He may look young and act even younger, such as the day he called off a staff meeting, ordered everyone into an SUV and set off to Muir Beach, where they all went swimming in their boxer shorts. But the reality of Steve Kerr’s life, despite a babyface that’s a cross between Rob Lowe and Howdy Doody, is that he turned 50 the other day.
And 50-year-olds suffer from bad backs.
What’s troubling about Kerr’s bad back is that there has been no evidence of improvement, leading to legitimate questions about when he’ll return to coach the Warriors and how his body will feel when he does return from a leave of absence. You’d be wise not to play doctor or descend into alarmist mode yet. Rather, simply examine the ongoing timeline. He first experienced pain amid the raw NBA Finals intensity of Game 5, underwent surgery to repair a ruptured disk in late July, thought he’d be fine … and wasn’t. He returned to the operating room, underwent a second surgery in September, thought he’d be fine … and wasn’t. Last Friday, he described his summer as pure hell. Tuesday, when asked about Andre Iguodala’s offseason knee injections in Europe, he flipped the subject to his own health.
“It worked. I’m going to be on my way to Germany tomorrow for my whole body,” Kerr said.
So now, indefinitely, he is not coaching the team he U-turned into a champion in one of the remarkable first-year leadership performances in sports history. His interim replacement is Luke Walton, son of Deadhead Bill and disciple of Phil Jackson, and I should remind you that Walton not only was on the Muir Beach excursion but was famously inside a Cleveland bar late on a June night. Walton was out with Nick U’Ren, Kerr’s 28-year-old special assistant, when they hatched the plan of playing smallball and starting Iguodala, the strategic alteration that helped the Warriors solve their issues and win the title.
Don’t count me among those who doubt Walton can handle training camp and the preseason, which is mostly an exercise of shedding body fat and giving away Bobbleheads to fans still paying regular-season prices. As general manager Bob Myers said, “At this point, the most important thing is to make sure Steve is healthy, completely recovered and ready for not only the rigors of a long NBA season but day-to-day life in general. We don’t anticipate the recovery process will be long term, but we don’t know the exact timeframe.”
They are anticipating his return on Opening Night, three weeks from Tuesday at Oracle, when Kerr is expected to receive his championship ring and then coach against the New Orleans Pelicans and their new coach, Alvin Gentry, who’d have been the interim plug-in if he hadn’t fled for a bigger job. Said Kerr in a statement: “After the first two days of training camp, I realized I need to take a step back and focus on my rehabilitation in order to be ready for the grind of another NBA season. As I noted last week, my summer was difficult and no fun due to the multiple back surgeries. At this point, I simply want to get healthy and back to my normal daily routine on and off the court.”
And if Kerr is not on the sideline that first night, or is on crutches, or is doing a videotaped scoreboard wave to the fans from his hospital bed …
Then you can worry.
This team will have enough difficulty in repeating than to wonder if and when their coach will show up. Kerr is not just any coach, mind you, but the one who realized the Warriors should be running and firing in a high-tempo escapade when the deposed Mark Jackson did not. He’s the one who unleashed Stephen Curry into an MVP, the one turned Draymond Green into an $82 million whirlwind, the one who convinced a proud Iguodala to come off the bench, the one who saved Harrison Barnes’ career, the one who traveled near and far to see all of them that offseason and coaxed a complete attitude buy-in.
Owner Joe Lacob found Myers in a sports agent’s Italian suit. Myers brilliantly pieced together the roster. Kerr assembled the pieces in a nine-month symphony. And the thought of him being around only intermittently, or not at all, is daunting when the Warriors must deal with a league thirsting to prove they are one-year wonders who benefited from extraordinary good luck. The Western competition — Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Pelicans — will be very daunting with Kerr on the sideline.
Would Iguodala demand to start? Would Draymond chuck it up and try to score 30 every night amid his new stardom? Would the third, fourth and fifth pass that Kerr demands on a possession dissipate into one or no passes? The good news for fans is that Kerr has been touting Walton as a potential NBA head coach, raving about him during the Finals and quickly moving him into Gentry’s spot running the offense. If Kerr respects Walton, the players should respect Walton, too, by extension. Ron Adams, the old hand, is still around to apply the defensive adhesive. Plus, Kerr has not lost his voice or ability to pick up the phone and chew out a player, if necessary.
“The type of guys we have, I think they’ll use the respect they have for him and the fact that he can’t be here, they’ll use that to make our team better because they won’t want to let him down just like he wouldn’t want to let them down,” Walton told reporters Thursday. “One of our team rules is, ‘Protect the team at all costs.’ And he feels like if he can’t have his normal energy and his passion that he has, then it’s not fair to the team. It’s tough on him.
“We’ll keep this ship moving in the right direction until our captain can return.”
Besides, Iguodala already has said he is content with his role off the bench, having enjoyed an offseason of being hailed for his selflessness and personal resilience in winning the Finals MVP award. When asked if he has been told he’s back on the bench, the veteran laughed and said, “No, we haven’t talked about that much. Steve looked dead the last week or two with the back surgery, so we try to keep everything in kind of good spirits.” When pressed, he said he has accepted his situation.
“Oh, you learn how to embrace it, and when you embrace things, things tend to work out in your favor,” Iguodala said. “So I’ve been through it for a year, I understand it a trillion times more. So, definitely more comfortable. I’m actually looking forward to it.”
Green? If you drive by the practice facility in downtown Oakland and see the lights on at 10 at night, it’s because he and Curry are still inside. Think Green, with his new contract, is going to become lazy or selfish? Think Curry or the others would allow that to happen?
Yes, as he said on Media Day, Curry will have to be a more forceful leader as MVP. He can begin immediately, without Kerr. If Curry initially wasn’t happy with Jackson’s firing, he realized last season that the new coach was a significant upgrade. So did everyone else.
“He’s a great coach. He’s a better person,” said Klay Thompson, who sent best wishes to Kerr via Twitter. “He’s easy to talk to. He’s created a great culture here just in one year. He demands a lot out of us, and he does respect us. In turn, we respect him and play hard for him.”
But when the Warriors were down 2-1 in Memphis and 2-1 in Cleveland, respect and playing hard wasn’t enough. They needed a leader to direct them out of their darkness. Imagine those predicaments this season without Kerr.
The anxiety deadline is Oct. 27.
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.