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Steve Kerr’s Journey From Unheralded Player to Star NBA Head Coach

USA TODAY Sports

Back in the summer of 1997, Steve Kerr was having a forgettable NBA Finals. He entered Game 6 against the Utah Jazz having averaged 3.4 points on 30 percent shooting and 21.4 percent on three-pointers in the first five games of the series, and he’d just come up small in a game where Michael Jordan had to carry the team while playing with the flu (or food poisoning, depending on whose story you believe).

In Game 6, Kerr got a few shots off early and made a three-pointer, but just looking at the box score would lead you to believe he had another mediocre game. Kerr shot 3-for-5, scoring nine points, grabbing a rebound and committing three fouls in 25 minutes. But looking at the box score wouldn’t tell the whole story, and that’s kind of the story of Steve Kerr.

Kerr was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 1988 and then traded shortly after to the Cleveland Cavaliers. After a few seasons with the Cavs and a half-season with the Orlando Magic, he signed with the reigning NBA champion Chicago Bulls in the summer of 1993. He wasn’t expecting that Michael Jordan would retire before the season started, but he went on to have one of the better seasons of his career that year.

He continued to put up solid seasons with the Bulls, playing in all 82 games every season except for 1997-1998. He won three consecutive championships with the Bulls before being traded to the San Antonio Spurs prior to the lockout-shortened 1999 season. He won his fourth straight championship that year, and won another with the Spurs before calling it a career in 2003.

Kerr then went to TNT to begin his career as a sportscaster, broadcasting games with Marv Albert. He took a break from television to jump into the Phoenix Suns’ front office, a move that looked somewhat crazy on the surface. Kerr had zero front office experience; he went straight from playing to sitting on the sidelines with a microphone. Could this guy be a general manager?

Kerr had some success as a GM, but in 2010 he resigned after the Suns made a surprising run to the Western Conference Finals. It was somewhat unexpected at the time, but according to ESPN.com, Kerr had his reasons:

“This is a very taxing job,” he said. “My kids are 17, 15 and 12. They’re only under my roof a few more years, and I haven’t seen a lot of them the last few years, and that’s a very important factor to me. My family’s always more important than my job, and this is a big reason for this decision.”

After resuming his job with TNT, he somewhat surprisingly popped up again when his former coach Phil Jackson was performing a coaching search as head of the New York Knicks. Having walked away from the grind and demanding nature of the game just four years prior, Kerr seemed like an unlikely candidate to consider for a head coaching job. And again, he had zero prior experience.

But that didn’t stop the Knicks from expressing interest, and even getting into contract negotiations with Kerr. But somewhere along the way, things fell apart. The Golden State Warriors, who had fired Mark Jackson and had a coaching vacancy as well, saw an opportunity to possibly swoop in and grab Kerr. They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the Knicks lost out when Kerr accepted a five-year, $25 million deal with the Warriors.

Much like the box score from Game 6 in 1997, those that judged Kerr based on what they could tangibly see on paper are the ones that missed everything that’s important about him. Since as far back as I can remember, Kerr has been one of the smarter guys surrounding the NBA game. Whether or not you liked him as an analyst, you could tell by listening to him that he truly grasped the game in a way others lacked, and was articulate enough to be able to convey that message.

The fact that two teams were willing to fight over Kerr despite the fact that he had zero experience coaching at any level says volumes about how much he’s respected in the NBA. That one of the teams was and still is led by Phil Jackson, who should know Kerr well enough to have a grasp on whether he has what it takes to lead a team, is even more telling.

Kerr took over a Warriors team that won 51 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs the season before. The roster had very little turnover and was mostly made up of younger players. Kerr took an immediate risk in asking Andre Iguodala, who was in the second year of a four-year, $48 million contract, to come off the bench in favor of Harrison Barnes. Iguodala played 77 games this year with zero starts after having started the previous 758 games in his career.

Putting a lot more faith in Draymond Green was also a key move by Kerr, although he kind of lucked into that when David Lee got hurt. Green, a second-round pick in 2012, had shown the ability to be a solid role player, but nobody could’ve expected what would happen this year. Green broke out in a big way, establishing himself as a tremendous defender in making the All-Defensive First Team (Defensive Player of the Year runner-up), as well as improving his eFG% from 46.7 percent to 51.6 percent. He set a new career high in three-pointers made at 111, blowing past his previous high of 55.

The Warriors came flying out of the gate, and it had a ton to do with the Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The boys are just something else when shooting from beyond the arc, and Kerr’s offense encouraged them to hoist the three-ball. Curry put up 1.1 more three-pointers per 36 minutes this season versus last, and Thompson shot 1.3 more per 36.

The Warriors finished the season with a 67-15 record and a point differential of 10.1. They were second in three-pointers made and fourth in three-pointers attempted, and jumped from 10th in points scored in 2013-2014 to first in 2014-2015. Kerr’s young Warriors looked like the veterans that had been there before in the playoffs, sweeping the Pelicans, taking the Grizzlies out in six, the Rockets in five and the beat-up Cavaliers and LeBron James in six.

When we look back at what the Warriors did this season and how Kerr changed the way they operate on the court, transforming them from a good team to a great team, it feels silly to have questioned why those in and around the game were so eager to throw bags of money at Kerr to get him to come lead their franchise.

Just like it would feel silly looking at the box score of Game 6 against Utah in 1997. With the score tied and the Bulls having possession, Jackson drew up a play for Jordan in the final seconds. But the Jazz double-teamed Jordan, not allowing him to get a good shot off. Knowing that this was coming, Jordan made sure that Kerr knew where to be and to be ready to shoot the ball.

What followed is one of the greatest moments in Chicago Bulls history, and the story (as told by Kerr) perfectly exemplifies who Steve Kerr was as a player:

Kerr didn’t put up the greatest stats on the court, unless we’re discussing three-point percentages. The most points he ever averaged in a season was 8.6. He wasn’t a great passer, and therefore didn’t get a lot of assists. At only 6’3” and lacking athleticism, he wasn’t much of a rebounder. He pretty much was an offensive player only.

But seeing the things he did on the court and hearing him narrate the final seconds of his game-winning, championship-clinching shot tell you the story of who Steve Kerr really is. He’s a smart, thoughtful, articulate, six-time NBA champion. And no one should be surprised anymore.

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