It was 1983 and Steve Kerr sat in the Beirut International Airport terminal waiting to board his plane. He was heading back to the United States for his first day of college classes at the University of Arizona. He and his mother, Ann, heard shelling from the terminal. When the airport announced there would be no outgoing flights, Kerr was driven through Syria, into Amman, Jordan, and flew home from there.
A few months later, Kerr received a phone call at 3 a.m. from a family friend. His father, Malcolm Kerr, the President of the American University of Beirut, was shot and killed by a terrorist. Six months later, Kerr learned that the man who drove him through the Middle East to the Amman airport was killed by a sniper transporting someone else to safety on the same route the two took to Jordan. Steve Kerr carries some serious perspective with him as Coach of the Golden State Warriors.
This was one of the many stories rehashed by Kerr in his conversation with David Axelrod. Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former Senior Advisor, now works as a political analyst for CNN and hosts the Axe Files, a podcast managed by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. The conversation was Kerr’s second appearance on the podcast, but their discussion was also broadcasted on CNN. The pair touched on issues ranging from Kerr’s fascinating childhood, his political views, and his theory of coaching. Here are a few highlights, but I suggest you listen to the podcast or find a re-airing on CNN.
Kerr clarifies that the Warriors were never invited to the White House. The team was planning to discuss a potential White House visit the day after Media Day. Steph Curry’s comment about not wanting to visit the White House on Media Day made it easier for the team to move forward with their decision.
“Our guys felt that it was going to be a tough visit. It would have been a nontraditional visit.” When Axelrod asks about why the Trump administration is different, Kerr points out, “It’s a human respect issue...Instead of unifying and trying to calm the storm, he’s creating it.”
We know by now that sensible gun policy is personal for Steve Kerr. He will continue to push for reform there. However, outside of the human disaster that is Donald Trump, Kerr touches on campaign finance reform as an issue he’ll continue to speak out on:
“I hate our system. I hate the campaign financing. I hate the money that’s involved. Congress is going to the highest bidder.” Kerr proposes that we shorten the election period and limit the amount that can be used by campaigns. His sister is a city council member in England and Kerr points to England’s campaign system as a more equitable model.
Axelrod, a longtime Chicago Bulls fan, was curious to learn more about Kerr’s relationship with Phil Jackson and other coaches. Unsurprisingly, Kerr credits much of his coaching success to those coaches: Lute Olson, Phil Jackson, Lenny Wilkins, and Greg Popovich. He has “patterned himself” after them.
Kerr fixates on relationships. To be great you need an “authentic connection between player and coach and the awareness of what that player needs. And as a whole what the team needs and how to keep the ship moving forward...It’s not about x’s and o’s. That’s a part of it, but anyone can draw up a great play. It’s about the human connection.”
Kerr explains the importance of allowing families on flights. Gregg Popovich was one of the first coaches to allow families on flights. Kerr’s observed how it makes a massive difference for players and families to travel together.
Team dinners also catalyze those human connections:
“We have team dinners all the time on the road. Our ownership is great about understanding the chemistry that comes with team meals. Get away from the court, get away from the locker room, get into a restaurant, have a glass of wine with your teammate. You are going to learn a lot more about them because you’re going to ask them other stuff. All that stuff matters.”
Just like any work place, people generally do better when they have meaningful relationships with their coworkers. The NBA is no different, but somehow, Kerr’s explanations seem groundbreaking and obvious. NBA salaries don’t fix the need to curate a positive work culture. Players are still humans.
On chronic pain and drugs
In referencing his absence in last year’s playoffs, Kerr explains he still copes with the chronic pain that’s plagued him since back surgery. “I’ve made some improvement, but still not all the way better.” As fans, we might think about how the pain impacts Kerr’s coaching, but that doesn’t seem to be the issue.
“The pain impacts my ability to just enjoy the day...it’s just pain and discomfort...” Kerr enjoys being outdoors: golfing, hiking, and surfing. And it’s clear this life outside of coaching has been strained by his discomfort.
He goes on tell Axelrod how he’s dealt with the pain.
“I’ve been prescribed opioids. I tried one pill and it was so disconcerting. And it didn’t help with my pain. But I started reading about it and it was terrifying. So I tried medicinal marijuana and that didn’t help either. But I became an advocate for it. Which is very ironic because I was the kid in high school who never.. I took a puff of marijuana for the first time on my 40th birthday. I was a drinker in college. And still am. I like my beer and wine. But never tried pot until I was 40. Tried it again in a medicinal way and it didn’t help with my pain. And haven’t tried it since. But I’m a proponent of it as a pain killer because I know it has helped a lot of people and it’s a lot healthier than the stuff we are being prescribed all the time.”
On his dreams
“I’d love to be like Gregg Popovich and coach in the same city for 20 years. That would be my dream.”
Same, Steve. Same. The history of the Warriors doesn’t exactly fit with the idea of a 20-year coach, but Steve Kerr is a different sort of guy. He and Brad Stevens are the model coach for the future—analytical, funny, and talented at cultivating strong relationships
Throughout his time with Axelrod, Kerr seemed dedicated to proving a theory: players are better when they are empowered to build relationships that transcend basketball. Additionally, the coach is responsible for creating an environment where players can discover their best selves. While basketball is an essential part of each player’s identity, it can’t be everything. It’s up to the coach and their staff to figure out what makes each player tick.
Kerr’s theory clashes with traditional sports wisdom: Players play, coaches coach, we all go home and do it again. That’s not Steve Kerr or the Golden State Warriors though.
Here’s to more years of Steve Kerr’s sarcastic, thoughtful, creative-practicality in Oakland. He can understate his job all he wants, but it’s clear that coaching matters.