Ailene Voisin

'This just feels like a crisis': Steve Kerr feels protesters' pain on eve of Kings game

Steve Kerr on Stephon Clark rally with Matt Barnes

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he supports Stephon Clark's family, but he has a game to coach after Matt Barnes rallied for Clark.
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Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he supports Stephon Clark's family, but he has a game to coach after Matt Barnes rallied for Clark.

Steve Kerr eased into a chair after Friday’s practice, consumed by his Warriors and their recent onslaught of issues. Injuries to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Concerns about Kevin Durant approaching the limit of permissible technicals. Three consecutive losses. Seven defeats in 10 games.

The familiar feel-good vibe of recent seasons – the one accompanying the team that sketches masterpieces on the hardwood – has taken an undeniably darker turn.

Yet none of this precluded Kerr from addressing the fatal police shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, the outrage within Sacramento’s black community, and in a larger sense, America’s irrational love affair with assault rifles and the second amendment. This is personal. This is his nightmare, revisited.

His late father, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, who was president of American University in Beirut, was murdered in a hallway outside his office in 1984. Steve Kerr was a freshman at Arizona at the time. For the most part, he internalized his anger, privately seething but publicly declining to share his fury and grief.

That all changed these past few years with the increasing number of high-profile police shootings that were caught on camera and exposed on the screen. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Stephon Clark …

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“I’ve always had beliefs and opinions, but it didn’t feel necessary to express them until recently,” said Kerr. “Like the kids (at Parkland), I’m pissed off and angry. And this just feels like a crisis.”

With the Warriors traveling to Sacramento late Friday for Saturday’s 7 p.m. game against the Kings at Golden 1 Center, Kerr and his players will be thrust into the downtown epicenter. General manager Bob Myers was expected to speak with Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive, both to lend support and discuss security measures and logistical concerns. Some of the players, who have been contacted personally by former teammate Matt Barnes, are debating whether to attend the rally he is sponsoring Saturday afternoon at Cesar Chavez Park. Game-day obligations, including a morning shootaround, complicate the situation.

Durant, who has lost close friends to gun violence, said he wasn’t sure about his plans, but praised the Kings for their response to the shooting and applauded the community for its relatively tempered response.

“It’s good to see people rallying for change,” he said. “I love what Vivek said. It was incredible. The way he stood up for Sacramento, and how he spoke up as someone who cares, it was incredible, man, and everybody rallied around that. We’re all a family in the NBA, and I’m proud to be part of this (Kings) family.”

Kerr, joined by colleagues Gregg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy and Rick Carlisle, to name a few, is often the man on the stage, gripping the microphone, running the point. His message is powerful, succinct and rational. He respects the second amendment and the right to bear arms, but believes universal background checks are no-brainers and doubts the Founding Fathers envisioned a day when citizens needed assault weapons or bump stocks for protection.

Before Thursday’s game against Milwaukee, he related a moving meeting he had with the family of a 20-year-old victim of the Oct. 1 massacre in Las Vegas that killed almost 60 people. He spoke gently at first, his words coming slowly, thoughtfully. But as he recounted more details – nuances about the victim’s sister, her pending high school graduation, the boy’s affinity for Curry – he became increasingly animated, at times agitated.

“I sat there with them again after the game with my wife, and all I could think was, ‘If bump stocks did not exist, there’s a really good chance this kid would be alive.’ Think about that," Kerr said of the devices that allow a legal semiautomatic rifle to operate like a fully automatic firearm. "And all these maniacs out there who think we should have access to bump stocks? When innocent people and school children are getting slaughtered? What if that was your child? Seriously. We’re coming after that bulls---.”

With an embarrassed half-laugh, he apologized.

“Sorry. I get emotional because people are dying and lives can be saved, and our politicians are doing nothing. They are cowards.”

When he speaks to high school students, Kerr pleads with them to vote. He has three young adult children, including one who will be attending law school, and believes they can atone for the sins of the fathers.

“Thank god for the younger generation,” he said. “The history of our country, the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, women gaining the right to vote, all of that came about because young people called out the older generation. Look at Parkland. It takes something pretty extreme to wake us up, and this is extreme.”

Granted, Kerr’s experiences are vast and unique, even in the global expanse of the NBA. Born to academics, including a mother who teaches Middle Eastern studies at UCLA, he grew up in France, Egypt, Beirut and Los Angeles. He was once fluent in Arabic, French and German.

But the scars from his father’s murder are forever. He has never returned to Beirut and believes that all gun violence shares a cruel commonality.

“You can’t separate police gun violence from civilian gun violence,” he said. “It all ties together. There is a fear in our country, a fear for our safety that exists in all realms, whether it’s in a school, at a concert, anywhere in America, and particularly if you are African American and confronted by police. I’ve never had to tell my kids, ‘Hey, if the police stop you, show your hands.’ But I have players who have. So I’m disgusted by all this. I’m so disgusted by this culture of violence, this culture of police brutality, and I’m happy people are protesting, and I hope plenty of good things come from it.”

With a weary sigh, a soft smile, Kerr rises and heads off to the Warriors offices. “The whole thing is to try to make our communities better, so I’m proud of the NBA, proud of Vivek, and the Kings, what they are doing. Again, we will support everything they are doing. We all have jobs, and right now I have a team that has lost three straight. But it’s all of our responsibility to be socially aware and active, and help our communities.”

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