We are reminded today that basketball is a sport, a job, and that Steve Kerr has much to offer the world beyond it. He learned about life’s longer view as a teenager, when his father, president of the American University of Beirut, was gunned down by Islamic terrorists as he was walking with his briefcase to his office. “Despicable assassins,” President Reagan described them.
So why, when Kerr has a rich life that he cherishes and kids who are about to go out in the world and valuable lessons to teach as an authentic American leader, would he rush back to coach the Warriors just because a new season is here? He may call this his “dream job,” but he has nothing to prove in it. In his first season, with no previous coaching experience, he produced one of the most startling and airtight championships in recent sports history. And while there’s no place he’d rather be Tuesday night than on the bench, trying to figure out the human pterodactyl that is Anthony Davis, he instead will pick up his sixth career NBA title ring during a pre-game ceremony at Oracle Arena, no doubt hear thundering roars from a standing audience, then likely disappear into the tunnel and take care of himself until further notice.
As. He. Should.
“Basketball is everything he has ever known and loved,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers told the media Saturday. “So you can relate to that. You can know he’d do anything to be out here in full capacity.”
HIs wicked headaches will not allow him. Kerr’s pain has subsided to some degree but not entirely, the result of spinal-fluid leakage that required a second back surgery in September when Kerr thought a July 28 procedure would repair a herniated disk suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Even those who don’t have medical degrees realize his condition is a serious matter — potentially damaging to his long-term quality of life if he doesn’t wait out the discomfort. This is what happens when the dura, the tough outside membrane enveloping the spinal cord, is nicked during surgery. What should have been a routine day at the hospital became a prolonged concern for Kerr, his family and his basketball family.
When he returns to the Warriors is anyone’s guess. “Even if you ask Steve, he doesn’t know,” Myers said. “He’s improving, but there’s still no timeline as to when he’s coming back. He’s confident that he will be back, but it’s all speculation as to when.”
His absence could stretch for days, weeks, longer. And from what I can tell, it’s unprecedented for circumstances of this magnitude — a major sports team trying to defend a league championship without its head coach. A month ago, when Kerr first told the media of his excruciating summer, I asked him point-blank if his situation would prevent him from traveling with the team. “No,” he said tersely. Myers said Kerr probably won’t make the first road trip, a back-to-back challenge in Houston on Friday night and New Orleans the following night. That is quite the difficult assignment for interim head coach Luke Walton, who, like Kerr a year ago, takes over with no head-coaching experience. In that vein, Myers tried to lighten the mood.
“We like coaches with no experience,” he said.
Walton would be the first to say he’s not ready for such a burden, trying to keep a team on a successful early path in a monstrous Western Conference eager to prove the Warriors were one-hit wonders. What’s fascinating is that the man who easily would have slipped into the interim role, Alvin Gentry, will be on the other bench Tuesday in his new job as Davis’ head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans. With Gentry, the Warriors wouldn’t have missed a beat. With Walton, who knows? Kerr had a genius touch when this team needed it, bailing out the cause with series-altering strategy when they faced 2-games-to-1 postseason holes against Memphis and Cleveland.
His presence also was vital in managing delicate issues, such as Andre Iguodala’s ego after he was told of his new off-the-bench duty. This season, the Warriors will face new personality challenges — the state of Draymond Green now that he’s an $82-million player instead of an underpaid overachiever … the psyche of Harrison Barnes as a deadline quickly approaches for him to extend his deal with the Warriors, after rejecting $64 million over four years, or seek a possible maximum of $89 million elsewhere next summer … even the stability of Stephen Curry, who, after the Summer of Steph, knows that an entire league wants to take him down as MVP and put him in his place as simply a shooter with a cute kid.
How much of the championship was about Kerr? A lot more than he has been credited for thus far. Just as Curry and the players hear the “lucky” rap in regard to postseason health advantages, so does Kerr, who didn’t have to face master Gregg Popovich or nemesis Doc Rivers … but did get Monty Williams, Dave Joerger, Kevin McHale and David Blatt. Now, with the league drooling to knock out the champs early, Kerr is professionally unavailable.
“The vibe is different without him,” Curry told reporters before the final preseason game Thursday. “I don’t mean with Luke, just without coach.”
How could it not be?
“They’re fully aware that they have to accept a little more responsibilty,” Myers said of the players. “We have full confidence in Luke. He has a great staff around him. Steve will be engaged. He’ll be talking to Luke frequently, and I’m sure Luke will be very receptive to whatever Steve has to add. Luke will hold down the fort until Steve is able to come back and stay back.”
It should be noted that Walton was inside the Cleveland bar last June and helped brainstorm the golden tactic — along with Kerr’s 28-year-old special assistant, Nick U’Ren —to go small and start Iguodala in Game 4 of the Finals. But while Walton won rings with the Lakers and has a famous Hall of Famer/Deadhead as a father, does he have anywhere near Kerr’s credibility in the huddle and locker room?
“We’re going to prepare the same and attack it like we did last year,” Walton said. “Everything will be similar to how we’ve done things since we’ve been here. It’s just that Steve won’t be on the court with us during the game. He’ll hang around the practice court and office more, so having him more involved obviously will be helpful.”
Until the head coach returns full-time, whenever that day might be, I have perhaps the most pertinent question of all: Has anyone spoken to the surgeon who nicked the dura of Steve Kerr’s spine?