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Coach Steve Kerr more than willing to speak up -- and listen, too

Experiences in life, basketball mold Golden State coach's bent to think beyond sports

David Aldridge

David Aldridge TNT Analyst

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Oct 23, 2017 12:42 PM ET

Whether he is talking basketball or politics, a crowd often gathers around Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

The times in which he lives created Steve Kerr.

If he had become the Golden State Warriors’ coach 10 years ago, he wouldn’t have the NBA’s highest profile coaching gig, and he wouldn’t be working in a time where the most polarizing president (perhaps ever, and certainly since Lincoln) was in the White House. And there wouldn’t be 7,961 media outlets at every practice, and every game, asking him his opinions.

Or, if Kevin Durant had decided not to take another job last summer, many of those 7,961 media outlets could very well be in Cleveland right now, asking the two-time defending NBA champion Cavaliers if they’ll be able to three-peat.

 
Steve Kerr talks about how his back injury has affected his coaching life.

And, Kerr hadn’t been so bad at his job in Phoenix as the Suns’ general manager, he might have changed the NBA world then, rather than now.

And, if his world hadn’t been shattered in 1984, none of this would matter to him so much.

The horrific and the humanity and the humor all have molded Steve Kerr, at 52, into what and where he is today, a coach atop a leviathan, the irresistible force and the immovable object.

His Warriors are the biggest favorites to repeat since Grandmaster Flash started scratching. And, rather than making the media an enemy -- the MO of seemingly every Power Five football coach in America -- or denouncing original thoughts or statements by his players as “distractions,” Kerr not only embraces both, but says what he actually thinks about what’s happening in the world, too.

“I think some people probably think I spend all my time studying politics, and I don’t,” he said last week. “I spend most of my time watching basketball and planning practice for the next day and thinking about the game. That’s my true passion. But I do read a lot about politics and I follow what’s going on, and I’m worried. I’m worried about our country. That’s really the gist of my feeling comfortable about speaking out.”

'It's not about Steve; it's about the players'

The Warriors entered this season feeling they didn’t need to make any gestures during the playing of the national anthem, because they’d been free to speak their minds all summer about just about everything. Their coach didn’t muzzle them; their organization didn’t threaten them.

So Stephen Curry said he didn’t really feel like going to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump, and the President disinvited the team, and the team shrugged. Kerr, who wanted his players to, as he put it, “fill their cups” in decompressing fully from their season’s pursuit, told them not to show up at the team’s practice facility in Oakland until the day before Media Day.

So Curry finished his golfing summer, which included stops in London and Paris and the Hamptons (“the only time I’d been there was last year, for about 12 hours,” Curry said, but that’s another story). And Klay Thompson made fun of himself -- and, probably, eleventy billion dollars -- in China. And Draymond Green’s family grew by one.

 
Warriors GM Bob Myers reflects on the bond he has with coach Steve Kerr.

And Nick Young, aka “Swaggy P,” grabbed a uni -- because he can shoot, and the Warriors are always looking for shooters. But also because Kerr has created an environment that embraces a player’s past rather than questions it (see JaVale McGee’s seamless arrival last season), and because Kerr and GM Bob Myers have created a seamless partnership (much like Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford in San Antonio).

And in the process, Myers and Kerr have become closer friends than either thought possible when Kerr took the job in 2014.

“The thing that attracts people to Steve is he’s very gracious,” Myers said. “It’s not about Steve; it’s about the players. And I think maybe, that’s who he is; you can say that’s just who he is. He’s learned compassion from what he’s gone through in his life. And also, he’s played in and won five championships. So he’s not chasing the Holy Grail of a championship; he wants it for these players. He’s done it five times (as a player).

“So I think players, more than anybody else, can feel when a coach makes it about them as opposed to him. And I think that’s when you have people following a coach, when they believe, you know what? He’s just trying to help us win a championship. That’s his whole agenda. And Steve, on those two fronts, has been pretty unbelievable.”

Kerr may not have known for sure he would coach during his 15-year NBA playing career, but he certainly had tossed the idea around, even before he became a pro.

Steve Kerr played a key role on five championship teams as an NBA player.

“His choices were always made for him, based on his playing. That was what he was going to do until he finished,” said Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser, who’s known Kerr since their days at Arizona playing under Lute Olsen -- and whose nickname, “Q” -- short for “Question Man” -- came from Kerr.

“I don’t think that he always said ‘I’m going to be a coach,’ but we talked about coaching,” Fraser said. “When he first went into the NBA with the Suns, his first year (1988), he wasn’t playing much, and he started saying ‘I’d rather be where you are.’ And I was a grad assistant (at Arizona). And I was saying, ‘I’d rather be where you are -- playing.”

Changes on court for Warriors

Kerr started this season with a three-year regular season mark of 207-39, which sounds like the record of a high school football coach who’s lorded over a rural district for 30 years with no real competition for miles. By contrast, Kerr’s team is playing in the best league in the world and puts up those kinds of cartoonish numbers.

 
Can anyone stop the Warriors from another title in 2017-18?

His team plays with joy (well, most of the time), and its dominance in the playoffs last season forced teams to go all in this summer to even have a chance against them next spring. And they expect to be even better this year than last, even though they lost on ring night last week at home.

“My mind’s a little bit more relaxed now,” Durant said Tuesday, after the loss to the Rockets. “It sucks to lose, but we see the big picture, and we know we have to get better. When we have setbacks, it’s not like it’s the end of the world; it’s all right, let’s lock in and see what we have to do to get better. It’s a long season. Just keep growing. Last year was more of a panic for me if we lost, because it was like, man, this team is so good, we’re not supposed to lose.”

Durant would stand on the weakside often last season and wait for the ball, which was antithetical to the best practices of the Warriors’ offense. The secret sauce is in the constant movement of all five players. The four players on the floor in a given time without the ball are the important ones, not the guy dribbling.

 
Ball movement is paramount in coach Steve Kerr's offensive philosophy.

But now, Durant screens away, sets a veer screen or cuts to the basket. Whether he winds up with the ball is almost irrelevant; if he doesn’t, someone else will, and likely with a better shot, because of what his movement forces the defense to do. And that’s why Kerr, like Popovich, always thinks if a player makes it to the second season in the system, his growth is exponential.

“KD is so much more comfortable with what we do,” Kerr said. “Last year his head was spinning the first couple of months. (He was) still getting 25 a night because he’s KD. But everything now is instinctive. It’s just understood, and he’s comfortable … he understands that what we’re trying to do is constant movement and screening and cutting -- and no waiting. No waiting for an iso. And last year it took him a while to figure that out. This year, he’s dialed in.”

But Kerr has had more than his star player’s disposition on his mind lately.

Sense of duty motivates Kerr's words

After a sniper opened fire on people at a concert in Las Vegas earlier this month, leading to the deaths of 59 people, Kerr referenced the assassination of his father, Malcolm Kerr, then the president of the American University of Beirut, in 1984, in advocating for stronger gun control laws. He mocked Trump’s disinvitation in September, comparing it someone dumping his or her significant other before they got dumped first. He took Colin Kaepernick’s side on the issue of kneeling to protest police brutality, after last year denouncing the police killing of motorist Terence Crutcher, an unarmed African-American man, in Oklahoma.

I feel really strongly about the issues that are going on right now. It’s scary. It’s a very scary time right now for our country. And I think it’s important for everybody to speak their mind."

Warriors coach Steve Kerr

Kerr says he’s not speaking to hear himself talk, that the times demand responses.

"I really wasn’t that outspoken 10 years ago, maybe because nobody asked me,” he says. “And it seemed like the country was more comfortable and there wasn’t this divide. I haven’t seen this kind of divide in my lifetime. I’m sure it existed during Vietnam, but I was five years old and six years old when that came to a head. And the fact that there’s so much media now means that I’m getting asked about current political divide.

“I get asked about it all the time. But I feel comfortable talking about it because I feel like it’s important. I feel really strongly about the issues that are going on right now. It’s scary. It’s a very scary time right now for our country. And I think it’s important for everybody to speak their mind. I just happen to have a very big platform.”

 
Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr didn't hold back recently in addressing Donald Trump.

Kerr believes social media outlets like Twitter have helped further fuel the divide.

“In the past, I’ll give you the Jemele Hill example,” Kerr says, referencing the ESPN anchor disciplined twice in the last month, First, in September, Hill sent out a tweet that, in her view, President Trump was a white supremacist. She was then suspended for two weeks Oct. 9 after returning to Twitter, and saying that football fans who disagreed with Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones’ assertion that he’d discipline any of his players that “disrespected the flag” had the option of, among other things, boycotting Jones’s companies.

“In the past, 20 years ago, Jemele Hill would have been at a cocktail party, and she would have said all of those things that she tweeted at the cocktail party,” Kerr said. “And she would have gone home and she would have gone to her job the next day, and nobody would have known. Same thing with me, when I’ve said what I said criticizing Trump. I would have done it at a dinner party. I didn’t have access to social media.

Steve Kerr cites the divisive nature to the world in sparking his need to speak out more.

“And I try to avoid tweeing now, for several reasons. But the fact is, now, everything’s out there. And there’s a lot of sort of spontaneous conversation that happens. And you get really angry. I get pretty angry when I’m on Twitter, and I read what people are saying, either to me, or publicly. And there’s an impulse to just (respond). But 20 or 30 years ago, you didn’t have that constant back and forth, and so it wasn’t as divisive, it wasn’t as angry.”

Obviously, Kerr coaches in a league where almost all of the game’s superstars and many of power wielders are black, and black people as a whole tend to be much more liberal than whites on most social issues. So Kerr, clearly liberal, isn’t exactly swimming upstream with his positions on social issues, as he a) coaches a team with four of the league’s biggest superstars, all men of color, b) coaches in the Bay Area, one of the most liberal enclaves on earth, and c) now has seven NBA titles as a player or coach after picking up his second with Golden State, giving him gravitas that, say, Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger does not yet have.

Yet there are many liberal coaches in the NBA who don’t speak out or speak up. Popovich and Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy are among Kerr’s brethren who have been crystal clear in their denouncements of Trump over the last year. But everyone doesn’t speak up or speak out. Kerr does.

He says that the NBA’s recent commissioners, Adam Silver and David Stern, helped set the tone that makes NBA coaches more comfortable speaking out than coaches in other sports. Kerr also credits NBA owners.

“I think our owners are more tolerant, much more capable of saying ‘you know what? You guys (have) the First Amendment -- right to free speech, freedom of expression. You guys express yourselves. But let’s talk about it as a team,’” Kerr said. “I know we’ve done that as a group. We’ve talked to (Warriors co-owner) Joe Lacob as a group. We’ve talked about what it would mean to kneel, how we want to address social issues. So it’s just much more out in the open. We don’t have an owner who says ‘if you guys kneel you’re not going to play.’ Like, what is that? To me, that’s insane.”

GM backs Kerr, Warriors being outspoken

Myers says that the whole “stick to sports” idea is, in today’s hot take world, a myth, anyway.

“To really say no one wants to hear what Steph Curry or Steve has to say about anything outside of basketball, that’s not true,” Myers said. “That’s just not true. Even the narratives around our sport, so much of it revolves around the humanity around it more than the box scores.

“The fans of the NBA want to hear about story lines. They love free agency. They love the Draft. They love the trade deadline. These are stories about the people, these are stories about situations. They’re not stories about who won and who lost that game. So when you talk about Steve Kerr, we encourage an organization where, you know what, be authentic.”

We’re not a political machine; we’re a basketball team. But we don’t want to muzzle someone and have someone who feels they have something to say, but they’re not afforded the opportunity to say ..."

Warriors GM Bob Myers

Myers says there’s a “balancing act” between speaking your mind and being authentic to yourself and what you believe, and also understanding you’re an employee of a company whose purpose is to put an orange ball through a basket, not conduct trade talks with China.

“We get that,” he said. “We’re not a political machine; we’re a basketball team. But we don’t want to muzzle someone and have someone who feels they have something to say, but they’re not afforded the opportunity to say … the best thing about going to work here is, you get to be who you are.

“Who wants to go to work in an environment where they don’t get to be authentically themselves? And by the way, one thing that I always say about Steve speaking on what he speaks about, whether it’s gun violence or anything in the political world, he lost his father to a violent, political, gun-related death. I would allow anyone with that kind of standing to speak on an issue that’s that dear to them. This isn’t just a guy on a soapbox. This is a guy that was personally affected by something. So as an organization, who am I to say ‘just talk about pick and roll coverage, Steve?’ ”

Steve Kerr has plenty of regrets when reflecting on his days the Suns' GM.

If the times have pushed Kerr to be more vocal, his own past errors pushed him to be more collaborative.

“I was not a good GM in Phoenix,” he says. “I made some mistakes. We had a great coach in Mike D’Antoni. We had some differences. There were some things that I regret that happened. When I got to Golden State as head coach I went straight to Bob and I said ‘Bob, I know you’ve been through your share of adversity the last couple of years. You probably have some regrets. I know I’ve got regrets. I’ve seen this with Pop and R.C., and we have to be tied at the hip.’ And Bob agreed, and we talked about that right away.”

Warriors president Rick Welts, who held a similar position in Phoenix at the time Kerr was there, saw a different guy than he sees in the Bay today.

“He looked like a train wreck more days than not, to tell you the truth,” Welts said. “There were some decisions that, in the moment, he regretted making. And I think ultimately, inside, he wanted to be on the sidelines. This was not the same. It was a different environment, dealing with different things than what he dealt with before. And, as knowledgeable as he is about the game, and as knowledgeable as he was about the game then, it wasn’t joyful. And Steve needs to be in a situation where his joy can add to the chemistry of the team.”

In the Bay, there’s been no pitting the coach against management. Not when management asked the coach to drive past his house after practice just to look at the goofy holiday decorations outside.

Losses helps Kerr deepen bonds

Independent of one another, Kerr and Myers cited, for different reasons, the exact moment their business relationship began to become a close personal relationship: after Game 3 of the 2015 conference semifinals against Memphis, when the Grizzlies had taken a 2-1 series lead. Myers remembers Kerr earnestly asking him, ‘Bob, what do you think,?’ as Myers walked into the quiet locker room; Kerr remembers Myers trying to lessen the pressure he was feeling.

“He was saying, ‘you’re a rookie coach. You’re not supposed to win the championship your first year,’” Kerr said. “And it was total BS. But he was saying it. It was the right thing to say.”

Myers worried about the frictional nature of the coach-GM relationship: either the coach didn’t coach the players given to him correctly (often, the GM’s view) or the GM didn’t provide the right players conducive to winning (often, the coach’s view). If their relationship was merely transactional in that way, it may not have worked. But, it wasn’t. It isn’t.

 
Game 3 of the 2015 West semifinals proved to be a key one in the Warriors' growth.

“Look, I’ve been through some stuff (Myers’s brother-in-law, Scott Dinsmore, was killed in a rockslide while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2015), with my wife’s family, and he’s been through some stuff,” Myers said. “And how he reacted to that, I will never forget. Sadly, in life, it takes great loss to understand great loss. And it doesn’t mean that people who haven’t had tragedy aren’t equipped to empathize. They are. But it’s a bad club to be in.

“But if you’re in the club, it’s the only way to really know loss-personal loss, like immediate, sudden tragedy. So whether we ever win or lose any more games, that moment, when he reached out to my wife’s family, those are what makes relationships. That’s why, when we won, I cried. I cried with my wife and my kids, because you put a lot into this. Every GM does. It’s not just me. Every GM. And when I hugged Steve, I cried. That’s what makes sports so beautiful. It’s the relationships.”

Before the end came last season, though, Kerr to adjust his rearview mirror.

Curry was on board with bringing Durant in, because it would make the team better. But that didn’t mean he didn’t struggle in stretches last season. The first two months, Curry couldn’t find his way, but especially in December, when his scoring average dropped almost six points, and he shot 42.7 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent on 3-pointers -- a perfectly fine percentage from deep for most mortals, but not for him.

The nadir for Curry came on Christmas Day in Cleveland against the Cavaliers. He only got 11 shots, scored just 15 points, and was on the floor when the Cavs mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback to steal the game. The Warriors were 27-5, but their two-time Kia MVP wasn’t all that happy, and Kerr knew it.

“We just got back from Cleveland, and I didn’t have a great game, and obviously we lost a tough one on the road, and that was kind of the first moment that he realized, for me, the change in the dynamic of the team was kind of in my head a little bit,” Curry said. “And he made a point to see if I was around the next day -- we had an off day the next day -- and see if I was around. He came over. We sat in my living room and we talked for about an hour, hour and a half.

“And I don’t know if anything groundbreaking was said, but just the gesture of him coming over, laying everything on the table, what I saw, what we could do differently, from a playcalling standpoint or just from my mindset standpoint. We hashed some stuff out, and if you look at the direction of our team after that game, it was pretty solid.”

'You know he's listening'

After Kerr’s seemingly endless back problems caused him to miss the first 11 games of the playoffs, leaving associate head coach Mike Brown in charge, Kerr came back for the last four games of The Finals. He didn’t put Brown back in a proverbial corner. He listened to him.

“One of the things I thought offensively that would help us against Cleveland was, they were doing a lot of switching when it came to pick and rolls defensively,” Brown recalled. “I thought, hey, let’s run a side pick and roll, and let’s send two guys on a “double drag -- a double ball screen, which would space two shooters on the backside, and put Cleveland in some different types of split action, with guys who weren’t used to guarding it.

“I brought that to his attention, and he thought about it, and the next thing you know, we ran it. And we not only ran it, it became a staple of what we were doing offensively from that point going forward the rest of the series against Cleveland. What that does for me is, it makes me want to continue to find different ways to help us win, and throw ideas at him. Because you know he’s listening.”

 
After the Warriors' Game 5 clincher, Steve Kerr reflects on his team's 2017 Finals path.

It was similar to what Kerr did when he came back midway through the 2015-16 season, after then assistant coach Luke Walton had coached the Warriors to a 39-4 record. (Because Walton was “acting” head coach and not officially the Warriors’ coach, Kerr got credit for all those wins.)

It is what he did when his assistant and analytics guy, Nick U’Ren, suggested the Warriors bench starting center Andrew Bogut in Game 4 of The 2015 Finals, with Golden State down 2-1, in favor of Andre Iguodala, to make the Warriors smaller but faster, and better equipped to defend the Cavaliers.

It is what he does with Fraser.

“In business, regular business, people always say, ‘don’t work with friends,’ ” Fraser said. “I think this is a different business. One of my values to him is he wants my voice, because he trusts that at least it will be the truth, right or wrong. Maybe I’ve overstepped my voice at times, but I think he wants truth.”

Maybe things will change. But I love this. ... I see myself doing this for a long time.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr

Myers cites the U’Ren story as the best example of Kerr’s ability to, as Myers says, deflect.

“The best part about that, I think, that has never been written, is that had we lost that game, Steve Kerr would have never mentioned Nick U’Ren’s name,” Myers said. “You wouldn’t have heard it. Because when they asked Steve, ‘why’d you start Iguodala?,’ he would have never said ‘you know, I shouldn’t have listened to Nick U’Ren. Why the hell did I listen to him? He’s a 27-year-old guy.’ You would have never heard it. And so the beauty of Steve, if you want to know about Steve, it’s in that moment, when something worked that wasn’t his idea. He absolutely praised that person. Had it not worked, the better story would have been, you would have never heard about it.”

The Warriors have started out 1-2 after Curry and Durant got ejected in Saturday’s loss to Memphis. They’re pretty sanguine, still. They lost their opener at home last year, too, and proceeded to win 82 of their next 98. It’s pretty sanguine in the home of the champs.

When Durant got his ring Tuesday, he walked back toward his coaches and teammates who’d lined up together. But his mind was wandering.

“Just reflecting and thinking about how hard it is to be in the NBA,” he said. “It’s hard to be on a good team, and then a winning team, and to win a championship, that’s hard, too. Just thinking about what it just took to get to this point, and how much work I have to keep doing.”

Whatever is after “prohibitive favorites,” that’s where Golden State remains.

Assuming his back pain doesn’t return to the point where it’s permanently debilitating (“I’m coping,” he says. “You can probably tell; I’m uncomfortable”), Kerr’s planning to be studying film, and breaking the occasional clipboard, and cracking that Curry “endangered hundreds of spectators” by flinging his mouthpiece at the ref Saturday, and calling out the President of the United States if he thinks he deserves it, for a long time.

“If I retired at 60, I think I’d be like, now what do I do?,” Kerr said. “Maybe things will change. But I love this. This is the ultimate in our profession. And I’m obviously incredibly lucky. I coach a great team. It might be different if I was coaching a lottery team and we were struggling, and it’s like, man, this is rough. But I love this. I see myself doing this for a long time.”

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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