Steve Kerr played for the legendary Lute Olson in college, then spent his NBA career under coaching greats such as Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Lenny Wilkens, who combined for 16 championships and seven coach-of-the-year awards.
Now, the coaching clipboard has been passed down to Kerr.
“Hopefully he was paying attention,” Wilkens said.
The Warriors landed Kerr as their new head coach last week, agreeing on a five-year deal worth up to $25 million with the hope that Kerr, 48, inhaled enough magic chalkboard dust to perform as well as the men who coached him.
Kerr, like Mark Jackson, the man he is replacing as Warriors coach, takes the reins despite having zero coaching experience, not even as an assistant. Like Jackson, he will be stepping from the broadcast booth to the bench.
The Warriors prefer to focus on the rest of his resume. Kerr played a significant role on five NBA championship teams, thriving not because he was a star but because he recognized that he wasn’t. He lasted 15 seasons in the NBA because he understood the nuances of spacing, chemistry, flow and fearlessness at crunchtime.
Most famously, during a timeout in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz, Michael Jordan turned to Kerr in the huddle and told him to be on alert. Jordan expected to be swarmed defensively and told Kerr he would pass the ball to him. “I’ll be ready,” Kerr responded.
Both men delivered as promised, as a well-covered Jordan passed to a wide-open Kerr, who drilled the tiebreaking 17-footer to win the NBA championship.
That’s the courage he’s shown on the court. But he’d proved his mettle long before that.
To understand Stephen Douglas Kerr and why the Warriors owners are willing to entrust a rookie coach with the keys to their championship contender, one must go back to a shot fired in the Middle East, back to the night Kerr wept through a moment of silence.
LATE-NIGHT PHONE CALL
Malcolm H. Kerr was a prominent and widely admired academic authority on the Middle East. He also had a sweet, understated sense of humor. One of his favorite lines was: “You’re a modest fellow with much to be modest about.”
He was 52 when he was gunned down by an assassin.
That was at 9:10 a.m. Jan. 18, 1984. Kerr, the president of American University of Beirut, had emerged from an elevator walking toward a meeting in his office when he was shot in the back of the head by extremists who opposed the U.S. military presence in Lebanon.
Kerr was “shot in the back of the head for the crime of being an American,” as ESPN columnist Ian O’Connor recently put it in a detailed account of the tragedy.
Steve Kerr, then a freshman at the University of Arizona, received the news on a middle-of-the-night phone call, and he ran into the streets.
“Something like this opens your eyes. It made me understand the pain that others experience, the effect that death can have,” Kerr told the Chicago Tribune in 1993.
Two nights after his father’s death, there was a moment of silence before Arizona played rival Arizona State. Kerr sobbed, then paid tribute to his father the best way he knew how. He came off the bench to hit 5 of 7 shots, including a 25-footer on his first attempt, to lead an upset victory. “The legend of Steve Kerr was born that night,” author John Feinstein wrote in his book “A Season Inside.”
That was the first Pac-10 victory of Olson’s career. He would amass 326 more, but he has never forgotten the way Kerr kept his composure during the toughest of times.
“The assassination of his father was just depressing to the entire family and to Steve as well. You never saw Steve with his head down,” Olson, now 79 and retired, said in a phone interview. “I’m sure inside it was killing him.”
If the game after his dad’s death tested Kerr’s strength, a game in 1988 tested his resolve. Cruelly, a group of Arizona State fans taunted him during warm-ups with sinister chants such as “PLO, PLO — and “Where’s your dad?”
Kerr just dropped the ball and sat down. He had tears in his eyes.
“I’ll admit they got to me,” Kerr told the Los Angeles Times a few days later. “For one thing, it brought back memories of my dad. But, for another thing, it was just sad that people would do something like that.”
Kerr pulled it together. He scored 22 points, hitting all six of his 3-point shots.
UP FOR A CHALLENGE
Long before Jordan passed him the ball with the game on the line, Kerr tried to punch Jordan in the face.
This was in the fall of 1995, at the training camp for the Chicago Bulls, when the greatest player of all time was engaged in a war of words with a lowly draft pick who would start only 30 times in his 910 career games.
Jordan, famously hard on his teammates, was as cantankerous as ever, having been fueled by a conference semifinals loss to the Orlando Magic the previous season. Jordan, at 32, was out to prove he could regain his championship form — and his fire burned even in scrimmage.
So he took out his frustration on Kerr during one session, and the 6-foot-3, 175-bound bench player refused to back down. The trash talk escalated. Then Jordan decided to punctuate his remarks with a forearm shiver to Kerr’s chest. Kerr pushed back.
The next thing you know, punches were being thrown. Kerr wound up with a black eye, but he also earned a badge of honor.
“From that point on,” Jordan later said, “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.”
Jackson, the coach, took it a step further. He wrote in his book “Eleven Rings” that the punch was a turning point for the 1995-96 champions. Chicago won the title that year, and for the two years after that.
Traded to San Antonio during the 1998 offseason, Kerr won two more NBA titles with the Spurs (1999 and 2003).
“He made so many big shots, and his teammates trusted him,” said Mike Fratello, a former NBA coach turned TNT broadcaster, said in a phone interview. “Now it’s his opportunity to see if he can put his imprint on this group of young men.”
Wilkens, whose 1,332 career coaching victories rank second only to former Warriors coach Don Nelson, coached Kerr for three seasons.
He remembers Kerr as an unselfish player who bought in quickly to the team concept. Wilkens, now 76, said he understands why the Warriors are willing to invest in this bold experiment.
Kerr has never held a clipboard, but he’s done everything else: He shot 45.4 percent from the 3-point line during his pro playing career, the best in NBA history. He served as the Phoenix Suns president of basketball operations and general manager from 2007 to 2010. Most recently, he was a TNT broadcaster.
Given the path Kerr took to get here, there shouldn’t be any questions about his resolve.
“I think players are willing to give you their respect when you walk into that room,” Wilkens said. “It’s up to you take control of it.”
(Bay Area News Group staff writer Diamond Leung contributed to this report.)