Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, whose team will be playing in what could be the last game of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, led his team this season to the best record in professional basketball.
That's a remarkable feat for anyone, but especially for someone who has never coached before this season — even as an assistant. While he has spent a lifetime in basketball, Kerr didn't take the helm until 2014. For most of his career, he played for and with many of basketball's greats (Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Lute Olson, Gregg Popovich), worked in the front office (as general manager of the Phoenix Suns) and opined in front of the camera (as a color commentator on TNT).
Sports writer after sports writer has tried to explain Kerr's success as a first-time coach, as the Warriors barreled their way toward the NBA Finals. He had enormous talent to work with, particularly in the form of point guard Steph Curry who was the league's MVP. His predecessor is credited with building some of the key elements of this year's talented team. And he hired veteran assistants considered some of the best minds in basketball.
But for all those advantages, Kerr's biggest asset ultimately may be his own leadership skill. In analysis after analysis, a picture emerges of a coach who is humble, detailed and curious about the world. He gives his players opportunities, asks for their input and tries to keep the joy of the game. Most of all, his character, which has been at least partly formed by personal tragedy, remains calm under pressure yet still fiercely competitive.
Several anecdotes help illustrate the way he leads. Kerr not only likes to deflect attention to his assistant coaches and players, he's willing to play up their skills at the expense of his own. He and shooting prodigy Steph Curry frequently engage in their own public game of free throws after practice, and Kerr has won only once, recounted Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard.
"On the surface, the competition seems a fun diversion," Ballard wrote. "But like most things with Kerr, it's more than that. What is coaching if not a power balancing act? Here is Kerr, one of the best shooters in NBA history and a famously (if quietly) competitive man, willing to publicly lose, repeatedly, to his star player. That takes a certain innate confidence that carries over to other areas."
Kerr also displays a broader curiosity that lends him perspective on the game. The son of an academic (more on that below), Kerr often asks his public-relations staff to compile reading material for him that has nothing to do with basketball, wrote the Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen. It has included everything from a New Yorker profile of Al Pacino to an essay about living in a dumpster.
All are intend to help him look beyond the horizons of the game — and keep his team aware of that, too. “One of [Kerr's] best attributes is that he likes to remind the players that there’s more to life than basketball,” the team's general manager, Bob Myers, told the Journal. “Whatever is going on with our team or his coaching staff is not the most important thing going on in the world.”
But to really get an idea of what kind of leader Kerr is, it's helpful to look back much earlier than this season. Kerr first became famous in the 1980s, when he was featured in the book A Season Inside, by John Feinstein. In it, Feinstein chronicled how Kerr's father, a well-known expert on Middle East affairs based in Beirut, was shot to death in the back of the head while Kerr was a college freshman playing at the University of Arizona. Two days later, he suited up to play, coming off the bench to make five of seven shots, including one from more than 20 feet away.
As SFGate's Bruce Jenkins wrote in January, Feinstein's book gives us sharp insight into Kerr's character. "An NBA coach has to be many things: highly intelligent, brutally tough and properly sensitive, with a knack for sarcasm, well-timed levity and think-on-your-feet spontaneity. Kerr was all of those things by the time he reached his senior year at Arizona University, fully prepared — although he surely didn’t realize it at the time — for the NBA coaching grind."
In addition to surviving the tragedy of his father's death, he overcame a knee surgery that kept him out for a season and eventually helped lead his team to the NCAA's semifinals. In Feinstein's book, a young Kerr deflected the praise being heaped on him: "The reason I'm the leader on this team is because when we were in France last summer I was the only one who spoke French," Kerr said back then. "Every time one of the guys wanted to talk to a girl they needed me. That's when I became the leader."
If he manages to win Tuesday night in Cleveland, it will be hard to stay so humble. But if he's the kind of leader he's been painted to be, he'll probably find a way.