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Taco Trey Kerby and the hunt for Bulls gear
What was real about the Bulls? What do we merely think we remember? NBA writer and podcaster Taco Trey Kerby shares his Bulls days in Plano.
(A young Taco Trey Kerby preps that elusive 7th Bulls championship.)
One of my goals for my book is to see the Bulls dynasty through all perspectives, including those inside Illinois yet out of the immediate Chicago area.
I had no idea a prominent NBA writer would give me that glimpse, and much more.
But that’s what happened when Trey Kerby sent me photos of his Bulls gear, an interaction that ultimately led to the kind of conversation only possible between two hardcore sports fans of the same team and same age.
This started last month, when I put out the Bat Signal for great Bulls gear. Among the respondents was Trey Kerby — or Taco Trey Kerby, as he is known among NBA fans.
What I did not know is that he is a diehard Bulls fan. I mean the kind of Bulls fan with whom I meet and I immediately want to trade trivia. I mean the kind of Bulls fan who just for the hell of it tweets all of the Bulls who have worn #5 in his life — a topic dear to my heart as well.
Trey caught my thread on Bulls gear and responded with a pair of gems, first this…
…and then this:
I asked him where he was from, and the answer was Plano, a western suburb near Aurora, about 55 miles or so southwest of the United Center. He lived there from when he was two until adulthood, and my plan was to talk to him about Bulls fandom for fans who are in Illinois, but not in or near Chicago.
We covered that and so much more.
In this edited interview, Trey, 36, and I, 38, discuss the origins of his Bulls fandom, what it’s like to play pickup basketball with Dickey Simpkins and Randy Brown, the mythological truth of Michael Jordan, his passion for Bill Wennington and the never-ending hunt for the perfect old school Bulls gear.
I want to hear how your Bulls fandom came about. Were your parents Bulls fans?
No doubt about it. For me, my memory really starts in the ‘90-’91 season, but I also see pictures from before that. I went from a Dr. J hoop to a Michael Jordan hoop as soon as the Michael Jordan hoops were available. So no doubt my Dad was Bulls fan and passed it on down.
I just always remember being a Bulls fan. When I think back to stories my dad told me about him growing up, Bird was his favorite. He loved Dr. J as well. He grew up in southern Illinois, in Danville, so closest to Indianapolis. But he was a Bears fan, a Cubs fan and a Bulls fan.
For me, the Bears stuck, the Bulls stuck, but I wanted to be a Braves fan because I loved Deion Sanders. But it was always the Bulls in our house. And growing up at that time, how would it not be?
Tell me about Plano.
We are known as the world’s biggest producer of plastic tackle boxes. And that to me is the perfect summation of what Plano is. Plano Molding. If you go fishing, guaranteed you have a Plano tackle box. We are a factory town. When I was a kid, it wasn’t even considered a far west suburb. But as Aurora grew really big and Oswego grew really big, it filtered out to Plano.
When I was growing up, I think it was population 6,000, and it was a big deal a few years ago when they finally got five digits onto the town. “Population Plano: 10,008 people” or whatever it was.
All of my friends were Bulls fans, until the Magic got a little bit good, and then you saw some people were into Shaquille O’Neal or Penny Hardaway. But everybody I knew was a Bulls fan. I am looking back at pictures and I can’t believe how many of us were shaving our heads as 10-year-olds. (Laughs.)
Everybody wanted to be Jordan. It was a big deal who got to wear 23 during all of the sports seasons. You could call it a Robin Ventura number or a Ryne Sandberg number, but everyone knew you wanted to wear #23 for Jordan.
There was always a division between the Cubs and Sox, even out in Plano, a little bit away in a small town. But everybody was for the Bulls.
What was your first Bulls jersey?
My first Bulls jersey was a red 23 Jordan.
Did you get any others?
I had a white 23 Jordan. I had a red 45. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve continued to accumulate them. I’ve got a Robin Lopez #8. That’s probably my rarest one because he only had it for like a season before LaVine showed up. I’ve got a Noah Christmas jersey. I’ve got Derrick Rose in pinstripes. I’ve just continued accumulating them.
And that’s the other good thing about the Bulls is they’ve had such a good, consistent look for such a long time, and you wore clothes super baggy back in the 90s. So now when I’m home I can go through my mom’s basement and like, “Wow, this shirt I wore in 6th grade, it still fits.”
Everybody practiced the Magic Johnson no-look pass, everybody practiced the MJ up-and-under. But we also practiced the Bill Cartwright free throw, where one person would get to shoot it and the other people would mimic trying to not get a lane violation.
I also did the John Paxson, “I’m irate that I tried to draw a charge and was called for a block,” and the Craig Hodges “I’m not looking at the three-point rack.”
Did you do any of those player imitations?
We definitely did the Cartwright free throw. To this day, the Cartwright free throw is a go-to move in a pick-up game. I don’t know if we ever took it to the extremes of doing lane violations (laughs), but now that you mention it, I really wish we would have.
Another huge one for us was trying to kiss the ball off the glass as high as you possibly could, like above the square. That for us was the Pippen bank. The Scottie Pippen finger roll as high as you possibly could off the glass. And you know, when you’re 12 years old and it’s an accomplishment to be able to touch the net, you have to go for the cool finger rolls.
Definitely. I was flipping through your tweets. Among the things I’ve learned:
Taco Joe, Corie Blount and Good News Cliff share a birthday. Didn’t know that.
Dickey Simpkins apparently was playing in men’s leagues in Chicago up until 2012.
Definitely. I think he was on the same team as Randy Brown. At least that’s how I remember it in my head at this point. We were living in Lombard at the time, playing in Glendale Heights and Arlington at some point. I’ve had a few different leagues, and at one point there was a Randy Brown - Dickey Simpkins team.
And obviously they’re the best players in the league despite the fact that they are now middle-aged men. But it’s pretty weird to see — I mean, I don’t know that Randy Brown and Dickey Simpkins were my childhood heroes, but it was somebody who was kind of a part of your life.
That’s perfectly said. Because it really was Michael, Scottie, Horace, Dennis. Untouchable. Couldn’t imagine meeting them. But all those other people. Randy, Dickey, Bobby Hansen, all those guys seemed like, “Maybe that’s me.”
So I would imagine that running into Dickey Simpkins on the court would be pretty exciting.
Yeah, just honestly to be in the same gym with an NBA player. It was 2012, I probably would have been 28 at the time — so you’re familiar that you could run into an NBA player. I’ve played in leagues where all of these former — like, Pierre Pierce was a huge recruit from the Chicagoland area, Imari Sawyer, and now they’re just playing with their buddies from back in high school in men’s leagues.
So you know it could happen, but you don’t think about a guy you saw win three championships being a guy who just happens to live in the Chicagoland area. So it was definitely cool.
Bill Wennington was really high on that list for me of random Bulls player who seems like a really cool guy. He had the classic, “Me and Michael combined for 57 points.” You have to have some of those guys on the team. You can’t just have the superstars. You have to have the people who are bringing the flavor and the character to make a team really memorable.
I saw you had an affinity for Jo Jo English and Rusty LaRue and it looks like Taco Joe as well.
Oh man, you’re pulling the deep names. I love it.
My name on Twitter has been Taco Trey Kerby for literally a decade because the Taco Joe Kleine nickname came up as a joke. The fact that the guy’s nickname was “Taco” because he was in at the end of a game. It’s like a human victory cigar, but to a different, weirder level to me. And how does that sort of thing not stick with you for 20 years?
So that’s where “Taco Trey Kerby” comes from?
Absolutely, yeah. I said it on a podcast at some point. I said, “If somebody does,” whatever it was, “I’ll change my name to ‘Taco Trey Kerby’” in honor of Joe Kleine. That has been the case forever, and now at this point, it became a nickname for me as well. It’s great.
And “Taco Trey” sounds great too.
Perfect. And maybe a bit more flavor than “Taco Joe.”
That’s so funny. How tall are you?
You played in high school?
I played through high school, went to one team meeting in college — I was at a DIII school, so for me, I didn’t want to put more effort into it when I was at the time trying to go to medical school. But yeah, through high school.
And what number were you in high school?
I was 13. I was never one of the people who wanted to wear 23, because for me, I knew I wasn’t good enough to be wearing 23. I felt I couldn’t carry that mantle. I was happy to go with 13. It was a cool number around our neighborhood. I went for 13. I didn’t think I could pull off 23. I think that was one of my savvier moves as a youngster.
Let me ask you some things about growing up: Did you go to Grant Park for any rallies?
No, I never went to Grant Park for the rallies. I was 7 in ‘91 so 9 in ‘93, and my mom wasn’t going to take me to be jammed into the city. I remember watching them, of course.
Random run-ins during the dynasty?
I don’t remember ever having a random run-in as a kid. For me it was, once I got a little bit older and I established myself in the career, we got in touch with Bill Wennington. He became a fan of our show.
It was pretty funny: I’ve been married to my wife since 2008, and one of the first things we took from her parents when we moved into our house was her mom had randomly seen Bill Wennington out at dinner. She said, “Hey Bill, can I take your picture?” This is a picture of him looking straight at her, not with anybody in the background. “This is hilarious. We have to have this in our house.”
So we’ve had this in our house for 12 years, and now we’ve gotten to know Bill Wennington. My wife was out to dinner in Boston and he randomly sat down next to her — he got seated next to her. He said, “Hey, you’re Trey’s wife! Let’s send him a picture.”
So for me, it wasn’t as a kid, but once I got older and had a bit of a career, that’s when I started knowing Bulls. Well, I guess just Bill Wennington.
(Photo of Bill Wennington in Trey’s house)
So this is the heart of this. When you grow up near the lake, you have no concept of the rest of Illinois. You know the North Shore suburbs, you know the city, and we just had no sense of the rest of the state, or even just a little bit west where you were. We felt a great ownership over this Bulls experience.
What was Bulls fandom like when you lived in Illinois but you didn’t live in Chicago or the near north suburbs?
Interesting. It’s WGN-based, for sure. That’s how I consumed most of the games, and it was an event to get to go to a game. I remember seeing games both in Chicago Stadium and in the United Center, and every time it was a huge deal. We’re making the trip in. It’s an entire production when you have to tack on driving 50 minutes to an hour to even get to the venue.
I also remember being so excited when those opportunities would come up. My mom worked for a bank, and every once in a while the tickets would come up, and she would say, “Alright, who are you picking between these games?” “Rookie Jerry Stackhouse?? I gotta go see him! He scored 20 in four straight games!”
So me, it was just devouring whatever I could get, ESPN, WGN. Reading whatever I could get my hands on, whether it be SLAM Magazine, Sports Illustrated. And then the actual live experience to me was a gift. It was such a huge deal to be able to go and be in the arena.
What was your first game you attended?
I honestly don’t remember my first game. What do I actually remember versus being told I remember? The one that sticks out to me is this game against Jerry Stackhouse, for whatever reason. I just remember being delighted to be going. I’m sure the 76ers weren’t a great team at that point, but I remember the feeling of being so hyped to be seeing these guys in person.
Was there any sort of team events where they would come to Plano? We always hear like, “Randy Brown will be at the Jewel in Naperville!” and to us on the North Shore, we were like, “wow, that’s out there.” Was there anything like that?
No, there wasn’t. For us it was the Chicago Bears. The Bears would come and play against our high school staff and our high school gym would sell out. It would be the Bears vs. the teachers.
What were your newspapers?
We were a Sun-Times family. And then the Aurora Beacon. Aurora was our big city. It was the Wayne’s World era.
What were championship celebrations like?
What were championship celebrations like? I remember watching the championships at home with my mom, and my sister, who like I said, was four years younger than me. So I don’t remember really celebrating with her until she got a little bit older. I remember her having a Toni Kukoc-themed birthday party when she turned 7. I was like, that’s pretty awesome.
I guess they weren’t really anything special, our celebrations, until the second set of championships, because at that point I was old enough to stay up until 11 o’clock at night and understand what’s going on, or go to a family member’s house and watch it and then come back a little bit later.
For me, the first three championships are my childhood championships, where I have bits or pieces where I’m remembering specific moments, but I don’t have the totality of the experience. The second ones are where I feel very formative. I can remember play after play and sequence after sequence. The Jazz scoring 54 — I remember sitting on my uncle’s couch for that one.
You’ve made an entire career writing about basketball. Covering it. And you’ve got this formative experience as a Bulls fan where you were part of history. The way I see it, all of us who were here and could participate in it on a daily basis were part of history.
How has your experience as a Bulls fan colored your NBA writing and your basketball writing?
It’s very strange, because when you look back at Jordan’s accomplishments and you look back at the totality of his record and everything he accomplished, it almost seems mythical. You’re like, nobody goes to the Finals and wins every single time. Teams rarely get there three times in a row, let alone win it three times in a row, let alone do that twice.
But then it’s also like, I remember watching it happen and I remember seeing how it happened and I remember feeling how it happened.
There are always comparisons between LeBron and Jordan, and the thing I always come back to is that there are games where you can tell that LeBron is not 100% into it, and you can imagine LeBron losing a Finals game, and you can talk about how he has feel-out games and that sort of thing.
But the Jordan aspect is that, I never thought he was going to lose. I never thought that there was a chance that this would be the game that we just let slide by.
So to me, that’s part of it: remembering how it actually happened. All of these things that seem like a storybook or like a mythical character that couldn’t actually exist, they really did happen. It’s very strange that the team you’re growing up watching, you feel like they will never lose. And I wonder if that has any impact down the line.
Because for me, when I look at basketball teams now, if you don’t have the best player, I’m like, you’re probably not going to win. And sometimes I feel like that is too simplistic, but then I’m also like, I did watch 10 seasons where it came down to, “We’ve got the best guy — our team’s going to win.”
So maybe it dumbs things down a bit when you’re watching that kind of talent, and you’re like, this is what it takes to win. You have to have the best guy, or at least someone very close to it, and hopefully more than one.
Right: this is what it looks like, and I know what it looks like because I watched it every single year. I do that too, where I say, “This team can’t win. It’s not going to happen.” it also made me really appreciate dynasties. It never bothered me if the same team was winning repeatedly.
If the Yankees lost a World Series, it never bothered me that they would re-tool with a vengeance. I was like, “Yes, that’s how sports is supposed to be.”
Yes. And that’s something that has been funny to me as a grown-up now. You have your group chat with friends from back in the day, and it would be driving me crazy to see them being like, “I can’t stand the Warriors, what fun is this? You know they’re going to win every year.”
And I’m like, “Guys, this is what we grew up doing.” When we were watching basketball, we said, “Our team is going to win every single year — this is awesome!”
But also, the weird thing is that it feels like when Jordan and the Bulls were doing it, everybody loved them. And I feel like now if you’re on top for a couple years, everybody is going to hate you at the end of it. And that was never the case with the Bulls.
Yeah, and the way that they were infused in the culture. You mentioned Bill Wennington — he had his own McDonald’s sandwich. Which I never had. Did you ever have the Beef Wennington?
Oh man, I had the Beef Wennington.
I went to great lengths, probably five years ago, to track down a newspaper article mentioning it. Because that’s the kind of thing where you’re like, “I remember there being a Beef Wennington, but was that a real thing, or was that something that one local McDonald’s came out with?” Like, “Haha, that will be funny.”
No, it was a Chicago-wide thing. There are all of these articles written about it. That was real.
I remember when Kobe and Pau were winning their championships and everybody was like, “Look at how Hollywood these guys are. D.J. Mbenga has a publicist.” Yeah, well, Bill Wennington had a sandwich. It was pretty impressive.
That’s so funny. I have a friend who is trying to track down the Zippin’ Pippen commercial.
(Laughs) I don’t even remember Zippin’ Pippen.
It was like Jolt or something. It was a soft drink, and the commercial was, (singing), “Zippin! Pippen! ZIP-pin! PIP-pen!” It had this escalating sound to it. And it’s not on YouTube. And this guy has gotten real intense trying to track down the commercial.
Yeah, and that’s a crazy thing, remembering that kind of thing. Like, “That was real, right?” I don’t imagine a lot of teams had their third best player get a line of soft drink cups at McDonald’s, but we had the Dennis Rodman color-changing cups. I remember going to Subway and getting enough punch cards to buy the helmet with the horns on it.
Something will just pop in my head and I’ll say, “Man, I wonder if I can find that these days,” and it will turn out that so many of those things were local specialties, like the Dennis Rodman Tattoo Shirt. There’s that white shirt they sold at Sports Authority —
Oh my goodness man. I can still remember that hanging on a rack at Sports Authority, and I feel like such an idiot for not buying it. Like, “What am I going to do with this? I can’t wear it to school. This is when tattoos were frowned upon.” But now I would kill to have it.
I got it at a Sports Authority — the one just west of the Rock and Roll McDonald’s.
The tall one.
Yep. I had it. And I still have it. It’s not going anywhere. I wore it to All-Star Saturday night.
But if I wasn’t able to tell you right now, “I can go upstairs to my closet and get it,” we would both be like, “Did that really exist or was that a joke on NBA Inside Stuff?”
Exactly. And that’s the thing: I feel like I’ve done a good job of saving that kind of stuff, but I’m also like, how many things did I throw away that I wish I had back right now? I was going through a box and I found an old Michael Jordan’s Restaurant hat. Not the Michael Jordan Steakhouse. Remember he had that restaurant?
Yeah, on LaSalle.
Yeah. The hat was destroyed. I hadn’t thought about this hat in 25 years, but I was also like, I wish I had this preserved. Because yeah, I remember Michael Jordan’s first failed restaurant. Not everything he touches is gold. Not everything is this beautiful steakhouse. But yeah, you’re exactly right: Some of those things seem so unreal or so minor that they wouldn’t be backed by McDonald’s or Subway or these huge corporations.
Like, is this Bulls three-peat horn hat a real hat? Was it ever licensed by the Bulls? Or did SportMart make it and just started selling it? I don’t know. But I’m glad I have it. I’m glad that’s one of the things that survived. Because there’s so much of it. I’m sure they’re just printing it. And there was enough of it in a concentrated area that you knew so many people who would have the horns helmet.
Right. You went to the bank for your first checking account and it came with a t-shirt for some reason.
Exactly! There were a lot of Starter jackets. There was a lot of Nike stuff. There was a lot of Jordan stuff. And then there were a lot of random Bulls sweatshirts with an embroidered neck. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to track down on eBay. There’s just so much of that licensed or unlicensed or barely licensed stuff.
You can track it down on eBay. But you have to first remember to even know to look for it.