Steve Kerr: Modesty, Acceptance and Tragedy - the story of unrivalled success
The Golden State Warriors have been simply faultless over the past two seasons. Since November 2014, they have lost just 30 of their 160 regular season and playoff games to establish themselves as the most dominant franchise in recent history.
Led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry, the Warriors are looked upon as the model franchise in the league and were - until the point guard's untimely injury - the odds-on favourites to reclaim the Larry O'Brien trophy in July.
Much of the praise has gone to the 28-year-old and his supporting cast of All-Stars Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala - along with a roster that runs deep with talent all the way into the reserves.
However, without a great coach, even the most stacked rosters are doomed to fail. Golden State has exactly that in Steve Kerr. The second-year head, who became just the seventh man in NBA history to win a championship in his rookie year, has brought the perfect mix of respect and enjoyment to the Warriors camp, which has allowed his players to shine and thrive in their current environment.
There were some doubts over Kerr's ability to step away from broadcasting - a role he enjoyed for 11 years - and into the intense lifestyle of being a head coach in one of the most demanding leagues in the world. But, in all honesty, there should never have been a concern. The signs of a brilliant leader have been there since his formative years and he chose the perfect platform to showcase that natural ability.
BORN TO DO IT
Since a young age, Kerr had been a likeable character who was comfortable in his own skin. A trait that is missing from far too many people in the world. He knew his qualities and his limitations. One of the major qualities throughout his childhood, college years and time in the NBA was his ability to connect with people from all walks of life. It was a trait that led to such a fruitful career in the sport and stemmed from his childhood growing up in Beirut, Lebanon.
“He was just a great dude, in every way. You can say something good about somebody because they’re nice, but it was more than that with Steve, it went deeper. He wanted the best in you, to help you find it." - Pete Williams
Kerr did not come from a family of athletes. Far from it. His father was an American academic who served as the President of the American University of Beirut, where the current Warriors coach spent his younger days. Having played basketball in the Middle East before moving to Palisades Charter high school in Los Angeles, Kerr was a low-level college recruit for Arizona, but the grit and determination to be a winner, plus the aforementioned personality traits that grew to personify the man, were always evident.
He was a favourite of players, fans and coaches throughout his college life and was part of the last United States team made up entirely of amateurs to win the FIBA World Championship, in 1986. His main strength was a devastating jump shot. Kerr used it to perfection to make a name for himself as one of the strongest three-point shooters in the college circuit throughout the late 1980s.
He took Arizona to the Final Four of the NCAA Divison I tournament in 1988 and his leadership and shooting from deep endeared him to a fanbase that had seen him grow during his five years with the Wildcats - where he was redshirted from '86-'87. During the run to the final four, where the number one seed in the west was blown out by Utah - the third seed - he set a NCAA record for shooting percentage from downtown.
But it was not his performances in college that gained the guard national media attention. Unfortunately, it was something much darker and disturbing that alerted the world to the story of the diminutive point guard who grew up in Lebanon.
During his rookie year in Tuscon, tragedy struck the Kerr family as Steve's father was assassinated in a planned attack as Lebanon descended into civil war. The murder was planned and Iranian officials have since faced charges for supporting the Islamic Jihad organisation that claimed responsibility for the attack.
Malcolm H. Kerr died outside his office at the American University after being shot twice in the head via a gun equipped with a silencer. It was a death that made national news in America and strained relationships between the United States and sections of the Middle East. But it was more than that. It left a family broken and in pieces. Steve, the devout family man, was alone at college and the news crushed him.
As his sister Susan wrote in her book "One Family's Response To Terrorism: A Daughter's Memoir": "It struck my brother Steve with such force as to push him wildly onto the streets of Tucson, Arizona, where he could not stop running in the aftermath of his middle-of-the-night phone call."
In a previous interview with ESPN, she expanded on those words: "I was running up and down the road in Taiwan. But Steve was the one who was alone, and he was still just a boy, really. We just couldn't imagine him getting that news in the middle of the night alone in his room."
"Before my father was killed, my life was impenetrable. Bad things happened to other people. I thought I was immune from anything like that, and so was my family."
It was the lowest point in a life that has brought unrivalled success and achievement for Steve, but his family were on hand to help him through it, as were his teammates, who developed into a second family of sorts as he dealt with losing the rock that held his life together.
There was no doubting what his father meant to him and in an interview in 1993, he gave an insight into how it affected him: "Before my father was killed, my life was impenetrable. Bad things happened to other people. I thought I was immune from anything like that, and so was my family."
Rather than return to Lebanon to grieve, the then 18-year-old was encouraged to stay at college and compete in the upcoming game. Four years later came a night of emotion for Kerr that threatened to unravel him mentally and physically as a cluster of supporters in the crowd before a game with Arizona State chanted sick and vile words about his dad.
However, all it did was prove his toughness and provide an insight into his incredible will power. Before tip-off, Kerr almost broke down as the chants hit him in devastating fashion. However, he regrouped, regained his composure and put on a shooting clinic to guide Arizona to a blowout victory.
"I think the death of his father helped Steve as a basketball player because he realised it was just basketball." - Bruce Fraser
As his close friend Bruce Fraser put it: “He was just so [expletive] angry. But that was Steve. He could turn it toward the court and win.” And the man himself was under no illusions the chants from the crowd spurred on his performance that night.
His brother echoed the sentiment: "That was Steve. He wasn't going to charge into the stands to go after those idiots. He was just going to ruin their night by winning the game."
The ability to control his temper did not come easy for Kerr. It was a trait that he worked on through many, many days of struggling to compete with his father and older brother.
"One of Steve's greatest accomplishments was to learn how to handle his temper," said his mother Ann. "He was so competitive against his father and his older brother. He would throw tantrums into his preteens. He was so much smaller. Finally, he began to beat them at basketball."
While John stated: "I give myself all kinds of credit for making Steve such a competitive player. The year I came back from college, I was 18 and Steve was 13. I beat him 10-8. He wasn't upset at all the way he used to get. He simply started the next game. He beat me 10-0. I could never beat him again."
Keeping control of his emotions was a trait that paid dividends for Kerr during his time with the Chicago Bulls. Oh, how his career could have been so different. Having spent time with the Phoenix Suns - who drafted him in '88 - Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic, Kerr made his way to the Chicago Stadium in 1993 under the tutelage of the legendary Phil Jackson.
By 1995, Michael Jordan had returned from his sabbatical in the minor leagues of baseball and was determined to re-stamp his authority on the team. He went about riling up his teammates in training and Kerr found himself on the receiving end during training camp.
The guard knew his place, he was a bench player effective at sparking life into a team with his devastating jump shot, but never of the calibre to be a franchise-leading superstar like Mike, but he would never back down from a fight, or a challenge.
"I've always respected him. He didn't give up. He fought back. He may have gotten the worst end of it, but I respected him. One hundred percent." - Michael Jordan
Jordan picked a fight with Kerr during training. Where a number of former teammates succumbed to the GOAT's physicality, Kerr stood his ground and fought his corner, but never once - not even for a second - let his temper get the better of him in the aftermath.
He fought back, make no mistake about it, but, after the incident, he took a step back, assessed the situation and it led to both players remaining on the team and the respect between them increasing. Having been left with a black eye, the situation could have panned out differently had Kerr let his emotions rule his judgement.
Jordan previously commented: "From that point on. I've always respected him. He didn't give up. He fought back. He may have gotten the worst end of it, but I respected him. One hundred percent."
The conversation following the altercation could have gone a number of ways. Let's face it, only one guy was going to leave the franchise. But as MJ came to apologise, Kerr showed his modesty by insisting he should not have upset the shooting guard during training.
It was that modesty he had picked up from his father during his formative years. Steve had previously said: "My father was a mild-mannered man with a dry sense of humour and a passion for the Middle East. One of his favourite sayings was, 'You're a modest fellow with much to be modest about.' He was kidding, but he was also serious. There's a message there. Be passionate and productive and modest. I have his passion, but mine is for basketball."
“What makes Steve so great, he doesn’t get caught up in trying to do everything like Phil Jackson. Or like Pop [the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich] or Lute." - Luke Walton
Passion, productivity, and modesty encapsulated his playing career and it all culminated in the special, once in a lifetime moment that Kerr experienced in 1997. It is a good job he earned the undisputed respect of Jordan or his name may not have been etched into history with the Chicago Bulls.
FROM THE DRIVEWAY
With the score tied at 86 in game six of the NBA Finals with the Utah Jazz, Kerr found himself on the floor. His dead-eye off the jump shot made the guard a constant threat throughout games, but he was the least of Utah's worries.
Their focus was solely pinned on Jordan. Kerr knew as much. During a timeout, he jabbed Michael in the chest and insisted that if John Stockton doubled up, he release the rock. Unsurprisingly, the double-team happened, the bench player was left unmarked, wide open, with the ball in his hands and nailed the game-winning shot to hand the Bulls their second consecutive title.
"When we played in our driveway, like any kid, we'd count down 3-2-1 and say, 'This is to win it all, and then it really happened." - Andrew Kerr
For a player who managed just 30 starts in 910 regular season games, it was a moment he could never have imagined. An event he had dreamt of a million times over in his childhood driveway had come true. His brother Andrew said at the time: "When we played in our driveway, like any kid, we'd count down 3-2-1 and say, 'This is to win it all, and then it really happened. That night Steve just screamed in my ear, 'Can you believe I just hit the game-winning shot in the NBA Finals?'"
The former Bulls number 25 showed unwavering confidence in his own abilities. He knew his strengths and utilised them to full effect on that night at the United Center. All things in Kerr's life link back to his family and, rather unfortunately, Fraser believed his basketball career was changed by the death of his father.
“It feels strange to say this, but I’ve thought about it for a while and I believe it. I think the death of his father helped Steve as a basketball player because he realised it was just basketball. He was more worldly than most of us already because of his background, but this changed his whole outlook.
"With shooters, it’s all about how you respond to a missed shot. And for Steve, who is the most competitive person I know, there just wasn’t anything to get upset about anymore. The weight of a miss, the weight of a loss, the weight of a big moment … they just didn’t mean anything to him anymore."
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
The Bulls went on to record a hat-trick of titles before Kerr was traded to the San Antonio Spurs, where he linked up with Gregg Popovich and became the first non-Celtic to win four consecutive rings. He departed Texas in 2001 before returning for a final season to claim a fifth title.
Through a 14-year playing career, Kerr spent 50 percent of his playing days studying two of the greatest coaches in history. Pop and Phil have a combined total of 16 championship rings and are seen as the pinnacle of excellence in the world of NBA head coaches.
The first-hand experience has come in handy and Kerr's gameplan takes elements from both of his former mentors, shaping the excellent passing, free-flowing Golden State Warriors that cruised to an NBA-record 73-9 regular season finish this year.
Jackson's infamous triangle offence can be seen to some extent in the way the Dubs play on the floor. Constant movement, off-ball screens and creating angles, the plan that worked so effectively for Phil in Los Angeles and Chicago has inspired Kerr and become a factor of his plan for the Warriors. Their movement off the ball, finding the open man, trusting all players to finish, is a trait that has led to San Antonio's continued power over the past 20 years and Popovich's longevity in the hot seat.
"Steve was a no-brainer. There are certain guys on your team that you know have an intuitive feel for the game." - Gregg Popovich
A number of players make the transition from the hardwood to the pine, however, some need coaxing more than others. Pop was never in doubt about Kerr's ability to successfully make the move: "Steve was a no-brainer. There are certain guys on your team that you know have an intuitive feel for the game. They’re also natural leaders and good people. They communicate well, have great work ethics and high intelligence. He had all that stuff. It was pretty easy to see."
But despite taking influence from his former coaches, his current assistant Luke Walton summed up what made him so special during an interview last season: “I think Steve borrowed from every coach he played for, including [former Arizona coach] Lute Olson, who was both our college coaches.
“What makes Steve so great, he doesn’t get caught up in trying to do everything like Phil Jackson. Or like Pop [the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich] or Lute. He sees the big picture on how he wants things done and uses things from them and incorporates it in his drills and movement and spacing.
“He constantly kept his vision the priority. Give the guy a lot of credit. A first-year coach, you think it would be natural for him to say: ‘How would’ve Phil done this?’ Instead, it was: ‘This is how I want to do it.’ And we do it his way. It’s been brilliant.’’
The Warriors head coach has the utmost respect for his two former leaders and took the huge, painstaking decision to reject the chance to reunite with Jackson before taking up his current position. After deciding it was time to explore coaching he was given the opportunity to join the New York Knicks, however, his final call was to take up the Dubs' offer.
While the potential of taking control of one of the most famous franchises in the world was tempting, relocating to the Big Apple would have meant Kerr being thousands of miles away from his children. Family has always played a huge part in his life - they helped him achieve his dreams and overcome tragedy. It was one of the main reasons he did not jump into coaching sooner.
Broadcasting offered the freedom to spend time with his kids as they grew up, but with them now a little older and making their own choices time was freeing up around him. Moving to the Bay meant he would also only be an hour or two away from them.
Kerr is a family man. But he has more than one family. He has created a sense of togetherness and team spirit at the Oracle that any team must have to win a championship. Speak to anyone in the NBA, they don't have a bad word to say about the man. He is inclusive, he makes everyone feel special and he wants to help each and every individual maximise their potential.
It has been that way since his days with Arizona and his former college teammate Pete Williams said: “He was just a great dude, in every way. You can say something good about somebody because they’re nice, but it was more than that with Steve, it went deeper. He wanted the best in you, to help you find it. And he hasn’t changed at all. That’s the amazing part.”
ONE OF THE GUYS
That personality has shone through in his role as head coach. While he has the respect of all his players, and there is no doubting his authority as the coach, he is still able to have fun and relax as one of the guys. Often challenging Stephen Curry to free-throw contests and cracking jokes with other teammates, he is somebody players want to play for and enjoy being around.
The reigning MVP explained it perfectly: "He is coach for sure. But he can definitely engage and have some fun with us and keep the mood light throughout the course of the season. You need that in a long season."
But it is not all championships, records, and happiness in the NBA - even with a team like Golden State. Some players will feel they are undervalued and may become frustrated. Dealing with reserves and bench players is just as important as managing superstar talent, and Kerr is able to control those issues.
"He is coach for sure. But he can definitely engage and have some fun with us and keep the mood light throughout the course of the season." - Stephen Curry
Take Harrison Barnes for example, he signed a four-year deal with the Warriors over the summer despite not getting as many minutes as he may have liked, and he put it down to a conversation with the head coach where Kerr kept an open dialogue and was brutally honest with the forward.
It is that honesty and openness that breeds a happy camp and Andrew Bogut gave an insight into some of the ways Kerr is able to keep the mood within the camp so jovial.
"Every couple of weeks he'll meet with guys individually and get their thoughts about how they're playing and what they need to do to get better and what he needs to do. It's open dialogue. There's no agendas, nothing personal, no favorites.
"Take a guy like Mo Speights. He's hit some game-winning shots for us and then had games when he didn't even play, but Steve's kept him abreast the whole time. Sometimes when he keeps players on the bench too long, he'll apologize to them. I think that's important.
"He's not afraid to admit if he believes he made a mistake. You can say something to him, something you may not like about what we're doing or how you're being used, and he doesn't take anything personally."
Whether it be as a player, coach or pundit, Steve Kerr is a winner. He has bred success wherever his career has taken him and the Warriors are benefitting from his decision to reject the Knicks in 2014.
He is an all-around great character. Modesty and honesty are two of his best traits. Having just won Coach of the Year, he was still campaigning for other guys to be given the award over himself. He has the winning formula and it is showing once again after a simply faultless, record-smashing season for the Dubs.
"He's not afraid to admit if he believes he made a mistake. You can say something to him, something you may not like about what we're doing or how you're being used, and he doesn't take anything personally." - Andrew Bogut
His life was altered by tragedy but it did not derail his dreams. Quite the opposite. It gave him more drive, focus, and determination to be the best he can be. The Warriors' chances of going back-to-back have taken a huge blow with the injury to Curry, but if they don't do it this year, they will be back again next season and for every campaign in the foreseeable future.
In Kerr, the franchise has a man capable of doing incredible things. He's already achieved so much and it is only his second season. Warriors fans, strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.