Very Good (LONG) Sports Illustrated article on our man Steve Kerr.
Instead of a suit, Steve Kerr wore a baggy gray sweatshirt, the kind your dad might throw on to clean the garage. Rather than stand, he sat off to the side of the room, an observer in his own realm. Still, he was back at a Warriors game on Sunday for the first time in weeks, watching the opener of the Western Conference finals from the Golden State locker room and briefly addressing the players at halftime, a man unable to stalk the sideline but willing to settle for proximity. It’s now been almost a month since Kerr left to deal with ongoing complications from 2015 back surgery and, while team officials are optimistic he will coach again at some point, he remains out indefinitely.
One element of his absence is worth dwelling on, though. Here is a man who owns one of the highest winning percentages in league history, who has been named NBA Coach of the Year, and who has become so popular that there is a movement—increasingly less facetious—for him to run for office. In theory, the Warriors should be lost without him. And yet, they literally have not lost without him. Without Kerr, Golden State finished off Portland, swept Utah, and, most recently, pulled out Sunday’s 113-111 comeback win over the Spurs.
Which means that over the span of two seasons, and a pair of interim coaches—first Luke Walton and now Mike Brown—Golden State is now 46-4 without Kerr.
How are we supposed to make sense of this? How can a coach be both essential and unnecessary?
Let us investigate the possible theories and clues, starting with …
1. The Obvious Reason(s)
Also known as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson. “Everyone who gets into coaching in the NBA knows it’s all about the talent,” Kerr told me recently. And, indeed, the Warriors are deep, cohesive, and possess an almost-telepathic chemistry, especially on defense, where five players often move as one, performing an intricate dance of switches and rotations on each play. There is some truth to the idea that you could take someone from the local YMCA noon run, install him or her as Warriors coach, and the team still might win the title (so long as our noon baller knew well enough to stay the hell out of the way). As such, Golden State represents the closest thing the NBA has to a self-driving car.
Then again, at the risk of taking the automotive analogy too far, someone has to design and maintain the car. Which leads us to the idea that…
2. Kerr Possesses Some Super Secret Coaching Sauce
Ten years ago, he coached a team almost as mighty as Golden State. It rarely lost, despite holding practices at the local LA Fitness, starting no one over 6’3", and suiting up only six players, seven if they could grab someone at the last minute.
These were the San Diego Wildcats, starring Nick Kerr and his seventh grade buddies. Steve sprung the boys from last period every afternoon for “independent PE” (AKA practice). In addition to two-on-two drills, Kerr delighted in installing a few old favorites, including “Blind Pig” from the Bulls’ triangle offense (the big man comes to the high post, with the option for a “blind” backdoor pass to a cutter).
Kerr’s demeanor with the Wildcats, he told me, was “basically the same as now,” which seems unlikely considering the difference between 12-year-olds and NBA players. But Nick, who is now 24 and has shadowed the Warriors the last two postseasons, provides the same assessment. “Honestly, he was exactly like today,” Nick says. “Pretty relaxed, didn’t really yell.” Nick thinks for a moment. “Well, one time we came out really flat and weren’t trying very hard and he slammed his clipboard and it broke so, yeah, that wasn’t the first clipboard he broke in the Finals last year.”
The seventh graders remain Kerr’s only coaching experience prior to the Warriors. Which suggests that perhaps he’s just a natural. Indeed, Mike Brown describes Steve possessing “this aura of success” in which “everything he touches turns to gold,” as if Kerr were the pied piper of the W's. It makes sense. Five rings as a player and one as a coach. Retired as the NBA leader in three-point percentage. Killed it as a TNT analyst.
Normally, a man this successful would be easy—maybe even fun—to dislike. Getting to play with MJ and coach Steph? And yet…
3. Pretty Much Everyone Loves Steve
Coaches like him. Players like him. The media would clone him if possible, so that he might run every press conference for every team in every sport, reliably dispensing anecdotes and one-liners and big-picture context. When I ask his peers if they’ve ever met someone who doesn’t like Kerr, they profess to be stumped, though Ron Adams, the Warriors’ philosophically-inclined assistant, says, “But wouldn’t it be interesting to find someone who did?” Tom Tolbert, the former Warriors forward and Kerr’s teammate at Arizona, is less ruminative. He just cracks up. “C’mon, is it possible not to like Steve?”
But perhaps interim head coach Mike Brown sums it up best. “Given all the success Steve’s had, he could be an asshole and get away with it,” says Brown. “But he’s not.”
So, after filing that away as Steve Kerr’s First Boldface Leadership Secret—Don’t Be An Asshole—let us examine the potential reasons …
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
4. A Tip From Pop
When Kerr and I first discussed this story five weeks ago, before his health worsened, he had one condition: Only one photo. He understood we’d need to use one—“me standing there, pointing during a game or whatever”—but could we please leave it at that? (Editor's note: We did.) It’s something he learned from Popovich, during his time in San Antonio. The moment the players see you making it about you, not the team—when the coach gets the endorsements and poses for magazine covers and hosts a radio show—you lose them. Of course, Kerr and Pop go about this in very different ways. Pop keeps the media at bay by acting like a pissed-off professor, forever so, so disappointed in his students, while Kerr performs something closer to a comedy routine, reliably casting himself as the foil.
Their message is the same, though: It’s not about me. Which leads us to…
5. The Guy On The Street
The second time Kerr and I talked was four weeks ago, a Monday afternoon. It happened to be roughly the day his symptoms began worsening. Headaches. Neck pain. He reflexively rubbed his forehead and opened and closed his jaw, like someone trying to de-pressurize on an airplane descent. The same stuff he’s dealt with since the two back surgeries—a nicked spinal cord, a leak, confounding symptoms—were now exacerbated and subtly different. Yet, being Kerr, he still ran practice that morning and wasn’t about to bail on our lunch interview.
We walked west through downtown Oakland, toward his favorite Vietnamese place. For years, Kerr looked as if he’d forever just returned from the beach– blonde hair, trim, crinkles at the eyes. Now there was something hard about him; he was all edges, angles, creases. Two little boys approached, hoping for an autograph. Kerr signed and posed for a photo. Then a disheveled man across the street hollered “STEEEEVE!” Kerr said what he always says, what he would say later to the hotel security guard and the street vendor: “Hey, man. What’s going on? How’s it going?”
The man hurried over, holding a pock-marked canvas, and related a tale of woe. Temporary homelessness. A run-in with the police. Kerr listened, nodding and asking questions—“Did you paint that? It’s cool.” Then he said “Good luck to you,” and handed the man $20 for art supplies.
Later, while discussing leadership at lunch, Kerr said the people that he admires most are the ones like Steph Curry and Tim Duncan who possess “this amazing combination of total belief in themselves and their ability and talent yet have a genuine modesty and awareness of how lucky they are.” He paused. “Look at that guy who came up to us on the street. Think about the life that guy’s had, you know?”
For Kerr, seeing the big picture is paramount. “[Some people] are just so tunnel vision all the time and just go go go and, ‘I’m going to succeed and kick ass in life’ and they just trample over everyone. The people to me who are the most powerful leaders are the ones who have great talent in whatever their field is, great conviction in their ability to teach it and act it, but an awareness and a humility and compassion for others.”
Later, when I talk to Nick U’Ren, the Warriors special assistant who’s known Kerr for a decade, he brings up the Duncan-Curry thing. “You know how Steve always talks about Steph having that combination of humility and confidence and how that's a recipe for leadership?” U’Ren laughs. “Steve’s got the exact same thing.”
Which may be true but is also precisely the type of credit Steve doesn’t want. So let’s get back to the Warriors and how…
6. The Team is Out There Running the Show
When asked about Kerr’s approach, Warriors players invoke phrases like freedom, trust, and he lets us be ourselves. Not just the stars but bench guys. As reserve guard Ian Clark puts it: “He kind of lets us coach ourselves.” (Which is both true and not true, depending on how you view coaching.)
During film sessions, Kerr regularly asks for input. Usually it’s a defensive question—say, whether to trap the pick and roll—and usually Green speaks up first. Maybe someone else. Then Kerr calls on Iguodala because, “he has a brilliant basketball mind but he’s reluctant to speak.”
Kerr got the idea from an experience in San Antonio, late in his career.
“We’re going to go under the screen,” Popovich said during a team meeting.
“No, we gotta go over,” replied Avery Johnson, then the team’s point guard.
Pop was firm. “We gotta go under.”
And then, as Kerr remembers it, Johnson slammed his fist on the table and shouted. “YOU DON’T SEE WHAT WE SEE OUT THERE!”
Kerr was blown away. “It was a good reminder to me because this is Pop, one of the best in the world at his business, and his point guard is like, ‘You don’t see what we see.’” He continues. “On the sideline we can see something unfold but we can’t feel the speed with which it unfolds. Players might have a better call for a certain coverage based on the speed and their reaction abilities and the personnel we’re going against.”
By now the Warriors expect it. “It keeps me on my toes,” says Iguodala, who appreciates Kerr’s interest. “If he asks, I have to know what I’m talking about. I just can’t throw anything out there.”
Same goes for staffers. Some, like assistant coach Bruce Fraser, think Kerr occasionally considers too many opinions—“I have to remind him that, at the end of the day, he’s the smartest guy in the room”—but then again, you never know when doing so will win you a playoff series.
To this day, U’Rren remains surprised when Kerr unexpectedly calls to solicit his opinions on, say, the next day’s practice. “I’ll share my thoughts and at the end I’ll be thinking, ‘That’s really freaking cool that he asks me.’” But then U’Ren, a thoughtful sort, will break it down further. “I mean, I’m sure he does care what I think, but half of the value of doing this is the feeling I have afterward. I love this guy because he asked what I thought. So I always think to myself, ‘Does he really care or is he just making sure I feel valued?”
In the end, U’Ren has decided, maybe it’s irrelevant. Kerr could choose to ask him or choose not to.
7. Kerr Is Fluent In Grinder
It’s easy to forget, in hindsight, Kerr’s path to this point. He only received a scholarship to the University of Arizona because the team was 4–24 the year before he arrived. “To be honest, I brought him on the team assuming we’d recruit over him the following season,” says Lute Olson, the longtime coach, now retired. Adds Olson: “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that’s made more of an impression on me than Steve, knowing what he’s come from and what he ended up being.”
Neither was Kerr expected to succeed in the NBA, for how many slow-ish 6’3" shooting specialists do? But after being drafted in the second round by the Cavs, Kerr ended up latching on to a succession of NBA teams in need of marksman. Though he hung around, he started a total of 30 games in his career.
His was a life on the margins. He might go a week without playing, then enter a game in a high-leverage situation, expected to hit a big shot. So, as he related a few years back, he eventually began writing “FI” on the toes of his hightops. F--- it. That way, every time he looked down he’d see a reminder. You can only control so much. Let it fly.
As such, Kerr relates to players like Clark, a backup on a one-year deal. If Kerr knows Clark won’t play on a given night, he’ll pull him aside. “Hey, we’re going with Patrick (McCaw) tonight because of matchups, but it’s not a forever thing” Kerr will say. “Don’t worry about it, you’ll get your shot. Stay ready.”
Kerr says such conversations are a conscious effort to “overcommunicate” with the players. Apparently, it works. Says Clark: “Being able to hear it from your coach, rather than it just happening and not knowing why, it’s different. Your head is in a better place when you know what’s going on.”
Other times, Kerr types and prints out letters to his players. In an age of texts, emails, and social media, it’s a way to not only break through but to time-shift a conversation. The player can re-read it, digest it, sleep on it. “It was good,” Iguodala says of the letter Kerr wrote him last year, when he was frustrated. “It’s a long season with ebbs and flows and Steve put things back in perspective.” Harrison Barnes returned to Oakland last summer for Team USA camp to find a thank-you letter from Kerr, wishing him good luck. “Steve was always the guy in my corner,” Barnes says, getting a little wistful. “There are a lot of things I don’t want to say I overlooked but that maybe I took for granted after four years there.”
Kerr downplays the letters, but U’Ren says, “He really works on them. They’re heartfelt." They are also a connection to Kerr’s past. Despite his demeanor, Kerr says he was, “incredibly shy” as a boy. “I needed basketball to bring it out of me, being interviewed by the media, getting more confident with myself, becoming a better player,” he says. “I wasn’t a very confident kid growing up. But I was a good writer and I read a lot so I had a lot of that communication inside me.”
But here we go, once again, making this all about Kerr, so let’s not forget…
8. JaVale McGee!
I mean, just look at him, bounding and swatting and making people happy, his triplicate rat tails swinging like tiny, hairy metronomes. Who’s to thank for that reclamation project? Iguodala was the one who recommended signing him, after a stint together in Denver. Assistant coach Jarron Collins works with him. His teammates believe in him. And let’s not forget the men who actually signed JaVale …
9. Bob & Jerry & Joe
That’d be Myers, West, and Lacob, one NBA Executive of the Year, one living legend, and one owner who may have earned himself the office nickname “Buzz Lightyear” but whose track record is pretty darn impressive. Which suggests that perhaps all Kerr is doing is carrying out management’s larger plan, a conductor steering a train on pre-existing tracks, with a fixed destination.
Except then he wouldn’t need to yell…
10. “Hell No!”
This, according to Draymond Green, is what Kerr shouts when he takes a three. Before games. In games. At the start of shootaround. Green lines it up, is about to release and then, from the sideline, he hears a gleeful voice… “Hell No!”
For Kerr, Green represents a unique coaching challenge, a player whose strengths are also his weaknesses, whose basketball IQ exceeds that of many coaches, and who may be the Warriors’ most important player while definitely being their most volatile. A man who’s spent his life succeeding by challenging authority. He and Kerr have battled at times, never more volubly than last season, when Green became so angry at halftime of a game in Oklahoma City that arena security showed up.
And yet Green says he now gets it, bringing up…
11. That Game Against The Pelicans
Last year, the Warriors were playing in New Orleans. As Green tells it, in the first half Steph pulled up for “some crazy shot.” Then Klay did the same thing. The lead slipped, from double digits all the way down to one, at which point Kerr called timeout. “And at that point,” says Green, “I’ve taken like one shot and have like, no turnovers. But [Steve] looks right at me and goes, ‘What the f--- is wrong with you? Get your f------ head in the game!”
Green was shocked. Kerr was yelling at him?!?
“But he’s smart because he knows exactly what I’m going to do,” Green says. “I’m gonna get mad and then I’m going to yell at everyone else and get them going.” He pauses. “Now is that a tactic? Is it on purpose? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. It’s coaching is what it is. That’s coaching. Sometimes I sit there afterward and think, ‘Damn, that motherf----- got me.’”
Green continues. “But he knows me. You couldn’t do that to someone else. He has a feel for it. That’s his thing. He has this feel for exactly what each player needs.”
Which brings us back to Hell No. “He knows yelling that turns on something inside of me,” says Green. “If he just said, ‘Don’t shoot that shot, it’s not right for us,’ it wouldn’t work. (Kerr says his goal is to motivate Green because, as he explains in an email, “he thrives on people telling him he can't do things, so I yell that partly as a joke and partly because I think it will motivate him. He's at his best with a chip on his shoulder and I'm trying to keep it there.”)
So, where does that leave the two? “We’re as close as anybody on the team," Green says of his relationship with Kerr. “I mean, I can talk to Steve about anything,” he says. “We can go at each other and know it’s never personal.”
Case in Point: When Kerr showed up before practice last Friday and saw Green, the forward was excited—“I was like, holy s---, coach is here!”
Kerr? He grinned and said, “Oh, so now that I’m gone you start making all your threes.”
Which is as good a segue as any to…
12. Cocaine (Okay, Maybe Not Literally)
When Kerr was in college, a reporter asked Arizona players for their New Year’s resolutions. Kerr said he only had one: “To keep coach off the cocaine next year.”
Lute Olson laughs at the memory. “Only Steve could get away with that.”
Friends get it just as bad. While recording audio for old editions of NBA Live video games, Kerr delighted whenever he got to provide commentary for old teammates. Recalls Marv Albert, his partner both at TNT and for the recordings, “He’d be like, “Oh no, what ridiculous shot selection from Jud Buechler!” Now when Albert arrives for the standard pre-game coach’s interview, Kerr makes sure to hang a dartboard with Marv’s face on it, often pretending to be in the middle of a game when he arrives. And because Kerr finds it hilarious that Marv always opens broadcasts with an evocative weather-related comment—“It’s a cold, windswept night here in Oklahoma City!”—Kerr had a chart of adjectives made for Albert. Some are even printable.
No event is too formal, or mundane, for a Kerr crack. Asked after a Finals loss in 2015 how much pressure was on the Warriors, on a scale of 1 to 10, he responded: “Five point one three.”
There is, of course, a rationale. To cut through the self-seriousness of sports. Speak the time-tested male language of mockery (“Hell no!”), and most important, keep his team loose. Rarely does a Warriors film session go by without Kerr splicing in some clip, from the infamous Collins “Slow Break” to a snippet of Walton in “The Young and the Restless.” Last month, after Andre Iguodala decided video coordinator Luke Loucks bore a resemblance to a certain gravel-voiced coach, Kerr cut in a segment of photos titled “Luke or Thibs?” (Loucks may never escape the Iguodala-bestowed nickname “Lil’ Thibs”).
But—and here would be Kerr’s Second Boldface Rule—he saves his best material for himself. To go back through his press clippings, from college to the NBA to coaching, is to see a master of self-deprecation at work. Here he is, as a young guard with the Cavs, boasting of guarding Jordan that, “I can hold Michael to 65 on any given night.”
“The most important part of broadcasting,” says Albert, in explaining why Kerr transitioned so well, “is showing the audience you don’t take yourself too seriously.” (This is part of what makes Jeff Van Gundy so good at the job, and why Shaq struggled for so long).
Not all of Steve’s jokes land. Nick Kerr tells of how his dad made a bunch of cracks during a team meeting the week before he took his leave and none of the players laughed, which in turn caused the coaches to cackle. “He just sat there and took it,” says Nick. “That’s how he is.”
Is there some larger utility to all this? It’s revealing to create word clouds from Kerr’s comments, whether they be at a press conference or in an interview. Take his commencement speech at the University of Arizona, in 2004. The terms that figure most prominently include team, family, coach, cultural differences, opportunity, kids, and understanding. You’ll find similar themes in his other speeches. For contrast, try puling up a word cloud of, say, the current leader of the United States.