By K.C. Johnson | Chicago Tribune
When you’re young, that time period stretches out like an eternity, filled with Slip ‘N Slide summer days and endless presents under the tree. As you age and start the back nine of life, 20 years can pass in the blink of an eye — or maybe the time it takes for a jump shot to arc from snapped wrist to the bottom of the net.
“Twenty years? Wow,” Steve Kerr said, shaking his head and smiling.
Kerr was 31 when he sank the most famous shot of his career, a foul-line jumper off a preordained pass from Michael Jordan to send the United Center crowd into a frenzy and place an exclamation point on the Bulls’ fifth title. Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of Kerr’s winning points that eliminated the Jazz in six games.
Kerr is 51 now, one victory from his second title as coach of the most dominant team in the NBA. Surely one day Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the rest of the Warriors will look back at their 2017 playoff run and remember when.
“That shot was a life-changer, relatively speaking,” Kerr said. “That was for sure the signature moment of my career.”
Kerr said this in a quiet moment at the Warriors’ practice facility in Oakland back in early February. With the Bulls in town the next night, Kerr was having a good day.
His well-documented back issues, stemming from complications from a botched surgery in July 2015, were quiet. And he had just given powerful voice to why he feels comfortable speaking out on issues of gun control and immigration in the currently polarized political climate, indirectly referencing his late father, Malcolm, who was killed in Beirut in an act of terrorism when Steve was 18.
That’s the “relatively speaking” part of Kerr’s life-changing shot.
But as happens so often in sports, the shot carried with it deeper meanings for Kerr, stronger ramifications.
“It was a breakthrough for me because I was a worrier. I was an overthinker,” Kerr said in an interview with the Tribune. “And that was probably the first time in a really big situation where I was able to say, ‘Screw it,’ and just go for it without thought of repercussion.
“That may sound weird. Some players never have to deal with that in their career. They’re born ready to shoot. But not me, and I felt after that point I was much more clutch. I was much more capable of just losing myself in the game and whatever happened, happened.”
Kerr, who averaged six points per game over his 15-year career, went on to be a role player on two more title teams with the Spurs.
“That shot gave me the confidence that not only you can do it, but the mindset that goes along with that, the realization that you just can’t worry about it. You’ve just got to go,” he said. “I worked a long time to try to achieve that mindset.
“The meditation exercises that Phil [Jackson] did, the mindfulness training, that stuff helped me. Putting yourself in the right mind frame is a pretty difficult thing to do, but that’s when it came together for me.”
Athletes don’t often admit to such vulnerability and introspection. But Kerr always has been atypical with his insight and honesty.
Even today, watching video replay of the timeout preceding the shot can give chills. Jordan, furiously chomping gum, turns to Kerr.
“He said, ‘Be ready. [John] Stockton is going to double-team me,’” Kerr recalled. “And he was right.”
In the video, Kerr is all calm confidence.
“If he comes off, I’ll be ready,” Kerr said back to Jordan in the video from that June 13, 1997, night.
Kerr was. And his career irrevocably changed.
“I for sure believe that shot helped me get my TNT [broadcasting] job,” Kerr said. “I was a role player up until that point. You want to be a television analyst — especially for TNT — right away after you retire [because] it’s a pretty big-time job. Most of the guys who get those jobs, if you think about it, are Hall of Famers — Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, Charles Barkley.
“People wouldn’t have known who I was really unless I had gotten to play with the Bulls and had some good moments. I think that shot elevated my status. To that point, I was basically a guy who had stuck around the league for a while, made a career, but hadn’t really done much. That’s one of those moments that people remember.”
Kerr is known for his humility and self-deprecation. There’s an element of both in play here.
“I get people all the time coming up to me and telling me what a great player I was — the legend grows,” he said. “You make a shot like that and you’re remembered as a way better player than you actually were.”
In June 2037, Curry will be 49 and Durant 48. They’re indisputably great players.
And now Durant, like Curry and Kerr, will forever be known as a champion.