Brooklyn Boro

Legendary Brooklyn hoops coach passes away

June 7, 2017 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Kenneth J. Kern spent three decades developing a powerhouse basketball program at Bay Ridge’s Fort Hamilton High School. He passed away last month in Hollywood, Florida at the age of 89. Photo courtesy of the Kern Family

Fort Hamilton’s Ken Kern Produced Hall of Fame Talent in Bay Ridge

The enduring memory I have of legendary Fort Hamilton High School basketball coach Kenneth J. Kern, who died at his home in Hollywood, Florida on May 12 at the age of 89, is one that still has me shaking my head from time to time.

In fact, most people don’t believe it really happened when I retell it.

I guess it’s one of those moments that evokes the phrase, “You had to be there.”

Fortunately, I was.

As a first-year sophomore at Fort Hamilton in September of 1982, I had just completed my three years at Dyker Heights Junior High School, and was anxiously attending my first gym class in the middle of my initial day at the Bay Ridge school.

A lanky older gentleman with a booming voice and whistle around his neck ordered about 50 of us to get into our designated floor spots while he took attendance.

When the tedious task of answering to our names off the Delaney Cards — remember those — he was reading from was over, Kern informed us that our gym activities would not commence until there was total silence, which soon ensued. 

At that point, coach Kern, as we would all come to know him during our years at the school, grabbed a plastic football from a metal rack beneath one of the basketball hoops in our gym and instructed us to affix our gazes to the basket on the other end of the hardwood floor, approximately 84 feet away in the gymnasium.

He cocked his arm back and lofted a high, arching pass across the gym that spiraled effortlessly through the air before slamming up against the wooden backboard and swishing through the net. 

Then he blew the whistle and instructed us to carry on as he walked into his small office adjacent to the gym’s exit doors.

The magic of that moment has remained with me to this day.

Kern, who was survived by his wife Lillian, provided plenty of magic for students as we sat in the bleachers and watched his powerful Tigers compete year after year for the PSAL Basketball championship. 

The Tilden High School and George Washington University alum was an Army veteran who coached at Fort Hamilton from 1956 to 1985, which was the year of my graduation.

He racked up over 300 wins on the Tigers’ sideline, and most famously, developed and honed the talents of future Hall of Famer Bernard King, one of four King brothers, the others being Thomas, Albert and Gerald, who played at Fort Hamilton under Kern’s tutelage. 

Coach Kern would show us during gym class why King, who emerged as one of the highest-scoring small forwards in the NBA during the 1980s as a member of the Nets, Knicks and Warriors, was unstoppable.

It was a shot Bernard developed in the very gym that we all shared.

King’s turnaround jumper, certainly not an uncommon shot, was not defendable because unlike other shooters who attacked the rim with their backs to the basket, Bernard actually began the ascent of his shooting motion while his back was still turned.

By the time he was facing the rim, the ball was already on the tips of his fingers and on its way into the hole. The swift uncoiling motion left defenders with nothing to swat at except and empty hand. 

“He learned that shot right here!” Kern emphasized as he perfectly replicated King’s motion before burying shot after shot after shot. 

King played at Fort Hamilton from 1970-74 before moving on to team with future Knicks teammate Ernie Grunfeld at the University of Tennessee, and Albert King soon followed from 1974-77, shattering most of his older brother’s scoring marks on his way to a scholarship at the University of Maryland.

I only saw the last of the King brothers, Gerald, play under Kern, and the youngest of the talented clan made Coach Kern’s final season at the helm very special.

Gerald led the Tigers to the PSAL Final Four at St. John’s University, which I was fortunate enough to attend, even though Fort Hamilton was ultimately eliminated by Boys and Girls High School.

It turned out to be the last important high school game Kern coached, and I’m glad I was there to witness it.

Gerald went on to Hofstra following that contest, and though he never reached the NBA he is just one of several hundred student-athletes coach Kern developed during his nearly three decades of work at Fort Hamilton.

I spent plenty of time in the Tigers’ gym even after graduating, whether it was participating in police precinct basketball leagues or recreational community activities. 

And I never took the floor there without thinking of coach Kern’s football tossing feat, or his perfect replication of Bernard King’s turnaround jumper.

For years now, Fort Hamilton alumni and those close to coach Kern have been trying to get the basketball court at the school named after him while also taking contributions toward creating a Coach Kern Scholarship.

I can’t think of a more apt name for those 84 feet of hardwood than Coach Kern Court.  

He certainly didn’t lay down the floorboards in that gym, but he put down the foundation that it still thrives upon today.

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Those interested in the movement to get the court at Fort Hamilton renamed in his honor, or wanting to contribute to the Coach Kern Scholarship can visit crowdrise.com/fort-hamilton-coach-kern-scholarship/fundraiser/robertadamski.