Steve Kerr is feeling better, or at least well enough to function as head coach of his Golden State Warriors.
Given his health issues of these past two years, that’s a start. The fact that he returned to the sidelines Sunday night and watched his team throttle the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of these NBA Finals?
This was a big win for the franchise and a moral, emotional victory for their coach.
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Until he walked into Oracle Arena a few hours before tipoff, pulled aside assistant Bruce Fraser and said, “I think I’m going to coach today,” his painful narrative remained the same. Some days he can withstand the migraine headaches and chronic physical discomfort and coach his team, other days he is limited to discussions in the practice facility, visits to the locker room, film sessions and emails and frequent phone conversations.
The hope within the organization – consistent with Kerr’s intention – is that their coach endures the remaining games of the best-of-seven series and the team rewards him with a second championship in three years. But there are no illusions. There is a legitimate fear of a relapse, a concern that Kerr’s symptoms will intensify and again prompt him to turn his coaching duties over to his lead assistant.
Last year it was Luke Walton for 43 regular-season games. This postseason it has been Mike Brown, a three-time former NBA head coach, subbing in and directing the league’s most talented team to a perfect 11-0, including Thursday’s series-opening romp. Sunday’s 132-113 victory in Oracle Arena extended their playoff record to a pristine 14-0, with the series shifting to Cleveland for the next two games.
Along with the rousing ovation Kerr received from the crowd when he strolled to the sidelines before tipoff and later, when he strolled the hallways outside the locker room and was stopped very few feet by well-wishers wanting a hug or a handshake, one question tempered the mood and hung in the air, sort of like a soft lob that not even Kevin Durant would attempt to throw down.
How would Kerr feel Monday? After the stress of his return to the sidelines following a six-week absence?
“It was pretty sweet,” said Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser, one of Kerr’s closest friends. “He is such a comforting force for all of us, and he’s back. I thought he looked better than he normally does. He wasn’t as fidgety. I felt like he was holding nothing back. But, look. He’s better than he was. But what does that mean? Having him back is great. Having his health back is the really important thing.”
Kerr, 51, whose hangover-like symptoms are caused by spinal fluid leakage that has persisted since he underwent back surgery during the 2015 offseason, continues to pursue remedies. On Monday, he is scheduled to meet with yet another Bay Area surgeon before the team leaves for Cleveland. He has been treated at Stanford and Duke, two of the nation’s premier medical facilities, and has been open to anything and everything, including yoga, physical therapy and medical marijuana.
As recently as Wednesday afternoon he sat courtside watching practice, visibly uncomfortably as he chatted amiably with reporters. He shifted in his seat, rubbed his eyes and stretched his neck as he sought relief from the pain.
But hints that he was experiencing some improvement began later in the week and gained some steam Saturday when he participated in practice and then spent several minutes at midcourt, speaking with general manager Bob Myers and members of his staff.
The official word came from Kerr when he addressed the media before the game – and before he said a word to his players.
“They probably already know because they’re because they’re all on their phones on the time,” he said with a grin. “They know I’m doing better. I’ve been kind of giving them updates. But it doesn’t matter, whether it’s Mike or me, we’re doing the same stuff.”
Maybe, but his presence matters. It matters a lot. The Warriors are a playful, joyful bunch, and they take their cues from their third-year coach. He plays music during practice, cracks jokes in the huddle and, far from being a pushover, is appreciated for creating a nurturing family-style atmosphere.
His players’ response to his return was exactly what you would have expected. Stephen Curry spoke about the team’s upbeat mood, Draymond Green said “it was great to see him over there and have him talking in the timeouts, and out there leading us.”
Klay Thompson might have been the happiest man in the arena not named Steve Kerr. His prolonged shooting slump ended – coincidentally, or not – with a 22-point performance that included four 3-pointers and increasing evidence that his swagger was making a comeback. “He had what?” Durant cracked. “Seven rebounds. Never seen it.”
Though Curry scolded himself for his eight turnovers, the Warriors’ performance, if initially, transitioned into a romp in the park. Curry finished with a triple-double and during one possession dribbled around and then danced right past LeBron James for a layup. Durant was tremendous with 33 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, once again elevating the Warriors to another level. Green was in early foul trouble and complained fiercely after one call, but kept his cool and had another strong game. Andre Iguodala came to Green’s aid with excellent second-half defense against James, who still managed a triple-double by the end of the third period.
“It was just great to be on the sidelines again,” Kerr added. “That’s what makes it so much fun, to feel the energy of the Finals. The talent on the floor in this series is unbelievable. It really is a series that’s just loaded with high-powered weapons all over the floor.”
Kerr, of course, should be used to this by now. If you wonder why he didn’t just sit back, let the competent Brown continue, devote his full attention to resolving his health issues? Don’t be fooled by the boyish grins, the charming personality, the keen intellect and global sophistication. This time of year, he’s a competitive beast – and all about the rings.
During his lengthy playing career, Kerr gained the trust of Michael Jordan and was an integral part of three Chicago Bulls championship teams. He won two more titles with the San Antonio Spurs, blending in and spotting up for jumper after jumper.
Because Kerr is so well respected by his players and team officials, Myers refused to squeeze his coach to name a date for his return.
“It’s not like there is a blueprint for this,” Myers said. “We were just hoping Steve could coach at some point. He has earned the right to make that decision.”