NEWARK, Calif. — Most people — including the several hundred who filled a gymnasium in this sleepy Northern California suburb Monday afternoon — know Steve Kerr as the two-time champion coach of the Golden State Warriors, his latest role in his three-decade career in professional basketball.
But when Kerr took the microphone at Newark Memorial High as part of a town-hall-style event held in the wake of the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., he stood before the group featuring students from several area high schools as something else: a victim of gun violence.
“I know what it feels like,” Kerr said. “I know how it feels.”
Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was assassinated on Jan. 18, 1984, targeted because he was president of the American University of Beirut.
Kerr was 18 at the time, a freshman at the University of Arizona, not much older than the students he was addressing Monday in the event held by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). While Kerr has made it clear he is willing to speaking out about various issues in society, his feelings about gun violence come from a very personal place.
“I know how the Parkland families feel, or the Aurora families, or Sandy Hook,” he said, referencing other recent mass shootings. “I met with some of the families from the Las Vegas shooting. … It’s awful. It’s devastating. It’s horrible.
“This is pretty simple: Let’s see if we can do something about it. Let’s save some lives.”
It was that desire to save lives, to enact change, that led Kerr to speak at Monday’s event. He was there because of a chance meeting with Khanna while the Warriors were in Washington two weeks ago. Khanna is friends with Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams and was having dinner with Adams and his wife when Kerr came over to say hello.
Khanna brought up the idea of having Kerr come to a town hall with students, and Kerr agreed. When he checked in the following day, arrangements were made. Kerr, Khanna and Matt Deitsch, a 20-year-old graduate of Stoneman Douglas whose younger brother and sister survived last month’s shooting that killed 17 people, spoke for over an hour on gun violence.
“One person wrote in, saying, ‘What expertise does Coach Kerr have on gun violence?’ ” Khanna said. “Another cynic, when they saw Matt Deitsch, said, ‘What expertise do these young folks have about gun violence?’
“I have a question for those folks: Who are these experts? Because, as far as I’m concerned, these experts don’t really know what they are talking about when we have mass shooting after mass shooting and nothing changes.”
Kerr clearly feels the same way.
“I’m here because I’m a citizen of this country,” Kerr said, “and we live in a democracy. I feel like it’s my responsibility to speak on some of the things happening in the world today.”
The three men took questions from the audience, answering queries about everything from whether teachers should be armed in classrooms to why the horrific amount of gun violence in Chicago doesn’t get as much attention as it should to what the NBA as a whole will do to combat the issue. The NBA has made inroads: Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, donated $200,000 so inner-city children could attend the March for Our Lives in Washington. Kerr said he would also be marching in the March 24 event scheduled in San Francisco.
Deitsch was a powerful speaker, seemingly having a data point at the ready for every possible question that was thrown the panel’s way. While Kerr declined to say much to reporters afterward, he did say, “Matt was the man.”
“I don’t represent Congress,” Deitsch said. “I don’t represent one of the most stacked teams in NBA history.
“I’m here to represent 17 people who died.”
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who represents nearby Yountville — where a veteran took three women hostage and later killed them last week — also spoke to the crowd.
But Kerr, of course, was the main attraction. He granted every request for a hug or a picture, and he was mobbed as he tried to leave, taking a solid 10 minutes to exit the court as he chatted with students and signed items for them.
He also took advantage of their rapt attention by repeatedly imploring to them to carry forward the momentum he said he feels among the youth of today, which Kerr said has changed the paradigm of the debate.
He compared it to the way the young people of the 1960s and ’70s rose up against the Vietnam War, saying that youthful energy can truly lead to change.
“Since then, I haven’t felt that same passion,” Kerr said. “But it’s happening. You guys have a responsibility to keep that going.”
It’s the same responsibility that Kerr feels that leads him to repeatedly speak out on the issue. His life has been shaped by gun violence. His hope is he can prevent that from happening to someone else.
“I don’t care if you’re conservative or liberal or Democrat or Republican,” Kerr said. “There are plenty of worthy issues to discuss.
“But kids getting murdered in high school and murdered by semiautomatic weapons, weapons that belong in the military … that should not be open to debate.”