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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin