Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Warriors coach Steve Kerr takes global trek toward title

You would be deceived by the look, the close-cropped blond hair spiked in the front, the square jaw, the trim, athletic physique. The frequent smile that devours his features and transforms his blue eyes into narrow slits of humor.

Steve Kerr, 49, could be mistaken for an aging Southern California surfer, but as is so often the case, images can deceive. Kerr not only coaches the most electric ensemble in the NBA, the streaking Golden State Warriors, he is an influential, if understated, member of a generation of international figures who, in the late 1980s, began spinning the NBA globe around and around, with the end game nowhere in sight.

Serbia. Croatia. Argentina. China. Russia. Brazil. Nigeria. Congo. Israel. Someday, India.

A native of Beirut, Lebanon, Kerr has traveled everywhere, seen almost everything and overcome a lot, including a horrific family tragedy. Yet in 1988, when he arrived at the Phoenix Suns’ training camp, few could have predicted his rise from valuable role player on five championship teams to rookie head coach of a club that has charged into the Western Conference finals for the first time in 39 years.

Only months after the Arizona standout with the international background made his unheralded rookie debut, European stars Vlade Divac, Sarunas Marciulionis, Alexander Volkov, Zarko Paspalj and the late Drazen Petrovic burst onto the NBA scene amid the Cold War, rising tensions in the Balkans and the brazen, expansive visions espoused by the Boris Stankovic – then the controversial head of basketball’s international governing body (FIBA) – and his increasingly accommodating ally, former NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Kerr? He had been around a long time, his migration taking him the opposite direction. By the time the influx of high-profile foreign stars started what has become an annual NBA procession, the slick-shooting guard had completed his own odyssey of romantic adventures, exotic travels and one unspeakable tragedy. Born to two prominent academics, one born in America and one in Lebanon, Kerr spent much of his boyhood in France, Egypt and Beirut. He spoke Arabic, French and German, witnessed and recoiled at staggering examples of poverty, but also conversed with kings and queens, even vacationed with members of Jordanian royalty.

“I actually met Queen Noor,” Kerr said with a grin in a quiet moment after a recent practice. “Her father (Najeeb Halaby) was a good friend of my father’s. We went to Aqaba (on the coast of Jordan) with her and her husband, King Hussein, and spent three days at their compound on the beach. We had a great time.”

Dealing with tragedy

There were traumatizing, troubling times, too. The tragedy that struck the Kerr family on Jan. 18, 1984, has been well chronicled.

Malcolm Kerr, 52, a native of Lebanon and a leading expert in Middle Eastern studies, was shot to death by terrorists outside his office at the American University of Beirut, the same building where three decades earlier he had met Steve’s mother. About 17 months earlier, Malcolm had resigned his professorship at UCLA for his dream job as president of the college he attended and where he taught, despite increasing political instability within the region.

In “Come with Me from Lebanon,” Ann Zwicker Kerr’s 1994 memoir, she tells of how she and her husband – accompanied only by their youngest son, Andrew – arrived without illusions. Security and safety were constant concerns. Shooting and shelling were heard outside the campus oasis. A security detail often accompanied the family off the grounds.

When Steve visited Beirut before the start of his freshman year at Arizona, his parents urged him to leave prematurely and scrambled to find alternate escape routes when the airport closed due to the violence, among them a helicopter ride to Tel Aviv, a cruise ship to Cyprus, an automobile caravan across the border to Jordan.

With his family again scattering around the world, his three siblings in pursuit of advanced academic degrees and his mother teaching in Cairo, Steve found refuge in basketball.

Though barely recruited out of Palisades High School as a scrawny 6-foot-3, 175-pound guard, he became a two-time Pacific-10 Conference selection, set an NCAA season record for three-point percentage and helped Lute Olson’s Wildcats reach the NCAA Final Four in his senior season.

That year, ugly reminders of his father’s murder were rekindled during pregame warmups at Arizona State. While the Wildcats of Kerr, Tom Tolbert, Sean Elliott and Kenny Lofton were in the layup line, students began chanting “PLO, PLO, PLO,” infuriating the players.

Tolbert was tempted to charge into the stands. Bruce Fraser, a graduate assistant at the time and now a Warriors assistant, remembers looking at Kerr and watching the jaw tightening, the blue eyes seething.

“I don’t remember him tearing up or losing it,” Fraser said. “I just remember that he was really pissed.”

When contacted last week while vacationing in New York, Olson revealed his lingering fury in his voice. He referred to the Arizona State students as “never having a lot of class,” and then, with a chuckle, added that he only recently learned about his team’s retaliation.

“Kenny Lofton and Harvey Mason had a thing set up for the second half,” said Olson, now retired. “When Kenny had the ball, he was going to pass to Harvey, cutting in the lane, for the layup. Instead, Kenny fired a fastball, Harvey ducked, and the ball hit one of the students who had been harassing Steve right in the nose. I don’t know if it was broken, but if it was, he deserved it. And Steve, well, he hit seven threes that day, and we just crushed ASU.”

Style goes back to Bulls

Kerr’s success as an NBA coach doesn’t surprise Olson.

“No, not at all. He has NBA experience,” Olson said. “He played under Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. He is very, very intelligent. And even with the murder of his father … he has always had tremendous respect for everybody, whether they’re from Lebanon or wherever they may have been.”

Fraser describes his close friend as a fierce competitor but marvels at his capacity for compassion and empathy. Instead of being consumed by anger, he said, Kerr tempers his life with humor, a keen intellect and unfailing curiosity; his routine on team flights starts with a beer, a game of Scrabble on his iPad and a few chapters from his latest book before he turns on his laptop and watches game film.

“I think it’s part of growing up overseas, having to fit in, always feeling a bit like a fish out of water,” Kerr said. “You meet people from all over the world. It was a great experience for me, an incredibly interesting time that has probably given me a better understanding of people. You learn to get along.”

The interpersonal skills that have served him so well with the Warriors – when popular coach Mark Jackson was fired and when Kerr decided to move veteran Andre Iguodala to the second unit – have been evident since he played for the Chicago Bulls.

In a locker room dictated by the moods and whims of superstar Michael Jordan, who routinely flouted mandatory media availability sessions and often led his teammates out the side exit, Kerr was the exception – a thoughtful, enlightening, charming presence. Reporters often joked that his contract included two roles: shooting specialist and willing interview subject.

While several Bulls greeted Croatian rookie Toni Kukoc with cold stares and crude asides, resenting the gifted forward because of his contract and relationship with then-general manager Jerry Krause, Kerr was among those who reached out with a welcoming hand, much as the Lakers had done en masse with Divac, the Warriors with Marciulionis, the Hawks with Volkov, the Spurs with Paspalj.

“Steve is carrying on our mission of understanding,” said Ann Kerr, who oversees the Fulbright scholarship program at UCLA and teaches a course on the Middle East. “He never anticipated that role, but he has it now. These influences on our kids, the seeds that are planted, you never know what is going to take root. But I am so happy that they seem to have made so much difference in his life.”

Expectations are soaring

This chapter of the Steve Kerr story is in its infancy. But even in drought-afflicted California, the seeds are sprouting.

His Warriors not only led the league in most offensive and defensive categories and improved their ball movement and spacing, their style is free-flowing, entertaining, contagious, universal. And their expectations are enormous; as MVP Stephen Curry often says, anything less than a championship will be a failure.

Yet their swagger is far from overbearing. This is a class act, perhaps an impossible act to follow.

Most NBA franchises don’t operate like the Warriors. Although much of the credit for personnel decisions goes to owner Joe Lacob, general manager Bob Myers, assistant GM Travis Schlenk and consultant Jerry West, Kerr sets the public and private tone. And he sticks to the script. He coaches basketball and works in the entertainment industry. He isn’t curing cancer, solving global warming, ridding the world of poverty, placing himself above the game.

Rather, he sits on a stool long after practices have ended, talking easily about sports, the latest bestseller, current events, often flashing a familiar grin, erupting with a familiar laugh.

“It’s like anything else,” Fraser said. “Players are their own corporation, their own entities. Some of them were skeptical. But they gave Steve a fair chance. He is a very bright, worldly and open person, and in spite of the tragedy, he harbors no ill will. That comes across without being contrived. He knows who he is.”

Steve Kerr bio

  • Who: Golden State Warriors coach
  • Born: Sept. 27, 1965
  • Where: Beirut, Lebanon
  • College: Arizona (1983-88). Two time All-Pacific-10
  • NBA: Second-round draft choice of Phoenix Suns; 15 seasons (Phoenix, Cleveland, Orlando, Chicago, San Antonio, Portland). Five-time NBA champion
  • Family: Married (Margot) with three children
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