This is Ben Kerner," said Ben Kerner the other day. "This is the symbol of what started from nothing. Today I'm a national figure. I could have been a national bum." Today Kerner, a darkly intent talker with the swift, clever, rapturous face of a Yiddish character actor, a triumphant laugh and a whining, exclamatory voice which modulates from an outrageous shout to a fierce whisper in a sentence shorter than this, has built the St. Louis Hawks, which he owns, into a million-dollar business and the most successful franchise in professional basketball. "The best franchise," Kerner explains, "is the one that makes the most money, not the one that wins the most games. That's all this thing revolves around. You can only exist if you sell tickets. Nothing else."
Kerner brought the Hawks to St. Louis in 1955 after 10 desperate years of not selling tickets in Buffalo, his home, in Tri-Cities (Moline and Rock Island, Ill., Davenport, Iowa) and Milwaukee. He was $165,000 in the hole, had never drawn a salary or taken a vacation. Now that Kerner can afford vacations he doesn't enjoy them. "I can't relax unless I'm doing something," he says. "I can't wait for tomorrow to start when I go to bed." "Ben has on his night table a pencil and a little book," Kerner's mother says. "Middle of the night I can hear him write something." Kerner, who is 43, lives with his widowed mother. He has never married.
There are three bad weeks in show business: Holy Week, Christmas Week and a week in Milwaukee. Kerner played Milwaukee four years, finished last in the Western Division of the National Basketball Association four years. "We worked and hustled and drew 360 opening night," he says. "After that it fell off. No, that's not true. You can make a big thing bigger. You can't make an ordinary thing big. You can't publicize a funeral, but you can glamorize it."
"Wanted!" Kerner advertised in the Milwaukee papers, "Basketball Fans. No Experience Necessary." During a coffee shortage he tried giving away coffee retailing at $1.08 a jar to women purchasing $1 tickets. "Meaning," he says, "if you hated basketball you could still make an 8¢ profit. And this is a woman's sport. To see those guys running around in their shorts, that's really something. I should have thrown in bus fare.
October 23, 1960
"I can incite a riot faster than anyone. I can't incite nothing in Milwaukee. In Milwaukee they said the guy's a lunatic. This is a nut. In St. Louis they say: This is a genius. I do a lot of funny things. I call myself Benny the Boob. I camouflage myself. I fight with referees, fire coaches, tear programs. You sell yourself as a character, you get space. Jack Benny changes his act. Gleason changes his. Not Kerner. I got Kernerisms!" He also has an imitator, a sure sign of success, who mimics Kerner at banquets. In turn, Kerner, when he runs low on Kernerisms, imitates his imitator.
"Not everybody likes me," Kerner says. "I don't intend it. What am I? An angel? God? Here, if I back my car out of the garage it's news. In Milwaukee I could crawl on my knees, I couldn't get three lines in the paper. In Milwaukee I tell them that my biggest disappointment was that I was a failure in Milwaukee. I never knock. I got to tell the people they're great. I got to tell them they're a great sports town. They didn't know whether we were playing in the municipal league or on wheelchairs!
"I came to St. Louis on a gamble," Kerner says. "There was no other place to go. Everybody left here, they said. What's his angle? they said. My angle! I'm trying to stay alive. This is success. You're looking at success. This isn't the story of the Hawks. This is the story of me. I out-drew the Browns. I have the second-best attendance in the league, and I'm sixth in capacity. I'll sell 3,500 season tickets this year." Indeed, his has been called a Horatio Alger story. "Horatio Alger?" Kerner gags. "I don't get the reference. Who does he play for?"
Why Kerner and the Hawks succeeded in St. Louis cannot, of course, be scientifically determined. In Kerner's opinion, population has a lot to do with it. "Why's a major league town a major league town?" he asks, rhetorically. "Population. You can only get a certain amount of people to an attraction, and every year you lose 15% of them. Why? They move away, lose interest, take up golf, buy a boat, join a country club, lose their job, buy a home and can't afford it. We had this girl and fellow, met at a Hawks game. They sat next to each other. They fell in love, got married. Then they couldn't afford tickets. They had to buy furniture! I romanced them. I paid for their honeymoon. I'm a smart guy?"
Dance bands, tennis and fireworks
"In reverse, the other thing's happening. There's a continual turnover. Eventually, if you don't have a big city, you play yourself out. That's why I'm trying to build in other categories." Last season, for instance, Kerner staged 18 special attractions at no extra charge after his basketball games: principally, such bands as Harry James, Sammy Kaye, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. This year he's adding Jack Kramer's tennis troupe and Althea Gibson. "You got to give the people more than just a place to go," he says. "Only about half the people stay for the dancing, but it's like Bill Veeck's scoreboard. If they come only for the fireworks, O.K. The hell with the baseball. Sell tickets and have a fireworks night."
Another reason for Kerner's success is that he devotes all of his time and abundant energy to basketball. "I am the only owner in basketball," he says, "with no other business. Basketball is my business. I found out one thing in life, and nobody knows more about themselves than I do: I succeed only in the thing I devote all my time to. I don't need anything else.
"What have I got an exclusive on? I got an exclusive on hard work? If you work for me I want complete dedication. I'm the hardest person to work for. I'm the easiest person to work for. You work nights. You work Saturday. You work Sunday. Around sport, people become discussers. They just like to sit around and talk. They become part of the deal. Here everybody works. Other people play golf, gamble, get drunk, keep a dozen broads. I want results. In sports it's too late to rectify mistakes.
"I know nothing but basketball. I don't want to know anything else. I'm competing. We're all competing for the same dollar. There's no other battle. Basketball hasn't had it easy. I haven't had it easy. It's a tough business. You can't get mad at money. It ain't no ham sandwich. I pay for results. Nobody buys tickets today on yesterday's victories. One thing I've learned in this business: keep beating them. Pro basketball is like a New York nightclub. It's easy to get into but hard to get out. There are no moral victories in sport. When all's said and done, you have to win on the court.
"I've got no personal feeling when it comes to the success of this thing. You can't let your feeling overshadow your thinking. If people assure you they'll buy tickets win or lose, it would be different. You got to win to survive. What am I running, the Salvation Army? Once I had a terrific memory. I've trained my memory not to remember anything. This is a detail business."
Kerner is a relentless, ingenious promoter, except when Detroit, a poor attraction, comes to town. "What am I going to do? Create a flood?" All of his games, including exhibitions, are broadcast; many are televised. Kerner is sponsored by Busch Bavarian Beer. "You got to have your extras," he says, "your sponsor, your game program, or you can't open. You can never take in enough at the box office to pay your overhead." He has three radio shows featuring himself, his current coach, Paul Seymour, and his star, Bob Pettit. One show is on 52 weeks a year. He sells season tickets on a buy-now-pay-later plan and pays the financing. He has clinics. His players speak before business and fraternal groups. "Our guys don't have mike fright," Kerner says proudly. "We got nothing but announcers."
Despite the noise, commotion and shrewdness, many people consider Kerner a "sweet, impulsive, generous guy." "That's some man," Pettit has said. "Boy, he's great." He lends his players money for cars and homes, buys them clothes and presents, sends flowers when their wives have babies. "Larry Foust was in this league 10 years," Kerner says. "He had three children while he played with other teams, and nobody ever sent flowers. My mother sent Mrs. Foust flowers. She cried like a baby. Our players wound up with more money than Boston after losing to them in the playoff finals last season. I kicked in $6,000. It was against league rules. I'll never do it again. I made a boo-boo. But I got to do something others won't do." Pettit has given Kerner a $1,000 stereo. "Just a little something," Pettit wrote, "to show my appreciation and gratitude for the many wonderful ways you have helped me."
Kerner often hands out mail in the dressing room and lingers to kid and kibitz. "I got to be a mailman, a clown? Dale Long said when he was with the Giants Stoneham never talked to him. What would it kill him to say hello? The players have got to be with you. You got to show them you're interested."
In the last four years the Hawks have won their division four times, the world championship once and have the best won-and-lost record in the NBA, with the exception of the Boston Celtics. Yet the team has only two members remaining from the 1957-58 champions, Pettit and Cliff Hagan. Aside from this year's rookies and Pettit and Al Ferrari, the team was put together by trades and cash. "The cheapest thing you can buy is talent," Kerner says. He calls the owners of the other teams almost daily, sniffing for trades. "Some days I make five or six nonsensical calls," he says. "I watch the papers. A guy lost three straight. I call him up. 'Jeez, it's tough,' I say. I talk fast. I don't tell them nothing they can't find out anyway. But I listen."
Kerner is celebrated for firing his coaches. ("Don't say fire," he winces. "Say replace.") He has had six at St. Louis. "Coaching basketball," he explains, "is one of the most difficult jobs in sport. You're everything: public relations, traveling secretary, chaplain, manager. You sit on the court. You'reexposed. You're handling All-Americas—spoiled, glamorized, cover-story All-Americas. If a coach gets in a rut, he starts pressing, makes things worse. With a new man, there's no pressure, the players are loose. Sometimes you have to change coaches because it changes the atmosphere, the tempo around the team."
Kerner's first coach at St. Louis was Red Holzman. He lasted a year and a half. "I had to replace Red," Kerner explains. "The club was way down. Red was way down. It was just that sometimes you lose the grip." Kerner considered replacing him with Alex Hannum, a front-line reserve. "I never liked Hannum," Kerner says. "He was a real tough hombre. I couldn't justify making him coach." Kerner picked, instead, nice guy Slater Martin. Martin tried to be a player-coach for several games but found he was not equal to it and would rather just play. "I felt, under the circumstances," Kerner says, "that Hannum was the best man. We've got a tough club to coach. Hannum wanted it. Martin's in the record book as coaching eight games; he coached maybe three. Actually, Hannum was in charge. I couldn't change that quick. It would have looked like I was out of my mind."
Hannum won the championship and got a two-year contract, but after another year he decided he wanted more money or he would stay in the construction business. "Construction business!" Kerner says. "He's a carpenter—hammer and nails. That's it, I said. And the door was closed. He did a hell of a job, but he never was my type of guy. But you always like a guy when he's winning, hate a guy when he's losing. I'm talking businesswise. I didn't feel safe with him. He wasn't loyal."
At the start of the 1958-59 season came Andy Phillip. He lasted 10 games. "You could see once we started he didn't have it," Kerner says. "He didn't mix. Practice over, out he went. We were six and four, but we had no zip, no desire. I offered the job to Easy Ed Macauley. We win the division by 16 games. Last season we win again by 15, but our club doesn't look good winning. I replaced Macauley. I made him vice-president. Now he resigned that to devote himself to a business career. General Motors is plenty worried." ("Resigned!" says Kerner's mother. "When did he ever work? Easy Ed is right.")
"I like Macauley," Kerner insists. "He's sincere, loyal, religious, but he didn't have the guts. He didn't look for this as a future. Seymour becomes available, resigns from Syracuse, calls me. He thinks there's a future here. Basketball is also his future. I do feel Paul's a better coach than Macauley. Plus, this is his life. I gave him a three-year contract. Now we're taking him out to dinner everywhere. Fattening him up for the kill."
Indeed, it has become a joke. When St. Louis played its first exhibition ("Call it preseason," pleads Kerner) game of the year in Evansville, Ind., Seymour rode a fire truck in a parade from the airport to the hotel. "I've lost a lot of coaches," Kerner said, "but this'll be the first one that fell off a fire engine. And they'll blame me, too. But this parade's a hell of a thing. We save $12 on cabs!" When Seymour appeared for his first radio program the announcer said, "Great to have you here, Coach...." "Coach?" deadpanned Seymour. "Didn't you read today's papers?"
Kerner is hurt by the criticism he gets for firing coaches. "What's the big deal?" he says. "They weren't coaches until I made them coaches. What are you supposed to do, live with a guy until he breaks you? Better we should be failures? So they should say nice things? What do I run here, an old folks' home?"
Besides his many trades and coaches, Kerner is best known for the agonies he suffers during a game. He smokes furiously, indiscriminately, tears up programs, chews gum and mints, fights with referees, rival coaches. "If I didn't tear up programs they'd think I was losing interest," he says. "They bring me programs to tear up. Everybody's looking at me. They go home happy!"
Home for Kerner is a four-TV apartment in a residential hotel on St. Louis' Forest Park. "One of the reasons I was able to gamble and win," he says, "was I wasn't married. I can always start all over again. Call mother, tell her I won't be home for dinner." Helen Kerner is a shrewd, humorous lady whom Ben calls "my chairman of the board." When Kerner changed sponsors from Falstaff to Anheuser-Busch, she went to the brewery, as she says, "to see if the money's good. All I saw was streets and streets of barrels and railroads. Ben, I said, the money's good."
Kerner's recreation is limited to long early-morning walks in Forest Park, an occasional rubdown ("My mother calls it a rubout") and "schmoozing" with the boys. "I've never had dinner in anyone's home in St. Louis in the last five years," he says. "A lot of instances you have to be a loner. Otherwise you get to the point where you have to answer a lot of questions. I came here to do a job in sports, not to be a social lion. Actually, sometimes you can be lonely, with people you don't know calling, Ben! Mr. Kerner! How's the team? If I joined a country club—they want me to join—I'd be too common. This way you're a little mysterious. What can they say to hurt you? Who's my best friend? I don't...I got a zillion friends. But you're lonely only when you have nothing to do."
The other night he stood outside the arena in Evansville watching the fans line up at the ticket windows. "I get a big thrill out of this," he said. "This is achievement. This is a romantic business. This is a business of dreams."
The next morning his mother, who had listened to the Evansville game on the radio, told Kerner that his sportscasters hadn't plugged the first preseason game in St. Louis. "What do they think we are—a public service?" Kerner exploded. "It's a battle, a battle, a battle."
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