Can we pause our perpetual tribute to Stephen Curry, the most delightful sports buzz topic on this planet, to acknowledge he has a coach? As it sinks in that Curry is delivering one of the dynamic postseason performances of all time, and as we dismiss James Harden (3 of 16) as unworthy and Dwight Howard as a mush-muffin shamed by Curry on a box-out, it's time to look away from an ongoing Golden State masterpiece — and the impending challenge and hype of LeBron James — to properly praise the guy in the silver suit.
Steve Kerr's hair is turning a sort of straw gray, yes. Somehow, given his ability to flash a quick smile or do an affable sideline interview even when his team is losing, you wondered if he still might be blond. Did anyone really think he'd be the least bit flustered by a mechanical issue that delayed the Warriors' flight to Houston?
“You guys were making this huge deal out of a plane being four hours late. I mean, we're sleeping in the Four Seasons and we're eating catered meals. No big deal,” he scolded the media after a 115-80 blitz of the quitting, pathetic Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Typical Kerr, right?
What's most impressive about his first coaching season ever — again, EVER, which sounds more unconscionable with each playoff victory — isn't how he transformed a good team into a thunder-and-lightning force. Or how he unleashed Curry and helped him become the MVP and a global darling. Or how he pacified a potentially explosive situation — Mark Jackson's firing — and put everyone at ease by regularly praising his predecessor. Seems the best element about Kerr, as he attempts to become the first coach since Pat Riley to win a league championship in his maiden NBA experience, is his spirit.
He has an inspiring way of handling and understanding people, which had to be planted into the team foundation before any of these exhilarating accomplishments could have happened. Sure, Kerr is enough a basketball savant, having absorbed the invaulable traits of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich to be a young hybrid of both coaching legends, to recognize the need to shoot Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the rest out of a cannon after too much offensive paralysis in the Jackson era. Sure, he embraces sports science and the importance of monitoring heart rates to identify fatigue and plan rest. Sure, he blasts music at practice and lets players wing long-distance heaves in a crazed trick-shot circus, all to emphasize the value of fun.
But the biggest reason Kerr is approaching a special niche in coaching history is human interaction. He is new at wearing a suit in late May, just as his players are new at playing so deep in the postseason. But you'd never know he's a rookie in dealing with practice, media sessions, plane delays or, as we've seen this month, the need to make a dramatic defensive adjustment in the Memphis series or a tactical switch to a smallball lineup in Game 1 against the Rockets.
We knew he was poised going back to his playing days, when Michael Jordan told him to be ready for a pass — in the 1997 NBA Finals — and he made the shot to win the championship. We knew he always was called “Ice.” But the NBA playoffs are supposed to unnerve even the most successful and balanced coaches, whether it was Jackson suggesting the league office conspired with TV networks to throw games or Popovich giving grumpy one-word answers to reporters between quarters. Not once have we seen Kerr remotely lose his cool. Why?
“It's basketball,” he said. “It's competition, it's supposed to be fun. We're doing something we love, and we're being paid handsomely for it. Why not enjoy it?”
He isn't one of these sadsacks who sleeps in the office and watches film 25 hours a day. He's smarter than that, more worldly. As the son of Malcolm Kerr, a professor in Arab studies who became president of the American University of Beirut, he spent part of his childhood in the Middle East meeting diplomats and learning other languages. That taught him about a planet beyond Pacific Palisades, the family's U.S. base outside Los Angeles.
When his father was assassinated by Islamic terrorists in 1984, Kerr never could treat basketball as a life-and-death endeavor, or anything close.
So when he says, “It's basketball” — as he has almost daily the past two months — that's truly all it is to him. Oh, he's as competitive an S.O.B. as there is in the craft, but if you expect him to hold a grudge, engage in trash talk, chase an official into a tunnel or go off in a press conference, look elsewhere. No one wants a championship more, but Kerr also will appreciate every achievement along the way.
“I'm not going to be one of those guys who says we don't care about that and we're focused on tonight and tonight only. You have to enjoy all this stuff,” he said. “We've had so many milestones this year. We haven't had an MVP in forever. Our coaching staff got to coach the All-Star Game. We had the best record in the league. These are all important milestones for our organization because the Warriors, until the last few years, were irrelevant for most of the past two decades. It's great stuff.
“But it's time to try to do more.”
Kerr is shrewd beyond words. He waited patiently in the TNT broadcast booth, where he did brilliant work, until the right coaching situation came about. His mentor, Jackson, offered him big money to coach the New York Knicks, but that was the wrong situation. Learning a critical lesson from Jackson himself — coach the great players when you have the chance, as he did with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant — Kerr leaped at the chance to coach Curry and the Warriors. He isn't shocked at his success with them; he figured they were close.
“I knew it was a possibility. It's one of the reasons I took the job,” he said. “This team has great talent. They were on the rise already, and I felt like we could be right in the thick of it in the West. But things have to go your way. We've had really good health all year. I think I probably took over the team at the ideal time. They were good but very hungry.”
Don't let him be so humble. The Warriors have been healthy in part because Kerr subscribes to high-tech methods of analyzing fatigue, such as making players wear heart-rate monitors. They've been happy because he's compassionate when critical.
But clearly, it's the way he repaired hard feelings after Jackson's firing last spring that allowed the Warriors to thrive. Curry wasn't happy with the decision. Andrew Bogut was thrilled. Others had mixed feelings. When Jackson started showing up at Warriors games with ESPN's top broadcast team, it made for a potential distraction, especially when he said of Kerr on Jan. 9 after a victory over James and Cleveland: “While giving him credit, there's no need to take credit away from the past. You cannot disrespect the caterpillar and rave about the butterfly.”
The butterfly, Kerr, made sure to lather Jackson with plaudits at every opportunity. Which led the caterpillar, Jackson, to say this the other day: “I'm happy for them, proud of what we were able to accomplish the three years I was there. There was a lot of hands and a lot of great work by players, by ownership, by management, by my staff, so proud of that. I'm thrilled they're continuing that.”
Asked about Kerr specifcally, Jackson said: “I've got a tremendous amount of respect for him. He's a class guy, and our relationship has always been the same. I'm happy for him. There's never been and there never will be an issue. We talk every so often, and when I call the games, he's been extremely kind and supportive.”
Until the Finals.