CLEVELAND — The cop wasn’t letting the youngster onto the court, not while a giddy gathering of Warriors personnel was celebrating an NBA championship on LeBron James’ royal hardwood. So the boy, maybe age 10 in his golden-yellow jersey, made a plea from behind the rope.
“Coach Kerr!” he said, extending his hand upward.
In the bobbing maze of jubilant Golden State humanity, Steve Kerr stopped what he was doing, walked over to the boy and shook his hand.
Joe Lacob was hugging Peter Guber in an ownership sandwich. Stephen Curry was mugging with his world-famous daughter, Riley. Harrison Barnes was about to take his first-ever sip of alcohol. Klay Thompson was talking with his father. Draymond Green was lost in his own deafening bragadocio. And yet Kerr, the man most responsible for this NBA title, was meeting and greeting anyone who asked, doing so hours after the buffoonish Donald Trump declared he was running for president. Does this not make you pause and ponder the possibilities here, projecting how an eminently likeable coach would fare as a politician?
“It’s different as a coach because you feel responsible for a lot of people,” Kerr said of his post-title party duty. “Even though you don’t take a shot and don’t get a rebound, you feel like you just want people to succeed, and you want to help them any way you can. I’m just thrilled for so many people. As a coach, you appreciate the big picture a little more.”
That’s Kerr, thinking of others when the Larry O’Brien Jug has his handprints all over it. What he has accomplished in this seamless season of magnificent leadership and slick innovation — arguably, the greatest job ever performed by a first-year coach in a major professional sport — qualifies as a masterpiece of diplomacy, forward thinking and aplomb. At a time when two of America’s most decorated franchises, the New England Patriots and St. Louis Cardinals, have been investigated for unethical shenanigans, it’s telling that Kerr coached the Warriors to a title without the slightest hint of controversy. He inherited a tense locker room after the firing of his predecessor, Mark Jackson, and won over everyone with his honesty, perspective and good humor. As a man with a life outside of basketball, a world that includes novels and hiking and surfing and yoga and hanging out with his daughter and her Cal-Berkeley volleyball teammates, Kerr quickly righted Jackson’s wrongs and put the Warriors on a title fast track by making the complex appear simple, the taxing look fun and the traditional seem obsolete.
Curry and Green were Jackson guys? Meet with them in their element, such as a golf course with Steph, and explain the new plan.
The offense was slow and methodical? Ramp up the pace, whip the ball around like infielders on a double play, liberate Curry and Thompson, become a hoops revolution.
Need a massive favor from a veteran to help the confidence of a young player? Ask Andre Iguodala to come off the bench for the first time in his career so Barnes can play. And ask David Lee, after being sidelined with an injury, to do the same so Green could emerge as an all-impact find. And convince both, after initial reservations, to accept the new roles and wind up helping immensely in the Finals, Iguodala as the unlikeliest MVP.
Practices are tedious? The season is long? Give the players loud music at the facility, from hip-hop to “White Guy Wednesdays,” and turn film sessions into prank-a-day hilarity that includes goofy clips spliced into game film: embarrassing Internet photos, timely jabs (New Orleans Pelicans’ video for coach-in-waiting Alvin Gentry), shameful flops (Green), even a weak soap-opera appearance (assistant Luke Walton in an old “Young and the Restless” cameo). Then have everyone whip long-range shots at the same time in what resembles an out-of-control game of schoolyard dodgeball. “It’s crazy,” said Curry, “when you’ve got balls flying everywhere hitting people in the head.”
How to keep players healthy when the Warriors weren’t healthy in recent years? Hire Keke Lyles as, ahem, director of athletic performance, and watch him win a national medical award by keeping Curry’s once-brittle ankles stable and everyone else relatively injury-free in a season where every other contender lost key players.
How to keep players strong and focused when they’re feeling mentally or physically challenged? Summon a psychologist. Dr. Chris Johnson, who has worked with military units such as the Navy SEALs and dealt all season with Warriors players and specific needs. “I’m not going into much detail about the things that we’ve done,” Kerr said, “but he’s made a big impact.”
Seems Kerr has his own madman laboratory atop the convention center in downtown Oakland, turning athletes into robots. But it’s not that at all. In the heart of the nation’s tech hub, he is combining new-age techniques with an old-school defensive emphasis and every-era doses of common sense. The result: He has written a new textbook for coaching in the 21st century, pulling off a first-year masterpiece that the era’s established coaching legends — Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Mike Krzyzewski — only can marvel at. The last NBA coach to win it all in his rookie season was Pat Riley, with the Lakers in 1982, and he was blessed with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and one of the sport’s great dynasties. For all the wondrous talent Kerr inherited from Mark Jackson, it remains to be seen what the Warriors can become over the next decade, though that future looks as lovely as an early-evening sunset while navigating the Bay Bridge from the East Bay to San Francisco. It should surprise no one that Kerr, who deflects praise habitually, was quick to acknowledge those who influenced him as a player.
“I’m thinking of Lute Olson,” he said, referring to his college coach at Arizona. “I’m thinking of Phil Jackson, Lenny Wilkens, Gregg Popovich. I’ve been blessed to play for the greatest coaches ever, and I’ve learned a ton from all of them, and they’ve all helped me get here.”
The question — who are you thinking about right now, Steve, in the afterglow of his remarkable achievement — might have triggered thoughts about his father. The story has been well-chronicled, and tragically so — in 1984, while Kerr was a freshman guard at Arizona — his dad, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated by terrorists as he walked through a hallway to his office at the American University in Beirut, where he was president. Nothing rots the gut more than the thought of an 18-year-old, who grew up by the southern California beach in Pacific Palisades but spent many of his earliest years in Lebanon, running through the streets of Tucson in anguish; or the thought of him having to hear Arizona State students chant “PLO, PLO” during warmups. No one is shocked that Kerr, tears in his eyes, made six consecutive three-pointers.
It is his right to speak about his father when he wishes, if at all. Surely, everything he does in life is inspired by him, including the equilibrium and perspective he brings to NBA coaching. If you wonder why he doesn’t respond to critics, maybe he figured out a long time ago they don’t matter. “I don’t worry about that stuff,” he said. “The only thing I felt like occasionally pointing out, which I never did, was defense. Everyone wanted to talk about how many [three-pointers] we took. We’re the No. 1 defensive team in the league, and that’s what wins. You’ve got to be able to score points, but you have to be great defensively to win a title. For whatever reason, that seemed to be overlooked.”
Sure, he’s an S.O.B of a competitor, known for dogging Michael Jordan in practice to the point of receiving a black eye, or smashing a tennis racket over his own head. But Kerr refuses to rule with even the slightest measure of intimidation or bullying. In addition to the pranks, the music and the long-distance-shot circus, and his post-practice free-throw contests with Curry in which the shooter who even nicks THE RIM loses, Kerr already is a master of keeping things loose, light and fun when at all possible.
“That won’t work for every team. The Spurs aren’t that way. I think we just have that type of group,” Green said. “It teeters that line. We’re always loose. The start of practice is a complete circus. Basketballs are flying everywhere. You have coach trying to kick it in from half court. You have Steph throwing the ball full court, trying to make it in. Guys are getting hit in the head with the basketball. It’s a complete circus. And then it’s right down to business. It really is. Kerr’s always telling us, ‘Be loose, be gunslingers, but be disciplined.’”
Which was what you saw in the final three games of the Cleveland series. When all seemed lost, with the Warriors down 2-1 and the world ready to anoint James as god of the universe, they became loose but disciplined gunslingers. Maybe the Warriors wouldn’t have won the title if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were healthy. “This would have been a different series,” Kerr conceded. But fortunate as the Warriors were with health and rest, they made their good luck because the coach paid close attention, using metrics and heart monitors to gauge when players were tiring.
“We were fortunate in a lot of ways this year. Maybe No. 1 was health,” he said. “And to win a title, there’s obviously a lot of work, but a lot of luck as well, and we had a lot of luck on our side. And our guys took advantage of it, and they were fantastic.
“Somebody has to win. And this was a year where LeBron left Miami, so getting to Cleveland with a brand new group, they didn’t have the continuity that he had in Miami. The Spurs go out in the first round. They’re the defending champs, and I thought they were going to be our biggest hurdle. So things went our way. Every year, that’s the case. A team falls, a team soars, injuries, bounce of the ball, whatever. In the end, none of it matters.
“The only thing that matters is that we got the job done.”
So what does Steve Kerr possibly do for an encore? Already, Vegas has established Cleveland as the title favorite next year, with Golden State and Oklahoma City on the next line at 5-1. The thinking goes, the Warriors are one-year wonders in a rugged conference. There could be injuries next year, and who knows when they’ll be back in the Finals. I’m going to predict soon, because this coach and his core nucleus is intact for years. I’m also going to guess he’ll coach the U.S. Olympic team someday and, if he wins another NBA title, make the Hall of Fame as a coach, expert broadcaster and three-point/free-throw marksman who took a pass from Jordan and hit a shot for one of his six rings.
It was mentioned to Kerr, his hair soaked from locker-room bubbly long past midnight Wednesday, that his discipline was admirable in never looking too far ahead or celebrating too soon during his maiden postseason coaching odyssey.
“Yeah,” he said with a laugh, “not anymore.”