In his 30 years of coaching high school ball in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, Jerry Marvin did not meet a more agreeable kid than Steve Kerr. The teenager never challenged Marvin's authority or put his own interests ahead of the team's in the hope of attracting the recruiters who were off chasing faster, better guards.
But there was a good reason major colleges didn't find Kerr worthy of a scholarship -- Marvin didn't, either. "To be honest with you, no, I didn't think Steve was a Division I player," he said recently by phone. "He was a coach's dream, so smart and unselfish. But people thought, 'Hey, look, you're a slow white guy who can't dunk.'"
Marvin had coached Kiki Vandeweghe, so he knew a can't-miss prospect when he saw one. Kerr? Marvin did what he could for him. Gonzaga brought in Kerr for a look, then bailed after John Stockton treated him like a drill cone in scrimmages. Marvin persuaded the new coach at the University of Arizona, Lute Olson, to drop by a summer league game, and they sat together in the stands while Kerr was busy underwhelming the guest of honor.
Marvin told Olson all about Kerr's kindness and intangible grace. "I don't think Steve will ever play any for me," Olson said, "but I have an opening, and he sounds like the kind of kid I'd like to have on the squad."
Kerr freed himself from a verbal commitment to Cal State Fullerton and became a star at Arizona, a shooter good enough to lead the Wildcats to the 1988 Final Four and to make himself the 50th pick in that June's draft. He won three championship rings with Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan in Chicago, then two more with Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, before becoming a TNT broadcaster, the general manager of the Phoenix Suns and now the coach of the Golden State Warriors.
Kerr's has been a wildly improbable basketball journey. When Marvin was asked what he would have said 30 years ago if someone had told him Kerr would go on to win five NBA titles, make one championship-clinching shot off a pass from the greatest player of all time and become the most accurate 3-point shooter in league history, the retired coach said, "I would've laughed him out of the gym, no offense to Steve."
No offense taken. Kerr has long held a humble view on a charmed career path he never saw coming, one that now leaves him coaching a Warriors team with a far superior roster to the team in New York that could've been his. For a deal of five years and $25 million, Kerr stunned the basketball world by remaining true to his California roots and rejecting an offer from his mentor, Phil Jackson, to take over the Knicks. Golden State represents the former UCLA ball boy's first coaching job since he helped John Wooden's scorekeeper, Herb Furth, run a junior high league while playing for the Pacific Palisades varsity.
In the days before the Warriors hired Kerr, Marvin was thrilled that his former player had exceeded his expectations. "Nobody knows the game better than Steve," he maintained, "and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
But the old coach has been around long enough to know where nice guys usually finish.
"It doesn't seem that Steve's enough of a jerk to be a really successful coach," Marvin said. "Is he mean enough or nasty enough to get on people, which you have to do as a coach?"
In other words, is he tough enough for this unforgiving task of driving a group of professional athletes toward a title?
Truth is, Stephen Douglas Kerr, son of a slain American hero, answered that question a long time ago.
Malcolm Kerr said he loved only one thing more than watching one of his three sons, Steve, play basketball, and that was serving as president of American University of Beirut. The Kerrs represented three generations of world travelers and cultural bridge builders between the U.S. and the Middle East. They were the living, breathing antithesis of the ugly-American stereotype, and Steve had never seen his father more excited than he was the day Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter shook hands at the signing of the Camp David Accords.
But the Kerr patriarch was invested enough in his boy's jumper to call Olson to nail down that scholarship to Arizona, where Steve was booked for a seat at the end of the bench. Steve's older brother, John, would write him from Egypt, encouraging him to keep working the problem as he moved up from Olson's fifth guard to the fourth, and then from the fourth to the third. John had reason for optimism all along: He had seen Steve, as a ninth-grader living in Cairo, drop 40 points on an Egyptian club team comprising men in their 20s before a club official offered him a monthly salary, a car and an apartment the next day if he'd join their team. (The Kerrs figured Steve was better off keeping his NCAA eligibility.)
John was visiting his parents in Beirut at Christmastime 1983 when the grainy tape of one of Steve's first college games arrived from the States. "It was one camera view from midcourt, from the concourse, and Arizona had three different guards with blond hair," recalled John, now a professor of international development at Michigan State. "We finally figured out which one was Steve, and we saw him score some points. I can say it was a highlight of my father's life to watch Steve playing in an NCAA game."
That life suddenly ended weeks later, on Jan. 18, 1984, when two Islamic terrorists ambushed Malcolm outside his university office and shot him in the back of the head for the crime of being an American.
Lebanon had descended into civil war, and an anti-Western fervor colored the chaos. The 52-year-old educator, peacemaker and author who dedicated his everything to improving relations between the U.S. and the Arab world was murdered in the same building where he had met his wife, Ann, in 1954, and was pronounced dead in the same hospital where he had been born.
Andrew, at 15 the youngest of the Kerr children, heard about his father's assassination on a radio while eating lunch at his Beirut school a few blocks away. John was out of college and working in agricultural economics in Egypt, cherishing every minute of the adventure, when he got the devastating news. Susan, the one daughter, was enjoying her newlywed life in Taiwan when she took the phone call from her mother.
In her book, "One Family's Response To Terrorism: A Daughter's Memoir," Susan wrote that she was consumed for years by an image of the fatal bullet killing her father, of it "ruining his fantastic brain" before striking every member of the family, including the one living out his student-athlete dream in the U.S. "It struck my brother Steve with such force," she wrote, "as to push him wildly onto the streets of Tucson, Arizona, where he could not stop running in the aftermath of his middle-of-the-night phone call."
From her home in Cambridgeshire, England, where she serves as a county councillor for the Liberal Democrat party, Susan Kerr van de Ven recalled her reaction as mirroring Steve's. "I was running up and down the road in Taiwan," she said. "But Steve was the one who was alone, and he was still just a boy, really. We just couldn't imagine him getting that news in the middle of the night alone in his room."
Rather than fly Steve into Beirut for the on-campus memorial, the Kerrs decided he should remain in Tucson to play his upcoming game against Arizona State, and to meet the family for services scheduled to be held in the coming days at Princeton, where Malcolm had earned his undergraduate degree, and at UCLA, where Malcolm taught for 20 years.
Two nights after his father's death, Steve wept during a pregame moment of silence, came off the bench to hit his first jumper -- a 25-footer -- and made 5 of 7 field goal attempts to give Olson his first Pac-10 victory.
Steve used the basketball court as his sanctuary, his place to hide from the tragedy of losing the man who shot baskets with him in their Pacific Palisades driveway. The man who would read The New Yorker in the Dodger Stadium bleachers while his young sons were trying to run down batting practice home runs. The man who would never see him play a college game in person.
But in 1988, as Kerr was a fifth-year senior recovering from a torn ACL, the court was a sanctuary no more. During warm-ups before a game at Arizona State, some 10 to 15 fans hit him with a series of subhuman chants that included "P-L-O" and "Where's your dad?"
Kerr dropped the ball and all but collapsed onto the bench, his eyes filling up with tears. He was a beaten man, at least until he wasn't.
Kerr recovered to score 20 of his 22 points in the first half, to make all six of his 3-point attempts in the blowout victory and to send a message to those who tried to unnerve him with their evil words.
"There's no question they made me play my best," Kerr said that night.
"That was Steve," recalled his younger brother, Andrew, now a general contractor in the Washington, D.C., area. "He wasn't going to charge into the stands to go after those idiots. He was just going to ruin their night by winning the game."
Steve Kerr, a second-round pick in that '88 NBA draft, was already playing for his fourth team by the time Michael Jordan showed up for the Chicago Bulls' training camp in the fall of 1995. Jordan's first comeback out of retirement had ended in playoff failure the previous spring, and he was hell-bent on re-establishing himself (and supplanting Scottie Pippen) as the team's alpha male, as the same dominator who had won three titles before quitting to play minor league baseball.
Jordan had a habit of intimidating fellow Bulls in practice with his physicality, sometimes breaking their spirit to the detriment of the team. One day he tried to bully spindly 6-foot-3 Kerr, who had a long history of never backing down. They ended up in a one-sided fistfight, leaving Kerr with a black eye.
His sister, Susan, was among those who loved the story of the fight, believing it to be a good lesson in standing up for yourself.
Jordan apologized the next day, but his contrition was not as important as his newfound feeling for a supporting cast member who had never dunked a ball and who would start a mere 30 games over a 910-game career. "From that point on," Jordan would say, "I've always respected him. He didn't give up. He fought back. He may have gotten the worst end of it, but I respected him. One hundred percent."
That respect was never more evident than it was in the Game 6 huddle of the 1997 Finals, after Phil Jackson drew up the deciding play for -- who else? -- Jordan. Deep in thought on the bench as he sipped from a Gatorade cup, a white towel draped around his shoulders, Jordan turned to Kerr with an ice-cold look in his eye and said, "Hey, hey," before leaning in and ordering him to be ready in case Utah's Stockton left him to double up on defense.
"If he comes off," Kerr said as he jabbed a finger toward Jordan, "I'll be ready."
On cue, Stockton scrambled over to help on Jordan, who threw the pass to Kerr, who sank the jumper that won the title. As Jordan approached the bench, he grabbed Kerr's head with his right hand and pressed it against his cheek. In the postgame delirium, 4-year-old Nick Kerr scrambled onto the court before his mother ordered the player's brother, Andrew, to chase him down.
In pursuit, Andrew came face-to-face with Steve. "When we played in our driveway, like any kid, we'd count down 3-2-1 and say, 'This is to win it all,'" Andrew said. "And then it really happened. That night Steve just screamed in my ear, 'Can you believe I just hit the game-winning shot in the NBA Finals?'"
Susan watched Steve make that shot on TV in Taiwan. John watched on tape delay in a pizzeria in Sicily, unaware of what had occurred in the final seconds and then exploding into celebration with his wife after the uncontested 17-footer went down. Steve had confided in John that he realized there were only three or four NBA teams he could play for, that he needed the right system and the requisite superstar talent to draw the defense's attention and allow him his open looks. Kerr had found that system in Jackson's triangle and that talent in Jordan and Pippen.
He would follow a three-peat in Chicago by being a contributor to San Antonio's run in 1999, when Kerr used the Popovich-Duncan- David Robinson triangle to become the first non-Celtic to win four straight titles. The Spurs dealt him in 2001, reacquired him in 2002 and watched him in 2003 make huge shots off the bench to help beat Dallas in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals and then New Jersey in Game 5 of the Finals.
"To have Nick around has been special," Kerr said of his son during that championship series victory over the Nets. "And then I think, 'Man, it would've been nice for me to have been the son enjoying this experience with my dad.'"
Steve retired that year, four months after his family won a wrongful-death judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran in U.S. District Court; Iran was found to have backed the Hezbollah terrorists who gunned down Malcolm. Andrew and Susan were the driving forces behind the suit, which was the Kerrs' way of meeting a violent act with a nonviolent call for justice. No Iranian official ever responded to the suit. The court's decision & order was sent to each family member in the mail, and this is what it said about Malcolm's murder:
"Each plaintiff has a vivid recollection of the horrific moment they first learned of it. Although none of the plaintiffs have sought professional counseling to help cope with their grief, choosing instead to rely on one another for solace, they nonetheless continue to experience intense sorrow and anguish at the remembrance of his death. ... Even 19 years after Malcolm's death, his absence is still mourned at every family milestone: the weddings of his children, for example, and the birth of each grandchild."
The court awarded Ann Kerr $10 million in compensatory damages and an additional $8.025 million as executrix of the Malcolm Kerr estate. Steve, Susan, John and Andrew were each awarded $3 million. The family sought no punitive compensation -- "How can you put a price on someone's life?" Susan asked -- and understood that Iran would never pay a dime.
It was never about money. It was always about accountability.
"Receiving that judgment," Susan recalled, "it was all very sad. It was almost a letdown when it came in the mail. It was just so final, and in the end, we didn't bring back the person we all loved."
Ann Kerr, 79 and remarried, was the rock who kept her family from coming undone, leading by example by never abandoning the Middle East or her husband's devotion to it. She took a teaching job in Cairo after Malcolm's death, and, without telling her children, she returned to Beirut for a 1985 service on the one-year anniversary of the assassination.
She has made numerous trips back to Beirut, where three of her children were born, including Steve, and, through a scholarship program in her husband's name, she has sent students into the region for study. "She was determined to keep building bridges," Susan said. "But that isn't to say our lives weren't destroyed simultaneously by what happened, at least until everybody found a way through."
Andrew dealt with the pain by blocking out all memory of the events surrounding his father's final day, except for the bulletin he heard on the radio. He would wear a mouth guard in bed so he wouldn't grind his teeth down to the nub, and sometimes he was haunted in the night by the sounds of his mother sobbing in a nearby room. Andrew ultimately took a job with the National Security Council, and he was adamant that Hezbollah and Iran be held formally responsible for the killing the way they would be in federal court.
Having earned a master's in Middle Eastern studies and a doctorate in education from Harvard, Susan made a career of local politics in England and represented a party that stood against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war that Steve also opposed. Ann wrote her memoir on Beirut, titled "Come with Me from Lebanon: An American Family Odyssey"; recently organized a symposium marking the 30th anniversary of the tragedy; and still runs the Fulbright program at UCLA. When her students enter her office, they find on her wall a copy of John's Fulbright scholar ID card and a newspaper clipping showing Steve sinking that Game 6 shot against the Jazz.
"My main regret," she recalled by phone, "and the thing that brings the most pangs, is everything Malcolm missed. The lives of his children, the fact he never saw his grandchildren. That hurts tremendously."
The reminders are always a phone call or an email away. John just sent his mother a photo from a Michigan State commencement ceremony, and in it the oldest son is the spitting image of Malcolm on the day he earned his Ph.D. As far as Steve's zillion-to-one basketball career goes, Ann said, "Wow, Malcolm would've loved every minute of it. But we've made up a belief system that brings him into it."
The way Ann tells it, Steve has his old man's self-deprecating sense of humor. But as much as he pokes fun at himself on TV, and as much as he has struck everyone from his high school coach to NBA opponents as an impossibly nice guy, Steve's inner strength has long been his greatest asset.
"So the idea that he might not be tough enough for this," John said of coaching, "is just silly." Andrew said the GM experience in Phoenix, the first time Steve had the power to hire and fire, taught him how to be decisive. Ann said that 15 years of hard NBA playing, of managing the stress that comes with competing with and against the world's best players, left her son with an edge.
He'll need that edge now more than ever. Kerr turned down Phil Jackson and the Knicks for a shot to lead the Warriors to postseason places Mark Jackson did not lead them.
Kerr will confront this new challenge as an established grinder, an overachiever and a survivor scarred -- but not defined -- by tragedy. He might succeed or fail as coach of Golden State, but this much is already clear:
He won't be afraid to do either.