Steve Kerr's perspective on life is even deeper after agonizing health issues turned dream season into a nightmare
POSTED: May 20, 2016 12:11 PM ET
Steve Kerr still isn't fully recovered, but he's grateful to be back on the sideline after leaked spinal fluid into his system following back surgery left him in non-stop misery. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
OAKLAND, Calif. — In the dark moments, and there were many, when pain stabbed away at his head and neck, when tasks that were ordinarily simple could be excruciating, Steve Kerr privately wondered if he might have to quit what had become a dream job as coach of the Golden State Warriors.
He never said so publicly and mostly resisted even thinking it because staying positive was one of the mandates of a long recovery process from complications from back surgeries in July and September. But, yes, the thought was there. Some days were that bad as the defending champions played on without Kerr in the first half of 2015-16, so bad that he is four months into his return and it is impossible not to notice how he still rubs his temples or swivels his head to loosen the neck. ("He's not right yet," one Golden State insider observed.)
Nor does Kerr try to portray otherwise, saying he might skip the Las Vegas Summer League to invest as much of the offseason as possible into finally reclaiming his health. He has lived in physical misery since spinal fluid was released into his system during the first operation to correct a ruptured disc, sending Kerr into a downward spiral of headaches, fatigue and other ailments. He allows that much even while preferring to stay away from specifics about the recovery not yet complete.
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"I wouldn't equate my health with anything that's happened basketball wise," Kerr said. "I'll put it this way. Under normal circumstances if I hadn't has this health issue this would have been one of the great years of my life. But instead it was, honestly, one of the worst. Probably the worst."
But quit, now that he's made it back this far?
No. Not a chance. Not even if he could have slid into some advisory role with the team and whispered to assistant coach Luke Walton not to take the Los Angeles Lakers job because the big chair was opening on the Golden State bench. Not even if the Warriors follow their 73-9 finish, the best record in league history, with a second consecutive title in June and Kerr can go out on top like few others.
Under normal circumstances if I hadn't has this health issue this would have been one of the great years of my life. But instead it was, honestly, one of the worst. Probably the worst.
– Golden State head coach Steve Kerr
He loves the gig too much. Returning to broadcasting isn't appealing, as good as he was as an analyst, and the idea of becoming head of basketball operations somewhere again, a role he had for three years with the Phoenix Suns, practically makes him cringe. GMs are separated from the team a lot, and the daily interaction is exactly what Kerr enjoys most. Nothing at age 50, far removed from a playing career of five championships with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, compares to the competitive energy, the trash talking, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush of being on the sideline and under pressure, especially in the playoffs.
That is why Kerr fought his way back to the Warriors. It's not that he wanted to get healthy to return to the job. He wanted to return to the job to get healthy.
Kerr required the frenzy of the 2015-16 Warriors.
"I needed the job to distract me and engage me," he said.
Seriously. Going for 73 wins to knock the 1995-96 Bulls team (on which Kerr was a backup guard) from the record book, steering Golden State through the first two rounds while Kia MVP Stephen Curry missed games with two injuries, and this 1-1 tie in the Western Conference finals? All distractions.
"Big time," Kerr said. "It's helped me get a lot better."
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And this has been the challenging campaign. Last season was harder in the basketball sense: a rookie coach finding his way while putting a system in place, moving Draymond Green into the starting lineup and David Lee to the bench and also putting Andre Iguodala in a reserve role. So concerned he was wasting valuable seconds during timeouts in the 2014 Summer League, Kerr took a grease board to his suite at the Bellagio and practiced scribbling out plays, wanting to be faster by the start of the real games. It was all so new.
But this season has been harder in the real sense. He started training camp, then left after a couple days. Not wanting to come back until he was sure he could stay back, Kerr kept in touch with interim coach Walton and occasionally showed up, but largely was at a distance until returning Jan. 22 against the Indiana Pacers, Golden State's 44th game. And while he did accomplish the goal of avoiding another leave of absence, there were a lot of difficult moments along the way that kept him from fully enjoying the 73-9 run and the trip to the Western Conference finals.
"He could have been laying on a bed in a solid-colored room sort of just staring at walls," said Warriors player development coach Bruce Fraser, a Kerr friend since they were teammates at the University of Arizona in the 1980s. "I think the emotional toll it was taking on him of not being involved, not having some of the daily things that he likes about this -- the relationships, the routines, the cerebral element that makes him think.
"And also maybe there's an element of him letting everyone down in there, that he had to get back for his own sake, to gain those things back. Even though the symptoms may stay the same, his mind was at least active and off of what the symptoms and the pains are and on to other things, which helped him through the days and actually helped us as a team to have him around."
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Warriors head coach Steve Kerr speaks pregame before returning to the bench for the first time this season.
This is as close to ideal as Kerr can get for now. He has a job in his home state, location being one of the reasons he turned down the chance to work for Phil Jackson and the Knicks, in a locker room with enviable chemistry while enjoying the relationship with his bosses.
He's not planning to go anywhere, besides maybe missing summer league. This job with this organization in this city is too good. He needs it to get fully healthy.
"I felt like I already had a pretty good perspective on life, but that has been altered dramatically on the side of well being," Kerr said. "It's all about well being. Yours, your family's, your friends', your players'. What we do in terms of playing basketball, it's only important in that we bring joy to people. We bring joy to the fans' lives. Even people who are suffering through illnesses themselves, we bring a joy.
"We bring joy to ourselves by competing together and enjoying the process. But it's so inconsequential compared to just waking up every morning and being healthy. Even though I felt like I'd had a good perspective on life, not to this degree. Now I truly get it. I will never suffer from burnout from this job, I can tell you that.
"I don't think I would have anyway, but there's no way this job will stress me out to the point where it's 'Oh, my God, I can't do this.' Because I know it's a game and it's a job. And it's a really fun job and it's a great job, but it's not one that anybody should work themselves up over to the point where they lose perspective. Health is everything. It's no longer a cliché for me."
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