Surgery was supposed to have fixed this. A second surgery was supposed to fix an unintended consequence of the first, but instead Steve Kerr remains much the same as he was in the fall of 2015, when the pain from a cerebrospinal fluid leak was so overwhelming that it caused him to miss the first 43 games of last season. And now it has intensified to such a degree that the Golden State Warriors coach will miss Monday night’s Game 4 and acknowledges that he could miss the rest of the playoffs.
The CFL symptoms Kerr experiences are debilitating and there may be no answer for the severe headaches and nausea he has suffered since his first back procedure in July 2015 and his second in September 2015. “For months, he was a shell of himself, battling intense pressure headaches and searing pain behind his eyes,” ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne wrote last April. “The worst of it was not understanding what was wrong or knowing whether it would ever get better. As an athlete, you break a bone and the doctor tells you it will heal in four to six weeks. This was different. Kerr had no answers. It wasn’t his back that hurt, it was his head. He felt sick, weak, tired and dizzy.”
Kerr’s ordeal began with back problems that led him and his wife, Margot, to conclude that he needed back surgery after the Warriors won the NBA championship in June 2015. From Shelburne:
His back had been bothering him throughout the playoffs, but he chalked it up to long hours and stress. In Game 5 of the Finals, he made a move that really tweaked it. He might have made things worse by playing beach volleyball and golf the week after the championship parade. Soon, while others were dreaming of how many more championships the Warriors’ talented young core might win, Kerr was struggling to walk from his hotel room to the car during the Las Vegas Summer League. Doctors told him he had a ruptured disk.
“He’d walk through the casino and have to stop every 20 yards to sit down at those little chairs they have in front of slot machines,” Margot says. “He had no choice, he had to get the back surgery.”
On top of the world one night, reeling and writhing with constant pain just a few weeks later. Nothing gold can stay. “It reminds you of how fragile everything is,” Kerr says. “It sounds like a cliché, but it really is true. We’re all vulnerable. So vulnerable.”
With spinal fluid leaking, he underwent a second procedure just before the start of the 2015-16 season and now he is, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Scott Ostler put it, “in medical limbo. All he knows is that he can’t coach right now and that he won’t keep his team on an emotional yo-yo.” It is no exaggeration to say that, at 51, this could be career-threatening, Ostler writes.
“I will say this,” Kerr told reporters. “This is not going to be a case where I’m coaching one night and not coaching the next. I’m not going to do that to our team, our staff. We’re hoping that over the next week or two, whatever it is, that I can sort of make a definitive realization, or deduction, or just feel it, that I’m going to do this or I’m not.”
If that simple declaration doesn’t hit you like a two-by-four, you haven’t let yourself be entertained, charmed or otherwise blown away by what the Warriors have become since Kerr was hired in 2014.
Kerr has tried everything, including conventional medicine, yoga, meditation, marijuana, exercise and sheer willpower. Nothing has worked. A year ago, Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami told Kerr that he had heard from others who had CFL problems and recalled that conversation Sunday that had given the coach a glimmer of hope:
Then his head snapped up, his eyes flashed, and he said, with no little urgency: “Did any of them have a cure for this?”
No, I said, they all said what the doctors have told you, too — there is no cure, there is only the knowledge that sometimes the pain ends in a few months, sometimes a few months, and sometimes …
I didn’t want to say any more than that. Kerr quickly shrugged it off, lightly said he would do just about anything to be rid of this, then nodded and moved on.
Cerebrospinal fluid, which is clear and colorless, is found in the brain and spinal cord, cushioning it and proving basic mechanical and immunological protection to the brain. A leak can occur spontaneously, according to the Cleveland Clinic, or traumatically, which is usually related to a history of head injury, surgery or tumors. Symptoms can include clear, watery drainage from one side of the nose or one ear as well as severe headaches, vision changes and hearing loss. Kerr appears to have suffered the leak traumatically, given the advice he offered Sunday for those who have back problems.
“I can tell you if you’re listening out there, stay away from back surgery,” Kerr said. “I can say that from the bottom of my heart. Rehab, rehab, rehab. Don’t let anyone get in there.”