Unscripted, as usual, Steve Kerr held up his right hand, revealing a thin cut on his little finger. Guilty as charged. In a fit of anger during Thursday’s opener of the NBA Finals between Golden State and Cleveland, the Warriors’ coach smacked his clipboard into pieces, making him 0 for 3 this season. “The third one this year,” he said with a grin while chatting casually after Friday’s media session at Oracle Arena.
The fact Kerr was joking, smiling, laughing and lingering near the baseline? Friday was a good day. Many days are not so good. While the Warriors attempt to win consecutive NBA championships, their second-year coach contends with constant headaches, neck pain and fatigue.
The persistence of Kerr’s ailments is something of a medical mystery, though it traces to the back surgery he underwent last July to remove a ruptured disc. Spinal fluid leaked into his system during the procedure, and despite a second operation to correct the problem in September, the puncture site refuses to close. The effect is painfully obvious; he has lost approximately 15 pounds off an already wiry, athletic frame.
“This summer is going to be big,” he said. “I’m going to see a lot of specialists and see if I can get this cleared up. I can sleep and work out, but the headaches never go away. It’s very disconcerting.”
I like being on the floor talking to the players. I don’t like corporate meetings, wearing button-down shirts and slacks every day.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, on his stint as the Phoenix Suns’ general manager
Though Kerr attempts to downplay the extent of discomfort that led to his 43-game absence and the temporary ascension of assistant Luke Walton, members of the organization shake their heads in amazement; his Warriors never lost a beat and thus far have yet to lose a postseason series.
“Coach has a great feel just for the energy and the temperature of the team,” suggested veteran Shaun Livingston. “Then he obviously plays the matchups well. Just to be able to rotate that is impressive.”
With an intact, versatile roster that features two-time MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Golden State stormed to a league-record 73 victories, breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, then eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder to become only the 10th NBA team to recover from a 3-1 deficit.
“Think about that for a minute,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said, his voice rising with emotion. “This whole year has had elements of stress. First Steve couldn’t coach. Then Luke came in. Then it was ‘When do I come back?’ Then it was our record. I think Steve’s been going on guts for a long time.”
It’s been a rough, incredibly hard year. It’s headaches, it’s neck aches, it’s no fun. But the one redeeming quality is to see what this team is doing and enjoy the process. We have a lot of fun together. And coaching helps. It takes my mind off the other things.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr
But not strictly guts. Perspective and life experiences, too. In 1984, during his freshman season at Arizona, his father was murdered by political extremists in Lebanon. Malcolm Kerr was an expert on the Middle East and president of the American University of Beirut.
Kerr, who lived overseas for much of his childhood, speaks often of his father’s influence, and of how basketball provided great comfort after the tragedy. None of that has changed. His love and passion for the game are sustaining him again, nudging him off the couch, prodding him into the car for the drive to the airport or practice facility, providing him strength to stand on the sideline when his body is telling him to slump onto a chair or, worse, to stay home.
“It’s been a rough, incredibly hard year,” he said recently. “It’s headaches, it’s neck aches, it’s no fun. But the one redeeming quality is to see what this team is doing and enjoy the process. We have a lot of fun together. And coaching helps. It takes my mind off the other things.”
Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser can sense how his longtime friend is feeling based on the number of one-liners delivered on a particular day. Kerr’s amiable personality and famously playful wit have been familiar traits throughout his playing career with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, and as general manager of the Phoenix Suns and television analyst with TNT. Earlier in the week, while speaking privately in a hallway after practice, he took a few jabs at his front office tenure.
“I didn’t like being a GM, and frankly, I wasn’t very good at it,” he said, his blue eyes alight with humor. “I like being on the floor talking to the players. I don’t like corporate meetings, wearing button-down shirts and slacks every day. I’m not a fan of the salary cap (issues). I think I always wanted to coach.”
As Myers noted, “I think Steve’s finally found his calling.”
Now, if he could only reclaim his health.