When Steve Kerr observes Christmas with his teammates on the University of Arizona basketball team here, he almost undoubtedly will look back on the past year and wonder if there is reason to celebrate.
It has been almost a year since the night Steve Kerr woke to find himself in the middle of a nightmare. From half a world away came a phone call. His father, Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University in Beirut, had been killed -- assassinated by terrorists.
"It's not something I like to talk about much," Kerr said last week. "I've just tried to do the best I can. It's not something I want to remember that much."
Arizona assistant coach Scott Thompson also got a call that January morning from an alumnus who had heard the news. "I didn't know what to do, I was in shock," Thompson remembered. "I knew Steve had to be told if he didn't know, but I didn't want to do it on the phone. I called him and just said, 'Hey, how you doing.' He said, 'You heard, didn't you.' " Thompson spent that night with Kerr, talking him through the long night.
Kerr had been born in Beirut. The previous August, while he and his mother waited in the Beirut airport for a plane, the airport was bombed. He had been forced to drive through Syria to get out of Lebanon so he could enroll at Arizona. He knew his father worked in a violent part of the world but he had never dreamed the tragedy would extend into his family.
Two days after the assassination, Arizona played arch rival Arizona State. There never was any doubt in Kerr's mind about playing. "Really, there was nothing else for me to do," he said softly. "I couldn't change anything. Playing was almost an escape for me. It was an easy decision for me because really, there was no decision. I was going to play."
As 10,213 in Arizona's McHale Athletic Center stood in silent tribute to Malcolm Kerr, his son broke down and cried. "That may have been the toughest time for all of us," said Arizona Coach Lute Olson. "Everyone wanted to help Steve, but how? We were all frustrated because there was nothing we could do."
Early in the game, Olson sent in Kerr. He is a fine long-range shooter, accurate to 22 feet. This night, the first time he touched the ball, he launched from 28 feet.
"Way outside his range," Olson said.
The ball barely touched the net going through. Olson remembers looking up and down his bench and "not seeing too many dry eyes. It was just one of those feelings you can't explain."
Before the night was over, Kerr had hit five of seven shots from the field, scored 12 points and Arizona had drubbed Arizona State, 71-49. When Olson took Kerr out of the game, the crowd stood and cheered and cheered and cheered. Kerr buried his head in a towel.
"I just wanted to do something special that night," he said. "There was this feeling of helplessness but also a feeling of being pumped up, of wanting to get out there and do something, of wanting to be part of something. It's a night I won't forget for a long time."
Kerr smiled shyly. "Actually, it was a lot harder talking to people about the game than playing the game."
At UCLA later in the season, Kerr received another standing ovation from people who remembered Malcolm Kerr as a professor there. The only ugly moment came at Arizona State when a small group of students chanted, "Your father's still alive." When Arizona won the game at the buzzer, Kerr couldn't resist going back to respond briefly to his tormentors.
"That was the only time in the whole thing I saw Steve lose his cool even a little," said Butch Henry, Arizona's assistant athletic director. "What amazed everyone . . . was how he kept himself under control through the whole thing."
Kerr's very presence as a freshman sixth man for a Division I team is a story in itself. He is a 6-foot-2 guard, a step slow, not quite big enough. After his senior year at Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades, Calif., no Division I college offered him a scholarship. It wasn't until Olson, getting ready to begin his first season at Arizona, stumbled over him in a California summer league that Kerr got an offer.
"I had given up on the idea of finding a perimeter shooter and I was there scouting juniors," Olson said. "I was watching this one game and this kid is standing outside just drilling jumpers from way outside. I asked one of the coaches in the league if that had been a typical performance. He said yes.
"I came back the next day just to see him. Same thing. By now, I was very interested."
But it was July and Olson had used up the 18 visits each NCAA school was allowed. It was also a period when no face-to-face contact with prospects was allowed. Olson was put in the position of calling a player he had never met to offer him a scholarship to a school he had never even seen.
Kerr said yes.
"Easiest decision of my life," he said. "I knew Coach Olson's reputation at Iowa and I knew the kind of program he wanted to build at Arizona. And, it was a full scholarship."
After surviving the airport bombing and the drive through Syria, Kerr finally met his new coach when he enrolled in the fall. He quickly earned the respect of his teammates with his toughness and intelligence and became Arizona's sixth man. He averaged 7.1 points a game for the season, hitting 52 percent of his shots, virtually all from outside.
Now, as the Wildcats (7-2) come here for three games this week, Kerr is starting, averaging 8.3 points a game, shooting a remarkable 60 percent from the field.
If Kerr were a basketball player who had come from no scholarship in July 1983 to starting for Arizona on Christmas Day 1984, his would be quite a story.
But he is more than that. "I wish I was just another player," he said. "What I went through, others have gone through. I'm not unique, I've just gotten a lot more attention because when I lost my father, he was someone famous."
Kerr paused. "That doesn't make the hurt any worse. Or any less."