The Triumph And Trials Of Steve Kerr
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA reporter
Steve Kerr was devastated.
He woke up the morning of the 2020 NBA Draft excited about the Warriors holding the No. 2 overall pick, but his day had just taken an unexpected, horrific turn.
Earlier that day, during a pickup game in Los Angeles, Klay Thompson felt a horrible pain in his right calf. The Golden State guard immediately feared he had suffered a torn Achilles tendon, a terrible blow for a player who just missed an entire season because of a torn left ACL.
A few hours before the draft, Thompson called Warriors general manager Bob Myers, who conferenced in Kerr, athletic trainer Drew Yoder and Rick Celebrini, the team's director of sports medicine and performance.
"It was just awful," Kerr told FOX Sports in an exclusive interview. "It still feels awful. It's just not fair – especially him. He loves the game. He works on it. You just feel horrible for him."
While the draft was still in the middle of the second round, Kerr hopped on a plane to LA with Celebrini. They were by Thompson's side, along with his former teammate Zaza Pachulia, when the doctor revealed the results of the MRI the following morning.
"The doctor confirmed it," Kerr said. "Klay was there with his brother and a couple of friends who I already know well. We just tried to support him. We knew what the news was going to be. And when it was confirmed, it was just – all you can do is be there for him. You can't really say much."
Kerr was quiet in that moment, but Thompson's father, Mychal, said the coach's presence spoke volumes to their family.
"It means everything," Mychal Thompson told FOX Sports. "It shows you how special the culture is with the Warriors and how much the players mean to them, more than just players, but as human beings also. Steve cares for his players as much off the court as he does on the court. That's what makes him a special coach."
It's not unusual for Kerr to show that type of concern for his players. He builds a relationship with each of the guys on the roster and genuinely tries to learn their psychology.
During a recent interview with FOX Sports, Kerr was watching a workout with Nico Mannion, a point guard who was projected to be a high lottery pick a few years ago, but fell all the way to No. 48 in last month's draft.
Instead of analyzing his skills, Kerr was trying to understand his mental state.
"That's quite a fall for him emotionally," Kerr said. "He's got a mountain to climb without the perks of being a first-round pick, and I can relate to that.
"So, now I've got to get to know him, get to know what makes him tick. Same thing whether it's Steph, Klay, Dramond, James Wiseman. Coaching is about trying to understand perspectives and help that player through his own unique journey."
It's an approach Kerr had from the get-go.
When the Warriors gave Kerr his first head coaching job in 2014, his first priority was developing rapport with the players.
But there was one notable hiccup.
"It was funny, the first week that I got the job, I was literally calling every player and Klay wouldn't get back to me," Kerr said. "I remember calling Bob and saying, 'Bob, I don't know what's going on. I'm trying to reach Klay.' And Bob said, 'Don't worry about that. Klay doesn't call anybody.' "
Kerr quickly learned not to get offended.
Thompson is a five-time All-Star who is extremely devoted to his craft. But he'd rather spend time with his bulldog, Rocco, than humans.
"He is like a metronome," Kerr said. "Just every single day he's guarding the hell out of the ball and knocking down shots and doing that over and over and over again. And never saying a word."
Kerr studied each player and adjusted his approach accordingly.
With Stephen Curry, Kerr realized he had a humble superstar who prefers to lead by example, or a "short Tim Duncan" as the coach affectionately calls him. He also noticed Curry, a father of three, has a lightness about him – he loves basketball, but doesn't take himself or the game too seriously.
Kerr sees life similarly. And that commonality made Curry immediately feel understood.
"He always keeps the right perspective [that] the NBA is a blessing, and the ability to play basketball and be in our world is an amazing experience," Curry said. "That's refreshing to know. We all have lives off the court as well, so he appreciates and values that and what we all bring and our own stories. It makes you appreciate the opportunity to play the game and know that your coach has the same mindset."
As for Draymond Green, Kerr knew he needed help. As soon as he got the job, he called Tom Izzo, Green's former coach at Michigan State, and asked for advice.
Green is fiery and has a temper – similar to Kerr – and the coach wanted to learn how to best harness and exploit that.
"He told me the truth, which is, there's nobody you'd rather go into a battle with than Draymond Green, the ultimate competitor," Kerr said. "And he said, 'Draymond wants to be coached and he wants honesty and that's what you give him.'"
Kerr took those words to heart. He stood up to Green, which at times led to screaming matches. But eventually Green learned to deeply trust Kerr. In fact, he saw himself in his coach.
"Everybody knows how competitive Draymond is, but Steve's competitiveness kind of lurks underneath the surface more," Myers told FOX Sports this week. "But he's every bit as competitive. He hides it and then it will come out in various ways. But he simmers more. And Draymond lets his emotions out more. There's a mutual respect mostly, in my opinion, born from their love to compete and their competitiveness. I think they see that in each other."
Kerr has a unique vantage point.
He immediately commanded the respect of his players because he was a five-time NBA champion, who played alongside some of the greatest players of all time, including Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls and Tim Duncan on the San Antonio Spurs.
But he's also deeply relatable. Kerr was the 50th overall pick in the 1988 NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns and had to scrap, fight and prove himself throughout his career.
He understands success. And he understands struggle. He has an uncanny ability to relate to people, to win them over and help them grow.
It has led to his stars becoming the best versions of themselves.
Under Kerr, Thompson became one of the top pure shooters in the game, a 3-point weapon who is also an excellent defender. Curry turned into a two-time MVP who revolutionized the game with his ability to shoot from anywhere on the court. And Green went from being a 35th draft pick to one of the best defenders in the league, effectively using his fire to motivate himself and everyone around him.
According to Curry, it's simple.
Kerr gets people to believe in themselves.
"He's always approached the role of coaching this team with transparency and communication and managing people and understanding that it does take one through 15 to do anything special," Curry said. "And he's been very consistent on that."
It led to a dynasty.
The Warriors made five consecutive NBA Finals appearances from 2015-2019, winning three championships. In Kerr's first season at the helm, the Warriors won their first title in 40 years. The following season, they set a record for the most wins in NBA history (73) before blowing a 3-1 series lead in The NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They went on to win back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018.
Very few teams experience that kind of sustained success. The Warriors were special. One of a kind. Effortless. In fact, they were widely considered one of the best basketball teams of all time, if not the best.
But everything eventually came crashing down.
In the 2019 NBA Finals, Kevin Durant suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in Game 5, and then Thompson tore his left ACL in Game 6. A few weeks later, Durant left for the Brooklyn Nets in free agency. Then, at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, Curry suffered a broken left hand.
The Warriors, who were atop the mountain for half a decade, went on to finish with the NBA's worst record at 15-50.
It was a new experience for Kerr.
Over his 15-season playing career, Kerr only had one losing season – with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1990-91.
Even though it was relatively uncharted territory, Kerr handled it all in stride. Sure, there were moments of extreme frustration, such as when he kicked the scorers' table as the Warriors were being blown out by the Oklahoma City Thunder last October. But he also viewed that time as a much-needed mental and physical break for his team, which played a cumulative 105 playoff games over a five-season stretch, adding an entire extra season and a quarter of surplus mileage to their legs.
All things considered, Kerr was a pillar of strength last season, and it had a profound effect on everyone around him.
"I don't think he ever thought he was better than anybody when we were winning," Myers said "And if you don't believe you're great when you're winning, you're not going to believe you're awful when you're losing. So, it's just that consistency, that steadfastness. Last season, we had the worst record in the league, but I think we still maintained our internal identity and that's a lot due to Steve and his steady hand."
Kerr tried to keep things fun and upbeat. He was engaged during meaningless games. He set tough expectations for the team's younger players.
And he knew exactly what to say to Curry.
"OK, you have a broken wrist and we have a horrible record, we have great lives," Kerr said. "And every once in a while, we'll go play golf on the road, and it's a great outlet for both of us. But it's also a reminder of how much we love life and how lucky we are."
It's easy for Kerr to have that perspective.
After all, he has been through a lot in his life.
When he was a 19-year-old freshman at Arizona in 1984, his father, Malcolm, was assassinated by two gunmen outside of the American University of Beirut, where he worked as its president.
Kerr dealt with his grief by focusing on basketball, transforming himself from a marginal NBA player into a star role player. He retired in 2003 with the highest career 3-point percentage (45.4) in NBA history.
He's undeniably tough.
He turned tragedy into success. He used pure grit and determination to overcome being an underdog. Heck, he even famously stood up to Jordan during a scrimmage in training camp in 1995 that led to him getting punched in the eye, a melee that both men credit for transforming their relationship.
But after his first season as head coach, Kerr went through something different. Something that really put everything in his life in perspective.
In the summer of 2015, Kerr had a routine back surgery to repair a ruptured disk, but there was a complication, a rare spinal fluid leak that led to debilitating headaches and pain that caused him to miss a lot of time, including the first 43 games of the 2015-2016 season and 11 games during the 2017 playoffs.
"To go through something that is a legitimate serious health crisis, not an injury, is terrifying," Kerr said. "What you're trying to do in those situations is you almost have to relearn how to live. If it had been a normal back surgery, I would've just missed a month, and then I would've been back. With the complication that I had, it was pretty rough. I had to relearn how to operate everyday and continue to search for answers."
Kerr tried everything he could to feel better, including yoga, meditation and marijuana.
Eventually, things started to turn around.
"Time has really helped, and I've learned how to adjust," Kerr said. "And I think I've now coached the last three seasons without missing a game or practice or anything. So, [I'm] obviously much better. But, like I said, when you go through something that serious it's a totally different deal, and you can't really describe it to anybody until you can go through it yourself. And you don't wish that on anyone."
Kerr fought through crippling pain, but never let it dampen his spirit.
Instead, it sharpened his focus. Relationships and people come first. The vicissitudes of the game and its ephemeral successes are trivial in comparison.
"He hasn't changed at all, even through the physical stuff that he's been through with him being in and out of his seat," Curry said.
Kerr has another challenge ahead of him this season.
Losing Thompson was a major setback. During the 2018-2019 season, the shooting guard averaged 21.5 points on 46.7 percent shooting from the field and 40.2 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
That's a very hard hole to fill.
"We felt like we would've been in an amazing place if Klay had stayed healthy," Kerr said. "We felt like, all right, we can climb that mountain again. With his injury, it takes some of the shine off of our expectations, but we're still in a much better place than we were a year ago."
This time around, Curry is healthy. And the Warriors selected Wiseman with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, a talented center whom they hope they can groom into a superstar. They also signed Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore.
It won't be an easy road for the Warriors, but Kerr is up to the challenge.
"I'm ready to go," Kerr said." I'm excited about this season and despite the continuing pandemic and things being far from ideal, I'm excited about this season and to coach these guys."
As for Thompson, Kerr has stayed in regular contact with him.
Or at least tried.
Even though he can't play, Kerr has continued to inspire him to grow. After all, he now returns more of his calls.
"It used to be 10 percent, now it's about 25 percent," Kerr said with a laugh. "So I consider it a huge improvement."
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA reporter for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News.