If we never gave much thought to SCSFLS — which is not a new sports analytics metric, but Spontaneous Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak Syndrome — then we certainly grasp its withering effects now. It has sidelined a vibrant, mirthful man in his life prime and forced him away from his basketball creation, the dazzling innovation that might put him in the Hall of Fame and give him more rings than Saturn.
Steve Kerr is still bothered by symptoms from a spinal fluid leak, caused more than five months ago when his dura was nicked during back surgery. And yet, despite recurring headaches and other signs (possibly involving back pain, fatigue, nausea, neck stiffness, light sensitivity) that his health hasn’t completely returned to normal, he’s throwing himself back into his daily practice routine as head coach of the Warriors. Kerr will spend this two-week homestand, which opened Wednesday night with a slow-starting-but-inevitable 128-103 thumping of Phoenix, ramping up his activity level to determine if he’s ready for the stress, the intensity, the interactions, the skull sessions, the media, the game officials, the arena noise, the hotel beds, the back-to-backs, the 2 a.m. airport arrivals.
To which I would ask: Why now? Why this minute?
What’s the rush?
“What I’ve learned is that I miss it,” Kerr told reporters before the game. “I’m still hoping in the next two to three weeks to be back on the bench.”
As a deeply educated human being who reads books that most NBA coaches never knew existed, Kerr has handled his ailment with remarkable patience and care. Any other approach could have led to severe complications that threatened his long-term health, and as a devoted father and husband whose own father was murdered by terrorists 31 years ago, he had the perspective and gravitas to know that a leave of absence was best. But watching his team make history on a two-week tour across the land — a 24-0 start, best ever in the four major American sports leagues — only served to whet Kerr’s appetite and stoke his competitive instincts. When the Warriors returned to practice this week, Kerr was there each day, looking and talking and laughing like he’d never been gone.
“He looks better. He does,” said Luke Walton, the world’s most famous interim. “He’s acting more like himself and joking more like himself.”
“And it’s exciting because we’ve missed him. That’s our guy,” said Draymond Green, who sometimes acts like a co-interim head coach. “It’s good to see. He’s been more of himself around us this week.”
Which is great. Who doesn’t want to see Steve Kerr in a designer suit again, healthy and happy again as the reigning mad scientist for sport’s biggest rock show? But that was until Kerr, in an interview with Bay Area News Group, acknowledged he still has “symptoms that are bothersome, and that’s the tricky part. … Can you deal with the symptoms and still grind and have the necessary juice to do the job? That’s kind of the question.”
I am not a doctor. I’m also not one to tell a person what to do in a life situation, having once returned as a panelist on a national daily TV program only days after a stent was inserted in my heart. But symptoms are still symptoms. And until they’ve disappeared for a lengthy period, Kerr might want to rest and chill for a while longer to make certain he’s ready for the grind that most matters: the NBA playoffs, which don’t begin for four months. Nothing is wrong with watching home games from the locker-room TV and sharing thoughts at halftime, which he has done for weeks. Nothing is wrong with regular conversations and text messaging with Walton. Nothing is wrong with delivering rousing speeches to the players, as he did during his one road trip to Los Angeles, which resulted in a memorable comeback victory over the Clippers.
But “symptoms” and “grind” don’t mix well in the same sentence.
If Kerr was using these two weeks to decide if he can come back at all this season, it would be a different story. But he continues to insist in every interview that he intends to return at some point and never has doubted he would. So, what is he gaining from rushing back? The Warriors have proved a magnificent point without him: Not only was their championship legitimate, they’re better this season, having quieted all doubters with their perfect storm before succumbing to road fatigue last Saturday. With Walton at the helm, they exhibited how brilliant Kerr and his system have been; an interim, hired last season and armed with only scant experience, became Kerr’s whisperee and won his first 24 games.
It’s torture not to be with his team. And it would be a cool scene on Christmas Day if Kerr returned for the Finals rematch against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. But other than maintaining an early psyche edge over a team that wouldn’t reappear in the Finals until June, the game doesn’t mean too much. Kerr’s comeback would be best suited to late January, when the Warriors have their first of four meetings against the San Antonio Spurs, who already look like the biggest impediment to a repeat championship.
There’s no doubt they miss Kerr. “Luke’s done a phenomenal job,” Green said. “He’s got the best record, the best [coaching] start in the history of the game. But it’s a team effort, and to be at full strength, we need Steve here. With him out, everybody is switching roles. With him here, everybody can do what we do. We’re just really looking forward to getting him back, whenever that is.”
Said Walton: “This is Steve’s team, so the more he can do the better. He was very active during shootaround [Wednesday] and we’ll continue to encourage him to do as much as he wants. As far as thinking about him transitioning back, that’s not going to be beneficial until we as a staff know for certain that Steve will be taking over again. We’re still preparing the same as if having him.”
All while he watches a few hundred feet away on TV, ever so painfully. “There is not much, unless he’s going to start sending out notes to the bench, that he can really do,” Walton said.
Because of the mechanism constructed by Kerr, the Warriors are a self-correcting group. Walton and Ron Adams are the lead coaches on the bench, but Steph Curry and Green were seen drawing up plays with Walton late in the Boston victory. And Andre Iguodala is Walton’s confidante, the leader by example. They don’t need Kerr to tell them how they can improve.
“I know how much better we can be on both ends of the ball, and that’s kind of scary,” said Green, who wants less reliance on Curry and more on team ball.
If nothing else Wednesday night, the players could look to the broadcast table and see their former coach, Mark Jackson, for a reminder of how far they’ve come. On ESPN, he addressed those who think his presence at Oracle is awkward, saying, “I look at people on Twitter or wherever, and they say or write a story, ‘How could ESPN have Mark Jackson do this game? That’s brutal, and that’s abuse.’ It is absolutely hysterical to me. To live my life, to have played 17 years in the NBA, to have coached for three years for a team, and to have the privilege to call NBA games and announce the NBA Finals, I am absolutely winning. There is no reason at all for me to be upset, discouraged or depressed. It is a blessing to be in my position, and I’m having the time of my life covering the best game in the world.”
So how would the deposed Warriors coach beat the interim coach while the current coach recovers? “I took over a job in Golden State with a bad culture, guys that said they wanted to win but didn’t want to win. [Now] they’re a great team, and you’re not going to beat ’em putting together 12 minutes of quality basketball,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to play 48 minutes, be disciplined and pay attention to detail to have a legitimate chance. And even when you do that, they still can beat you. They’re that good.”
Yeah, take your time, Steve Kerr.
Your presence isn’t needed … yet.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.