It happens at every party, doesn’t it? It’s inevitable. You clean the house, the yard, the garage and your "dig me" room. But in the end, everybody winds up in the kitchen.
Follow me then to McKale Center on the campus of the University of Arizona back in the early to mid 1980s.
The "kitchen," so to speak, was one end of the court by the Arizona bench.
On non-game nights the stands behind the basket were pushed back, and there was an open area where people congregated. But these weren’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill college students. I’m talking about some of the greatest Wildcat names of that era. On any given day you might bump into the likes of Ricky Hunley, Vance Johnson, Byron Evans, Joe Magrane, swimmers, volleyball players, gymnasts, cheerleaders and, from time to time, even some of the local media. It was not uncommon to see the likes of Dan Hicks or Brad Steinke or even Kevin McCabe trolling this hallowed ground. I witnessed this phenomenon happen five days a week. It was like clockwork.
They were all there essentially for two reasons:
One: Practice sessions usually started at around the same time, and this gathering ground was near their respective locker rooms, the athletic training facility and weight room. Media availability would also take place here.
Two: Everybody and their brother fancied then, like now, that they could shoot a basketball.
Everybody. (Brad Steinke, by the way, COULD shoot the rock.)
And, like the kitchen to your party, these non-basketball players would all converge on the court at McKale before Lute Olson came out to watch his team stretch just prior to practice.
It sort of evolved innocently enough, but not really. It seemed organic, but it wasn’t. Inevitably somebody would find a basketball and launch a shot from the corner, baseline. Or maybe be bold enough to step onto the court and start measuring free throws.
Then another still would grab a rebound and let one fly. Soon, there was a pseudo 3-on-3 game going on. Then 5-on-5 half court would emerge, and sooner or later somebody would be hanging on the rim.
The baskets always had to be readjusted before the start of practice for the REAL squad.
And then I would have to clear the court. Trust me when I tell you that you learn the art of negotiation in a hurry when you are trying to ask Chuck Cecil for the basketball back so he can get to his football practice and you can help start your own practice.
There are some things that you just don’t ever get over or forget.
That might have been where I remember bumping into Chip Hale for the first time.
He wasn’t shy about sauntering onto the court and putting up a 3-ball before vacating McKale and heading across the street for practice at Sancet Field. The Wildcat baseball team then was about to fashion themselves as national champs in a couple of seasons. And make no mistake: it was Chip’s team. He wasn’t the most gifted athlete on the diamond, but it didn’t matter. He brought something else to the equation, and it wasn’t his height or speed from home to first. It was an attitude. He was the heart and soul of a squad full of soulful players, and I could sense it with every passing moment of every game I saw him play. Soon I was broadcasting his games as he made his way to Triple-A ball, and it was clearer still. Whenever I saw Chip Hale patrolling third base or getting on base it was obvious he was the leader of his group. He led vocally and by example. He looked the part and was the part. You knew it when you saw him in uniform.
It was sort of the same thing for Steve Kerr. There were far more gifted athletes on the Wildcat basketball roster, but nobody saw the game better, and nobody was absorbing more of what Olson was preaching. And once Steve saw playing time you just new that the ball, the team and the game were in good hands. His post Arizona career is sexier and more well-documented, of course, and with good reason. But fundamentally it all started in Tucson on that floor at McKale Center .
So it comes as no surprise to me now some 30 years later that both men are embarking on the next chapter of their sporting lives and doing so at the highest level with the faith bestowed upon them from on high. Of course they have the trust of ownership and an entire organization. Of course they are still leading a group of men into their chosen field of expertise. They were instant and constant leaders of their peers just a few short years out of high school! Both Olson and Jerry Kindall have gushed in hindsight about what these two brought to their respective programs beyond 3-point shooting or on-base percentages. They both brought a heavy dose of that intangible: leadership. And you can’t lead without backing it up with your play.
Yes, leadership matters, but so, too, does execution.
So, if we were at a party back in the day and made our way to the kitchen where all of the high-brow conversation was taking place and the topic of Steve Kerr and/or Chip Hale bubbled up, you can bet your Bartles and James that somebody would speculate on what their long-range sporting futures might hold.
Back then, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to say that one would wind up on the sidelines of an NBA court, drawing up plays while changing the environment of the franchise around him, and the other, embarking on a managerial career as if he just got named the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
True leaders can’t help themselves. Leadership in its purest form is obvious and makes a lasting impression.
Kerr and Hale were on this path from the moment they stepped on the floor and on the infield. This is just the next step in what feels like a logical evolution.