Steve Kerr's been beating the odds his whole life
The preppy blond guy whose career highlights in the NBA and for the Arizona Wildcats equal basketball legend is relaxing at a Phoenix sports bar.
A deadly sharpshooter in such basketball-centric burgs as Chicago, San Antonio, and Tucson — Steve Kerr is now the general manager and president of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns.
On this cool mid-March evening, Kerr's been watching his team's road game against the Seattle SuperSonics on television.
It's the 15th game since the "Big Aristotle," also known as Shaquille O'Neal, first donned a Suns uniform after the startling February 6 trade with the Miami Heat for star forward Shawn Marion and lesser talent (but highly paid) Marcus Banks.
Though it's a weekday, Half Moon Sports Grill is packed with Suns fans.
Kerr is recognizable to just about everyone in the joint, but the patrons respectfully keep their distance, allowing him to eat, sip on a beer (one), and chat quietly with two dining companions.
The team secures its sixth-straight victory in a less-than-artistic fashion, but a win is a win, and few have come easily this year.
As soon as the game ends, a chant arises from a table of young men sitting nearby: "Steve Kerr! Steve Kerr! Steve Kerr! Steve Kerr!"
Their cadence isn't that of the celebrated call-and-response between the public-address announcer and fans after Kerr scored during his college days in Tucson in the 1980s. That was more like: "Steeeeve Kerrrrrrrr."
Kerr ambles over to the table, the smile on his boyish face expressing his intentions.
"Thanks a lot, you guys," he tells them, pausing momentarily for effect.
"But I'll bet you, two weeks ago, you weren't going 'Steve Kerr, Steve Kerr,' huh? It was more like, 'What the fuck is Steve Kerr doing?'"
Everyone roars, even as one fellow looks down at his beer glass as if to say, "Yeah, you're absolutely right. I did wonder why you traded Shawn for that washed-up old man (O'Neal is 36)."
The Suns lost six of their first nine games with Shaq onboard.
Kerr, fighting a cold, walks outside toward his car. It's been a day of phone calls, meetings, a workout at the U.S. Airways Center, and, finally, talking to fans. It's a short hop from the grill to the condominium he's been leasing since Suns majority owner Robert Sarver hired him as GM last June.
"I'm quite the genius," he says in the parking lot, his tongue, as it often is, firmly in cheek. "But Houston's coming in, and they've been winning everything. I might be the idiot again real soon."
He wasn't. The Suns won that game against the Rockets, 122-113.
The Phoenix Suns are at a crossroads, trying to hold their own against the hated San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
At press time, the Suns were about to take the court for game 2 in San Antonio, following Saturday's gut-wrenching double-overtime loss.
Whether this year's team will turn out to be something special or go down in flames in the first round is anyone's guess.
Unlike most other years, all eight teams now battling to be top dog in the Western Conference are capable of beating each other, and not just on a given night.
Phoenix finished with 55 regular season wins, six fewer than last year when the eventual champion Spurs eliminated them in the second round of the playoffs after a controversial and hotly contested series.
That Phoenix endured so much to get to this point is par for the NBA course. Few squads sail through any season without enduring a crisis of some magnitude.
Even the five championship teams on which Steve Kerr played during his 15 years in the NBA struggled on occasion, though low points were rare for the Michael Jordan-led 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who finished with more wins (87, including playoff victories) than any team in league history.
Kerr owns one more ring than Shaquille O'Neal, and five more than Steve Nash, one of the best point guards to ever play the game. That seems proof positive that even Michael Jordan couldn't have won his six rings without an excellent supporting cast — probably.
The Suns' travails began in training camp, when four-time All-Star Shawn Marion (then the highest-paid Sun) asked publicly to be traded.
That request came after Kerr, in one of his first major decisions as the new GM, declined to extend Marion's contract for three more years and umpteen million more than the $34.2 million the Suns would have owed him if he'd stayed here through next season.
Marion, an athletic player capable of transcendent things on the court (though his playoff performances were spotty), became an instant X-factor to the franchise.
This was the high-dollar, high-profile, high-stakes world that Kerr jumped into at owner Sarver's urging after last season.
Admittedly, it was daunting for a guy who had spent his time since retiring as a player in 2003 doing weekly NBA game commentary for TNT, surfing with his college and pro teammate Jud Buechler, and hanging out with his wife, Margot, and their three children.
Kerr had earned a lasting reputation in college and in the NBA as a gutsy competitor, a loyal teammate, and an incomparable shooter. Sportswriters and fans adored him as a great quote, a funny guy, and a gentleman, win or lose.
But until he took the gig as GM, Kerr never had hired or fired anybody in his life. Then, in short order last summer, he rejected Marion's contract extension, and traded Kurt Thomas and two future draft picks to Seattle, the latter essentially for nada.
The Thomas deal still eats at Kerr, who thinks the world, personally and professionally, of the 12-year NBA veteran. But he says it had to be done for financial purposes (the Suns would have owed Thomas $16 million for this year and next, and that would have put the franchise well over the league-mandated salary cap).
What added insult to injury is that Thomas later landed in San Antonio, where he is playing an important role in the ongoing series against his old team.
But Marion's contractual issues and the Kurt Thomas trade had nowhere near the impact of the Shaq deal, one of basketball's biggest and most controversial trades in years.
Even before the swap, Kerr was sorting out what he calls "the awkwardness" of his new position — including how to finesse the changed dynamics of his relationship with top brass in the Suns front office, particularly Coach Mike D'Antoni.
Last season, D'Antoni served as both head coach and general manager after then-GM Bryan Colangelo took the same job with the Toronto Raptors.
When Kerr entered the picture, D'Antoni became a subordinate to the neophyte GM overnight, a change both men concede took time to wrap their heads around.
"We've come a long way in terms of trusting each other," Kerr says. "I've always liked the guy and his demeanor. Not a lot really gets under his skin. I admire his background — all of his travels in Italy, his perseverance — and it doesn't hurt that our political beliefs are similar."
For the record, those beliefs are liberal.
D'Antoni tells New Times, "Obviously, we have our spheres of influence and ideas, but Steve has been doing a great job of getting us as many weapons as possible to be able to be successful."
The coach laughs when asked if Kerr grills him about why or how he used a player during a given game.
"Not if he wants to live long," D'Antoni says. "That wouldn't work."
D'Antoni has been an innovative leader since his hiring as head coach in early 2004. He then led the internationally popular Suns into the NBA's elite after Steve Nash rejoined the team before the 2004-05 season. It won him an NBA Coach of the Year award after Nash's first year back.
Nash, himself winner of the league's Most Valuable Player award in back-to-back seasons, led a renaissance of run-and-gun style and substance that translated into a ton of wins.
But winning the franchise's first NBA championship, or even getting to the league Finals, has been elusive, and it didn't seem as though the dream was getting any closer as this season progressed.
Though the Suns had a stellar record of 34-15 when they traded for Shaq, the team seemed to have lost some of its feel-good vibe in and out of the locker room.
Just days before the trade, Nash, in a rare admission, told reporters, "We haven't had that same joy. We just need to shut up and play ball."
Though this team never will be confused with a juggernaut, it did become far more formidable in the last weeks of the regular season. Still, this year has seemed like one long adjustment process for the players, coaches and general manager, even now in the desperate struggle against the Spurs.
Kerr says he's learned that "a big part of my job is simply seeing people, and having them see me, and be able to speak with me if they want. I still am feeling my way through it. For instance, I have absolutely no role during the games except to watch. I have no input in what's going on down on the court, I'm not doing commentary, and I'm obviously done playing, so it's just different."
Most important to Kerr, he's had to juggle his Suns duties with family life, which means more to him than riding in any victory parade after winning a title.
"My refuge from all this is to go home," he says. "I want to be a great parent more than anything else."
Kerr has tried all season, not always successfully, never to spend more than three nights in succession away from his family (his children Nick, Maddy, and Matt are 15, 13, and 10, respectively).
The Kerrs live in an upscale neighborhood just outside San Diego, not far from Suns majority owner Sarver.
"He can multi-task the way a woman can, 10 things at once," says his mother, Ann Zwicker Kerr, the Fulbright coordinator at the UCLA International Institute.
"He'll feed his kids pancakes, work on his laptop, field a call about trading for Shaq, or something. He's such a devoted father, family man, husband. When people say the trade might cost him his job and he says, 'Good,' he really means it. If it doesn't turn out like he had hoped, he'll move along."
Just one day after the Shaq trade was announced, Kerr sneaked away for an afternoon flight back to San Diego. He made it to Nick's freshman basketball game by 5 p.m., ate dinner with the family, slept in his own bed, then returned to Phoenix the next morning to face the music, much of which wasn't easy listening.
The mood around town and nationally, at that point, was incredulous.
One sports blogger stated, "If Steve Kerr is front and center with this deal, the Suns should send him packing and looking for work next year."
Kerr says he was the last person in the Suns' decision-making chain to sign off on the trade (Sarver and Coach D'Antoni embraced it first).
But he has learned during 42 years of an extraordinary life that the windows of sporting opportunity can shut abruptly — a blown-out knee, a lousy trade, or even just plain bad luck.
So, like the protagonist in the Robert Frost poem, Kerr took the road less traveled and sanctioned one of the biggest basketball trades in years.
So all those championship teams Kerr played on in Chicago and San Antonio don't mean a thing right now to a community with serious expectations for the Suns.
"The only way I win in this is if we win," he told New Times shortly after the trade, one of many conversations over the course of several months.
"We made the decision to do this, and I'm the guy whose name is on the line. It might become, 'Bring me the head of Steve Kerr,' but that's okay. I know what Shaq can bring to the court and to a team. And, besides all that, I just don't want to do things like everyone else does them."
After Kerr sealed the Shaq deal on February 6, sportswriters and basketball fans wondered very loudly whether he'd taken leave of his senses.
"Idiot" was one of the kinder nouns used to describe a guy who has exemplified what the original (and smaller) Aristotle wrote a few thousand years ago: "Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit."
On the Yahoo! Sports Web site — for which Kerr had written a regular column before his new Suns gig — bloggers debated the post-Shaq trade question in a forum titled: "Is Steve Kerr an Idiot?"
The consensus? He was.
Sportswriters here and around the nation ran down a similar path.
In a New York Post piece headlined "Suns Burned by Shaq Deal," columnist Peter Vecsey wrote, "I can't help but think we've seen this movie: Weekend at Bernie's."
You'll remember that Bernie was the dead guy.
"Getting Shaq back in the West to reinvent the dysfunctional Suns makes great theater," concluded the Los Angeles Daily News, "but nothing else. Shaq is done."
Another blogger wrote an item titled "Hubris, The Big Aristotle and the Phoenix Suns," in which the scribe compared Kerr's actions in trading for Shaq to the Greek tragic flaw of excessive pride or arrogance.
The day after the trade was officially announced, Kerr told New Times, "This is going to be interesting. If we hadn't done anything and lost, the questions would be, 'Why didn't you do anything?' You've got to make a move sometimes. We know we're taking a risk, a big risk, and a risk is a risk."
Kerr stopped to laugh at himself: "Jeez, Steve! How many times can you say 'risk' in the same sentence?"
He went on: "I don't blame anyone for wondering what's up. But we have to believe that we as a team can do this, even though there are so many intangibles — especially that one big intangible. The guys really do like each other on this team, and that matters. We're going to try to figure it out, what we are as a team, and that doesn't happen overnight."
That was just before the improved Philadelphia 76ers upset the Suns in Phoenix on March 1 — at the time, the fourth loss in Shaq's six games here.
Then, the venom directed at Kerr took a cruel and frightening turn. The Suns received e-mails that night from two addresses. Both were death threats against the new GM.
One of the addresses was email@example.com, and the name of the sender was listed as "Your Father."
Kerr provided the e-mails to New Times, but asked that some of the more vile language be kept private so that his family wouldn't be upset.
The first missive said in part: "You screwed up the Suns by giving away Kurt Thomas, James Jones, Shawn Marion, and drafting Alando Tucker."
That was fine.
But it concluded, "One last thing. PLO, PLO, ASU had it right."
The second e-mail contained much the same vitriol.
"Steve, you are an idiot," it said, "and the ASU fans had it right. Beirut! Beirut! Beirut!"
Kerr says of the e-mailers, "I knew this job would come with some stress, but I had no idea someone would do something like this. It's very hurtful, and beyond my comprehension."
Thousands of basketball fans and University of Arizona alumni know what the Palestine Liberation Organization and Beirut references are about.
Although Kerr has led a mostly charmed life — tight-knit family, good friends, stellar reputation, wealth, and, yes, an NBA championship ring for every finger of his magical shooting hand — it hasn't all been idyllic.
A big chunk of Kerr's identity was built on the pain of losing his father to murderous ideologues in Beirut on January 18, 1984.
Islamic terrorists assassinated Malcolm Kerr, then president of the American University of Beirut, as he stepped off an elevator on his way to his office.
Dr. Kerr, who was 53, was a highly regarded specialist on the Arab world, and had spent much of his life in the Middle East.
Ann Kerr once wrote of her husband, "His enthusiasm for taking the job [17 months before his death] was summed up by his statement, 'The only thing I'd rather do than watch Steve play basketball is be president of AUB.'"
Dr. Kerr's survivors included his wife and three other children besides third-born Steve, an 18-year-old UA freshman at the time.
Two nights after his dad's murder, Kerr played in Tucson against Arizona State University. What happened that evening would become sports legend in Arizona and beyond.
The baby-faced young man, who then looked as if he'd walked off the set of Hoosiers, wept openly (as did many others at McKale Center) during a moment of silence before the game.
Kerr, the team's sixth man, then came off the bench during the first half and promptly hit a long jump shot with the quick release and beautiful form for which he would become famous. (This was a few years before colleges adopted the 3-point rule, which would increase Kerr's value as a player exponentially.)
He hit five of his seven shots that night as Arizona beat the Sun Devils. It was the Wildcats' first Pac-10 Conference win under new coach Lute Olson.
As for the "ASU had it right" reference in the menacing e-mail, the writer was talking about a game in Tempe in February 1988, when Kerr was a fifth-year senior (he'd missed the prior season with a knee injury).
By then, Kerr and the Wildcats were the toast of college basketball, a month away from winning a spot in the NCAA's Final Four.
During pre-game warm-ups, a handful of ASU students hurled insults at Kerr, including "PLO! PLO!" about his father's murder, though that organization never was linked to the assassination.
Kerr's teammates tried to rush the stands to attack the fans, but cooler heads prevailed. Kerr says he'll always remember that a kindly ASU ball boy consoled him as he tried to gather himself on the bench.
What Kerr did after the opening tip that night foreshadowed what would make a believer of future teammate Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever.
Kerr hit six straight three-point shots in the first half, some of them coming from way behind the line, then ran off the court with fists clenched and a look of grim determination etched on his face.
After Arizona completed its rout of the Sun Devils, all Kerr could muster was that the screaming students were "the scum of the Earth."
The Phoenix Suns have slowly come together since the rough patch that marked the start of Shaquille O'Neal's tenure, which was a dramatic sea change for the team and its fans.
An intense victory at home over San Antonio on a Sunday afternoon in early March, followed a few weeks ago by a thumping of the Spurs on the road, seemed to constitute a turning point for the team.
It seemed the larger-than-life big man had brought new spirit to the team and infused their arena with an excitement that had been waning inch by inch, before the Marion trade.
No one will soon forget Shaq's leap into the third row trying to save a ball against the Spurs during that March 9 home win.
The moment was an epiphany for thousands of fans, as if Shaq were saying, "If I can chase a ball into the crowd at my age and with my pedigree, what else can we do as a team?"
The Los Angeles Times wrote a few weeks ago, "Maybe the Shaquille O'Neal deal wasn't the worst trade in history, after all."
That much is true, even if the Suns lose yet another playoff series to the hated Spurs.
Phoenix made the Shaq deal, in large measure, to try to overcome its historic inadequacies against San Antonio. Those shortcomings have centered on the Suns' failure to stop All-Star Tim Duncan from dominating games.
Certainly, no one expected Duncan to nail a three-pointer (his first in two years) at the end of the first overtime on Saturday, April 19, to keep the Spurs alive in the opening playoff game. But, as his friend and former teammate Kerr says, "Great players make great plays and grab the moment as if they own it."
On a wall in Steve Kerr's office at U.S. Airways Center is a framed photograph of Kerr and Michael Jordan.
The two played together in more than 300 games as members of the peerless Chicago Bulls of the mid-and-late 1990s. But this moment in December 2002 came months before both men retired.
Jordan was a 39-year-old legend playing with the Washington Wizards. Kerr, 37, was with the San Antonio Spurs and hoping to be part of one last championship team.
Kerr is holding the ball away from Jordan. Both men are smiling, Jordan widely. Kerr's is more the Cheshire Cat variety.
"We got cross-matched in transition," Kerr says, "which means he wasn't supposed to be guarding me, but it just happened. I caught the pass and waved everyone away. Said, 'Clear out! I got a little one! Mouse in the house!'"
This was theater of the absurd.
Jordan was rated the second-greatest athlete of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll. He averaged 30 points a game for his career, and took control of untold games down the stretch with his unsurpassable skills and will to win.
As for Kerr, he played in 910 regular-season NBA games, a notable feat, but started only 30 and never scored more than 24 points in any game.
As a consummate journeyman with an uncanny shooting talent, Kerr also improved other parts of his game through hard work.
Then there was that luck of his. In addition to the rings he won playing with Jordan, he won another two playing with the great Tim Duncan.
So what happened after the smiles and the trash talk during that December 2002 Wizards-Spurs game?
"I passed the ball as soon as I could," Kerr says.
The subtext here was delicious.
At one time, Steve Kerr on an NBA basketball court joshing with anybody (much less Michael Jordan) would have seemed as implausible as young Houston rapper Paul Wall writing this 2003 lyric:
To broads, I'm a sharpshooter like Steve Kerr
Flash the wrist, cause a blur
Most basketball experts once perceived Kerr as too slow, not athletic enough, and not big enough (he's just under 6-foot-3, and he says he's never dunked a ball in his life) to compete with the best.
"If you were to have told me that he'd have a professional career at all — I mean a professional basketball playing career — I'd have to have said no way," Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson tells New Times. "He's unbelievably bright, but that doesn't mean you're going to be an NBA ballplayer."
With his choir-boy looks, Steve Kerr didn't seem capable of standing up to the likes of the physically and psychologically intimidating Jordan. But he was.
The pair had fisticuffs during training camp before the 1995-96 season, with Kerr sustaining a black eye in the scuffle.
At the time, Jordan was returning full-time to the game he had left two seasons earlier to take a stab at pro baseball.
"Michael . . . worked out like a maniac in the off-season," Kerr says. "He was intent on domination. From the first moment in practice, the intensity was incredible. He set the whole tone, and it was almost savage. We were going at it in practice, and [Coach] Phil [Jackson] took a phone call — or what happened wouldn't have.
"M.J. was talking trash to me, and I was going back at him. He was guarding me close, and he kind of gave me a forearm. I pushed him back. He's a big, strong man. We started fighting, and he caught me in the eye pretty good.
"Later, he apologized in a phone message at home. We got along really well after that, because I stood up to him, man to man. Michael didn't give a free pass to anyone. He had a history of that kind of stuff. Some guys didn't make it with him. I did."
If readership of this story were concentrated in Tucson or even in Chicago or San Antonio, a biographical recap of Stephen Charles Kerr's life would be unnecessary.
But, as his mother Ann notes, "I know it's another generation now since Steve was a player, and people may not remember."
Actually, the story may as well start in the mid-1950s, when Ann, a college student spending her junior year abroad, met Malcolm Kerr at the American University of Beirut, in the same building where Dr. Kerr would be assassinated three decades later.
Malcolm Kerr's parents had taught at the university, on beautiful terraced bluffs above the Mediterranean, and it was his favorite place in the world.
Ann Zwicker and Malcolm Kerr got married in 1956, and he taught political science at AUB for a few years before taking a job as a professor at UCLA. Dr. Kerr taught in Westwood for more than 20 years, but took leaves of absence and sabbaticals "at every opportunity," Ann Kerr says, to return to the Arab world with his growing family.
Steve Kerr was born in Beirut during one of those teaching sabbaticals in 1965. As a youth, Kerr lived for stretches in Egypt (where he played basketball on makeshift gravel courts), Tunisia, and France.
During a 2004 commencement speech to seniors at UA, Kerr recalled how his parents "literally showed me a whole world that existed beyond typical American culture. They gave me an education in understanding people and in being compassionate and respectful."
He added a kicker: "That came in handy years later when Dennis Rodman became my teammate with the Bulls."
Kerr fell in love with sports as a kid, and his father encouraged him. Having an older brother with whom to shoot hoops and toss a baseball around was cool, but Kerr himself wasn't.
"One of his greatest achievements in life was to overcome his temper," says his mother.
That would come as a revelation to the millions who watched the level-headed Kerr play at Arizona and then in the NBA.
Though Steve was a born jock, the Kerrs placed a far higher premium on academics than on learning the nuances of a pick-and-roll.
"We have many dimensions to the family," Ann Kerr says drolly, "and this sports thing is only one piece. All of my children are doing well, some of them more in the tradition of the family."
She means that two of her children earned doctoral degrees, one from Harvard and one from Stanford, and the other was on staff at the National Security Council before starting a home-rebuilding business. Steve earned his bachelor's degree from Arizona in 1988.
He spent most of his high school years in Los Angeles' affluent Pacific Palisades, where he pitched on his baseball team and played basketball.
He says plainly that he never was the best player on his hoops team, but never tired of working on the one thing he had going for him — a sweet jump shot.
Still, top-flight college ball seemed a long shot (pun intended) as his senior year ended.
Kerr got precious few nibbles from college coaches, and ended up at Arizona as a last-minute choice for new coach Lute Olson, who needed bodies. Even a 160-pound body with the face of a 15-year-old.
The year before Kerr enrolled at Arizona, the basketball team had won just four games overall.
Olson's first team, in 1983-84, wasn't remotely as talented as those just around the bend. "If I had come along even two or three years later, I wouldn't even have gotten a sniff," Kerr suggests. The team was scrappy enough to cobble out 11 wins.
Kerr lived in the Babcock dormitory during his freshman year, and his father visited during that first semester. Before Malcolm Kerr returned to Beirut, his son promised to send him game tapes once the season started.
Steve Kerr saw his father for the last time on that visit.
After the murder in January 1984, Kerr relied heavily on coaches and teammates for support, as his mother and siblings were living thousands of miles away.
"To this day, my teammates are still my best friends," he says. "Coach [Olson] and [the coach's late wife] Bobbie and everyone else down there, I never will forget any of them for what they did and who they are."
Kerr and the rest of the team improved tremendously over the next two seasons. In the summer of 1986, after his junior year, Olson chose Kerr and All-American teammate Sean Elliott to play in the World Championships against all international comers.
The tournament was in Madrid, and Kerr more than held his own against the most physical teams he'd ever played against.
But near the end of the semifinal game against the Soviet Union, in which Kerr scored 14 points, he blew out his right knee and crumpled to the floor.
He underwent 16 months of rehabilitation before suiting up again in the fall of 1988 for his red-shirt season.
"It's interesting how things happen for the right reason," Olson says. "If Steve hadn't been injured and played that next year, he probably wouldn't have gotten more than a sniff in the NBA because he still was pretty scrawny."
Never one to be warm and fuzzy in public, the 73-year-old Olson is openly fond of Kerr.
"[One year] the reporters were doing the end-of-the-year story about New Year's resolutions," he recalls, "and they asked Steve what he had in mind. He said there was only one thing. He was hoping to keep Coach off the cocaine next year. I read it in the paper, and it made me laugh. But he was the only, and I mean only, player I've ever had who could have gotten away with [that]. Make that the only one in the world who would have tried."
The 1988-89 Wildcats made it to the Final Four, where Kerr had what he still calls "the worst game of my life" in a semifinal loss to Oklahoma. It haunts him.
"It comes up in my mind at the weirdest times," he says. "No one will ever make me believe that I didn't cost our team the national championship that night."
What stuck with journalists more than the 11 missed shots was how Kerr, though crushed, sat by his locker for far longer than he had to after the game, answering every question.
Though he'd made second-team All-American in his senior season, Kerr wondered if he'd even get a chance to pursue his dream, which was to play in the National Basketball Association.
Then in June 1988, the Phoenix Suns drafted him late in the second round, 50th overall, which Olson says may have been as much a courtesy pick by Jerry Colangelo as anything else.
Kerr says his initial goal was to last three years in the league, long enough to earn a pension of a few thousand dollars a month. He made the Suns roster, and basically served as a warm body for the entire season, getting into just 26 games.
Kerr made $100,000 that year, which is $100,000 more than he'd ever thought he'd make playing the game he loved so much.
He also showed a little something in his limited playing time, making eight of 17 three-point attempts. That made him marketable, however marginally, and the Suns traded Kerr to Cleveland after his rookie season.
He spent the next three seasons there, making about $500,000 a year and earning a reputation as a terrific three-point shooter.
But those lifelong limitations — can't jump, can't run, can't cover anyone defensively — seemed to be dooming him to a short career.
During the 1992-93 season, the Cavs shipped Kerr to the Orlando Magic for a second-round draft pick. One of his new teammates was a huge rookie named Shaquille O'Neal, who was taking the league by storm.
Kerr languished there for the rest of the season, averaging just two points a game. By season's end, it seemed that, at age 28, he might have to look for another line of work.
But the Arizona graduate had done his homework. He asked his agent to call the general manager of the Chicago Bulls with a proposition: Let him try out for the team; no guarantees.
Kerr's reasoning was sound. The Bulls used an offense that included heady role players like John Paxson (now that team's general manager), a clutch long-range shooter.
Paxson (who, longtime Suns fans will recall, hit a heart-breaking three-pointer in Phoenix to win the title in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals) was about to retire.
Kerr hoped to replace him.
The Bulls and Coach Phil Jackson agreed to give him a chance to make the team, but under one condition: If he made the roster, he'd be paid $150,000, the league minimum at the time and way under the norm for a four-year league veteran.
Kerr jumped at the opportunity.
Coincidentally, Michael Jordan retired for the first time at the start of the training camp at which Kerr's probable fate in the league was to be determined.
Lute Olson recalls Kerr's game plan before trying out for the Bulls in the fall of 1993.
"He told me, 'If I can make that team, my career will be extended by a lot. I'm not a point guard, never was, but if they can get me the ball, I'll hit shots and make a place for myself with a great team.' He had it all mapped out. He weighs things, and he always has."
Kerr made the team, and forged a place for himself during five career-altering seasons, including a key role on the Bulls' three championship teams after Jordan came back a few years later.
Certainly, his biggest personal moment with Chicago came in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. That game was tied at 86 with about 20 seconds to go.
Coach Jackson called a timeout to draw up a play that everyone in the home arena could have sketched out for him: Clear out for Michael, and let him do his thing.
A YouTube video shows Jordan sitting on the bench, a cup of Gatorade at his mouth. To his left are two empty seats, then Steve Kerr. Jordan looks over to Kerr and tells him to be ready.
Kerr points at Jordan and tells him he will be.
The ball gets into Jordan's hands with about eight seconds to go. He's about 20 feet from the basket, to the left of the foul line. As expected, two Jazz players come charging at him. Kerr is standing by himself at the top of the key. He moves up a little, and Jordan unexpectedly (to everyone but the two of them) passes the ball to Kerr.
Kerr doesn't hesitate. He shoots. Swish. Jordan runs over and embraces him.
Just a few seconds remain. After an ill-fated in-bounds pass by a Utah player, it's over.
It was Jordan's fifth championship, and Kerr's second. NBA.com, the league's official Web site, ranks the shot as the 13th-greatest moment in finals history.
Kerr took the microphone a few days later during a wild celebration at a Chicago park.
"There's been some misconceptions about what actually happened, and I want to clear it up," Kerr said. "When we called timeout with 25 seconds to go and went into the huddle, Phil told Michael, 'I want you to take the last shot,' and Michael said, 'You know, Phil, I don't feel real comfortable in these situations, so maybe we ought to go in another direction.'"
The camera panned to the audience. Jordan was cracking up, just as he would years later when Kerr did his impromptu "Mouse in the house!" routine.
Kerr continued, "And then Scottie [Pippen] came in and he said, 'You know, Phil, there's that commercial that says [Michael's] been asked to do this 26 times and failed. Why don't we go to Steve?'"
Now everyone's in stitches.
"So I thought to myself, 'Well, I guess I got to bail Michael out again. But I've been carrying him all year, so what's one more time?' Anyway, the shot went in and that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it."
The Bulls won their third straight championship the following year, and Steve Kerr's role remained important, if less dramatic.
Michael Jordan retired again after the Bulls' second three-peat, and the team soon broke up.
Kerr was traded to the San Antonio Spurs in the off-season, where he would join budding superstar Duncan, veteran big man David Robinson, and his old Arizona teammate and pal Sean Elliott — then battling a rare kidney disease that necessitated a transplant after the season.
The guy who once had hoped to play in the NBA long enough to win a pension signed a deal that brought him about $11 million before he retired after the 2003 season.
San Antonio won the 1999 title, its first as a franchise, beating the New York Knicks after a strike-shortened season. With his latest ring, Kerr became the only non-Boston Celtic in NBA history to be a member of four consecutive championship teams.
Kerr had one more amazing arrow in his quiver, but that would have to wait four years, until the night of May 29, 2003, which was Game 6 of that year's NBA Western Conference championship in Dallas.
By then, Kerr's body was feeling the effects of playing a physically demanding sport for so long. He had played little during the regular season and during the team's previous 17 playoff games.
"I was trying to stay afloat so I might contribute at some point," he says. "I was trying to go out a winner — not a lot of people get to do that."
Dallas was pounding San Antonio by 15 points in the second half when Coach Gregg Popovich, in a desperation move, decided to stick the old gunslinger in the lineup.
Kerr soon found himself open deep in the left corner, and let it fly. Swish. Then he hit another three-pointer, and another, and yetanother, four in all.
Dallas called time-out after Kerr's final basket, as the entire Spurs team jumped up and down like teenagers.
An ebullient David Robinson slapped Kerr on the butt, a grin on his face. The Admiral, as the Naval Academy graduate was known, also was planning to retire after the 2003 playoffs.
San Antonio wound up beating the Mavs by 12 points to win the series. Afterward, TNT's Ernie Johnson asked Kerr to sum up his performance.
Rather than praise the Lord, his coach, and the offensive line (wait, that's football), Kerr thanked the late baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams for allowing him to escape the Scottsdale cryogenic freezing chamber where they both had been "residing."
It was a jab at his lack of playing time that season.
Kerr resumed his place on the bench as the Spurs beat the New Jersey Nets in the Finals to take their second crown in four years.
"That night in Dallas was a perfect culmination for me, a perfect way to go out," he says. "It confirmed what I've always believed, that keeping at something will pay off in the end."
A month or so after that final season, TNT called him with a proposition. The bosses had loved his zany shtick after the Dallas game and wanted to hire him for the network's NBA broadcasts.
Kerr took the job.
He says it seemed like a great fit — not to mention the pay and that he'd be able to spend far more time with his family.
Then, in late 2003, wealthy UA grad Robert Sarver, a few years older than Kerr, came courting with a dream.
Not long before that, Lute Olson had introduced Robert Sarver to Steve Kerr.
Sarver had dated one of Olson's daughters years earlier, and the coach had stayed in touch. During the intervening years, Sarver had amassed a fortune, much of it in banking and real estate in the San Diego area.
A lifelong sports fan, Sarver tells New Times that he long had fantasized about owning an NBA team, and sought Olson's advice.
"Lute brought up Steve's name right away as a guy who could be trusted, who knew everybody in the NBA from top to bottom, and who obviously knows the pro game in and out," Sarver says.
Sarver called Kerr, who agreed to be a kind of middleman at an early 2004 meeting in New York City with NBA Commissioner David Stern.
"I liked Robert from the start," Kerr says. "He's a little bit crazy, and he has a big heart that he shows people when he gets to know them. I thought, 'Well, this could be interesting.'"
Sarver had been thinking of Las Vegas as a possible site for a franchise, but says Stern quashed the idea. The commissioner then mentioned Jerry Colangelo, saying the longtime Suns chief might be willing to talk.
Sarver and Kerr soon met in Phoenix with Colangelo, and sketched out the basics of a deal that happened remarkably fast, considering that the sales price was a then-record $401 million.
The transaction called for $200 million in cash and the assumption of $201 million in team debt payable over three years. Sarver and about a dozen investors (Kerr was one of them) formed Suns Legacy Partners. They would be the team's new owners, with Sarver controlling about 30 percent of the stock.
"After we first met with Jerry, Steve and I were sitting in the car in the Third Street garage," Sarver says. "I looked at him and said, 'Are we really buying a basketball team?' It was something else."
Sarver says he's learned a ton from Kerr.
"Steve taught me what it's like to be a player, the ups and downs in any season, what's it's like to be on a winning team and on a losing team, how the playoffs are different from the regular season," he says.
"In my other businesses, everyone is held accountable as a person on a quarterly and annual basis. Here, you're judged day to day, game by game, by a whole community, and that is something you have to learn how to understand and cope with. Steve has forgotten more about that kind of thing than I even knew when I got into all this."
The owner says he never had "a master plan" for Kerr to take over as general manager someday, "though we never ruled that out, either. What I needed was someone I really could trust."
Kerr's take: "I'm not a guy who looks that far into the future. About all I think long-term about is what my kids might be doing and that I definitely want to stay around basketball in some capacity."
For sure, any master plan devised by Kerr and the Suns management didn't include Shaquille O'Neal.
It's nearing the end of the Suns' convincing April 9 regular-season win at San Antonio. New Times sends a text message to Steve Kerr, who is watching the game from his home in San Diego.
"Best Shaq since he's been here," the message says. "Guess you have a job for one more day."
Kerr responds kiddingly, "I feel so smart right now. I think I could do a Rubik's cube in about five minutes. New York Times crossword? Five minutes tops."
But he knows firsthand that glory, success, and redemption are elusive, in the NBA or anywhere else.
"Life is a journey and things can change so quickly," Kerr said over breakfast shortly after the Shaq trade. "You can't look too far ahead. You just have to enjoy the ride, wherever it goes. But, man, it's a lot easier enjoying it when we win!"
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