were set to play in London this June, but the COVID-19 outbreak and the uncertainty about the 2020 baseball season and schedule forced those games to be canceled.

The news had been reported by The Sun on March 26, and was practically a foregone conclusion anyway, but MLB made it official on Wednesday.


Information is thin here, but there are some subtleties worth pointing out. First, there are no details on if it will be rescheduled. There are too many uncertainties about baseball’s 2020 schedule and the availability of London Stadium going forward. England’s sports are also on hold and it’s not known when West Ham, the soccer team that plays at London Stadium, might need the stadium in the next couple years with the Premier League schedule also in flux for the foreseeable future.

Also, the wording in MLB’s announcement is canceled and not postponed. That doesn’t make it seem like there are plans to reschedule this. Even if they want to reschedule more games in London, it is a difficult time to plan a big event in a foreign country.

The games were originally scheduled for June 13 and 14. Last year, the Red Sox and Yankees played in London and the contract called for two years of games in London.