The moment had to be funny because Steve Kerr, at his core, is a funnyman. With music cued to the theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” a ’70s sitcom that aired before Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala and even Luke Walton were born, Kerr officially returned to the Warriors as their full-time head coach. In doing so, he left behind the distant fellow in the back hallway that we used to know, someone we were more concerned about than anyone wanted to admit.
“Who’d have thought they’d lead ya,” came the song lyrics through the practice facility, “back here where we need ya.”
Only one re-entrance would have been cooler: The two-word press release, which he learned as a cast member in the Michael Jordan extravaganza. “I was thinking of doing like MJ did and send a fax out that just says, ‘I’m back,’” Kerr said, “but I don’t think faxes — do they even exist at this point? I don’t know.”
The cutting wit is back. The social commentary is intact. Most importantly, a compelling human being has reappeared, healthy again and without the headaches that threatened his coaching career and, for a time, his quality of life. A confessional: I was starting to tell sports media colleagues that I wasn’t sure if Kerr was coming back this season … or ever. Two experts on spinal fluid leakage — which tormented Kerr for months after the dura on his spine was nicked during his first of two offseason back surgeries — had told me that his persistent headaches weren’t a positive sign for meaningful progress. But they also said those headaches could disappear at any time, and once they stayed away for an extended period, he could return to the sideline before you knew it.
Friday was Before You Knew It Night at Oracle Arena, where everyone was thrilled and comforted by his usual positioning on the sideline. Turns out the Warriors’ recent trip to the otherwise deep-frozen Midwest was just the warmth he needed, his mood surely brightened by a beatdown of the Cavaliers in Cleveland, which led to the Friday firing of overmatched coach David Blatt and hiring of assistant Tyronn Lue by team president/general manager LeBron James. The next evening in Chicago, Kerr suddenly was on stage doing improv at The Second City, the famed comedy club where he’d show up and trade barbs when he played for the Bulls.
If he could appear in public and swap wisecracks with troupe members, then he was ready to slip into a designer suit and resume coaching the hottest team in sports, just as the San Antonio Spurs arrive Monday night as the one team capable of dethroning the champions. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I’ve gotten a lot better. I feel really good, ready to roll. I can’t wait to get back out there,” said Kerr, in the words that everyone in the organization, most of all Walton, have wanted to hear for weeks. “I really felt like I turned a corner on this road trip. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve known the last few months that I wasn’t ready. And this past week or 10 days or so, I just felt like, OK, this is finally turning in the right direction, and now’s the time.”
If you felt a mammoth blast of afternoon air, it was a sigh of relief from Oakland and precincts throughout the NBA, where Kerr is respected and loved in a league of petty feuds and gossipy sorts. It has been bittersweet, as general manager Bob Myers has pointed out, to see Kerr in the hazy background as Walton rather remarkably coached the Warriors to an American-sports-record 24-0 start and 39 victories in their first 43 games. Were this team to win a repeat championship and plant the early seeds for a dynasty, we certainly won’t forget three months in which the Warriors maintained dominance without the coach whose freewheeling, rapid-fire, basketball-as-ballet template turned them loose last season. Contrary to morons who think his absence proved that coaching doesn’t matter — see: Blatt, David — it actually showed that his system is so airtight and supreme that it could run just as efficiently with an interim coach who wasn’t exactly a grizzled NBA lifer. Walton was not a front-line assistant last season and didn’t gain his first real experience as a head coach until the most recent summer league.
The players were inspired to extinguish many doubts — that they couldn’t win without Kerr, that they were lucky last season, that they were one-and-doners — and with Walton’s guidance and equilibrium, they elevated their status, quieted the critics and gave Walton his pick of head coaching positions next summer, probably in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr watched, from the locker room during home games and his living room during most road excursions, trying to enjoy it and take pride in it but also missing the hell out of it.
“I was confident all along that I’d be back, but honestly, when I first stepped aside, I was thinking it would be a month or two. It turned into a long ordeal,” he said. “It was tough, a tough thing to go through. This is life. One minute, you’re hoisting a trophy, and the next minute you’re in the hospital.
“Everybody, every human being, experiences that in their own existence, no matter what job you’re doing. You have highs and lows, health issues, great joy and great pain and all that. It’s part of life, and you’ve got to just fight through it and get back to where you want to be. And that’s the journey I’ve been on.”
To see him smiling again, coaching again, symbolizes more than a championship coach returning to lead his team again. It’s a triumph over adversity, which has been Kerr’s trademark his entire life, starting with the night in college when he learned his father, president of the American University in Beirut, had been gunned down by terrorists. He wasn’t supposed to make it in the NBA, but there he was, taking a pass from Jordan and hitting the championship-winning shot.
Back in high school in lovely Pacific Palisades, outside of Los Angeles, Kerr was a sports columnist for the school paper. He is too humble to write an ode to himself now. Allow his players to provide the soundtrack.
“I got excited,” Draymond Green said. “Whenever he could get back, we wanted him back. Any timing is great, just to have him back.”
Curry said the players greeted Kerr with a collective version of his “Chicago Bulls jump” — his leap after hitting the jumper to win the Finals.
“He has a certain personality, aggressiveness and demeanor on the bench that we’re used to,” Curry said. “It’s something that fires us up when we need it and keeps us focused throughout the course of the season and playoffs with his championship pedigree. He’s got a lot of plays in his mental rolodex that he can bring out.
“We all know how physically demanding that task is for him to come back from two surgeries and the uncertainty of what he was going through. We knew he was going to fight and do whatever it took to get back on the bench, but we wanted him to take his time and make sure he was 100 percent healthy. He’s looked good for a while. We’re ready to go.”
Before he resumed his mission and his life, the funnyman did have one last wisecrack. He praised Walton as “an absolute star” who is “humble and smart and loyal.” He also wondered, like the rest of us, why Walton is being considered to coach the Western Conference team in the All-Star Game even though the league, sticking by an archaic rule, has credited all his victories to Kerr. But, of course, there was one last comedic pause.
“I thought maybe he’d go 40-3,” said Kerr, “but 39-4 … we’ll just have to settle for that.”
And all was right and normal again in the otherworld that is the Golden State Warriors.
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.