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."