I write this as Jemelegate continues to resonate, hot-button issues furnishing the daily buffet for cable TV, both sports and news. Though I do not recall any white males being called upon to resign after criticizing Donald Trump, as ESPN personality Jemele Hill did, it is still disconcerting to many when authority figures—which coaches most certainly are—dip their toes into political waters. (Unless, of course, it is to comment on what a fine, fine job our President is doing.)
Which brings us to Steve Kerr.
[[Second in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]
My interviews with Kerr during the season—and there were several of them—proceeded along a certain pattern. I’ve known Kerr a long time, but I was always solicitous of his time, mainly because he was in pain. Whatever you remember from the Warriors’ glorious 2016-17 season—Kevin Durant’s ability to fit into the offense, Steph Curry’s long-distance bombs, Draymond Green’s occasional rants, the 15-0 run in the playoffs—never forget the extent to which Kerr had to endure teeth-gritting pain just to be on the bench (see photo below from Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals.) So I always kept the sessions to 30 minutes or so, even though I could’ve talked to Kerr, the victim of a back surgery gone terribly wrong, for a couple of hours.
Invariably, something had happened in the news that we spent half the time talking about current events. And by current events I mean President Trump. I couldn’t help myself and neither, I suspect, could Kerr. It wasn’t about his sounding off in public and me running to my laptop to tweet about it. It was just about two people who seemed to need to get it off our respective chests.
When we had our fill of political talk, the topic turned, as it should’ve, to basketball. When you know a subject for a long time, and trust him or her, sometimes it’s just best to let the conversation flow off-the-record, let it roam a little bit. That was the case with Kerr, whom I began covering in the late-1980s. I was looking more for big-picture stuff, trends not related to a single game, and Kerr got that because, as much as any coach I’ve ever dealt with, he understands media and its role. GOLDEN DAYS is filled with much of Kerr’s basketball perspective, subtle though it might be at times.
As I write in the book, one of the things I found most interesting about Kerr’s coaching is the extent to which he is involved with the whole team. But, duh, isn’t every coach involved with the whole team? The short answer is no. Many coaches have the philosophy of: Gather your one or two main guys around you, and the others will jump into the corral with them. And if they don’t, so what? Give the ball to the superstars.
I truly don’t know if Kerr really believes that, say, the unpredictable Javale McGee was organically important to the Warriors—“It’s his spirit,” says Kerr—but it does plug into what Golden State is trying to sell, i.e., that it’s a team from top to bottom, everybody matters or nobody matters, as the Michael Connelly protagonist says in the Harry Bosch detective novels. I can’t say for sure that Kerr’s reserves are any more committed than, say, Gregg Popovich’s reserves have been over the years. But the effort that the Warriors get from the bench players, and the harmony that they exhibit, have been definite factors in the two championships they’ve won over the past three seasons.
One reserve dynamic that Kerr told me about was absolutely crucial to the Warriors’ success this season: Backup forward David West’s stewardship of Green. “Veteran leadership and toughness,” Kerr told me. “That all counts and counts a lot. David has been huge for Draymond, as far as counseling him behind the scenes, keeping him in the right place. We didn’t have that last year.”
(Translation: With a veteran talking to him all the time, perhaps Green would not have lost his composure in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals, when he swung a leg into LeBron’s groin area, and would not have been suspended for Game 5, when the Cavs comeback started, and the Warriors would’ve won the series.)
West confirmed that he is indeed the Draymond Whisperer. “I talk to Steve about it,” West says. “It’s become clear that one of my jobs is to keep Draymond in the ‘safe zone,’ where he is aggressive but still productive on the floor. I’ve figured out a few communication styles with him that I feel are effective.”
“One of them is physical,” says West. “If I see him building emotionally, I reach out and touch him, shove him, even.”
“That sounds dangerous,” I say to West with a smile.
“Not really,” he answers, “because he knows I’m coming from a good place.”
But back, for a moment, to the political discussions. Kerr might find this ridiculous, but I found our conversations soothing. It plugged into my belief that one simply had to talk about this stuff once in a while or you’d go crazy. (In San Antonio, Popovich was feeling the same way, though his conversations tended to be shorter and more explosive.) Though many would prefer that coaches not go to that once-forbidden political zone, Kerr’s dissatisfaction and compulsion to talk came from a very deep place, from being a coach, and, more to the point, a father. In one of our interviews, Kerr said this:
“I didn’t agree with George W. Bush’s policy in going to Iraq, but I have great respect for his character, his humanity, the way he handled the post-911 leadership,” Kerr said. “I’ve always looked at every President we’ve had as someone we can be proud of as a human being. But this guy? How can you be proud of him? People say, ‘Well, it’s just words.’ But what if he made that comment about grabbing and it was your daughter? What if you had a son who was handicapped and he made fun of the hand movements of your son? How would you feel? When you personalize it, it takes on a whole different meaning. But his supporters don’t seem to do that.”
Let me be clear that Kerr’s many appearances in GOLDEN DAYS are not dominated by politics. They are for the most part about his offensive and defensive philosophies, his relationship with players, coaches and management, and his in-game strategy, as well as his fascinating background story (including an account of the assassination of his father, Malcolm, in Beirut) and the reasons he was hired as Golden State’s coach without having prior coaching experience. Kerr could himself be the subject of a book, as I suggested to him a couple of times during the season. But he always demurred.
“It might make sense when I’m done coaching,” says Kerr. “I don’t like the idea of standing in front of the team and the team is wondering, ‘What’s going to be in the book?’ Players have to know it’s about them.”
That kind of thinking is just one of the reasons that Steve Kerr, a three-time champion with the Bulls, a two-time champion with the Spurs and now a two-time champion as a coach, is one of the NBA’s great success stories. You’ll learn a lot more about him in GOLDEN DAYS.