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Steve Kerr Scrapbook: Tucson, Arizona, 1987-1988

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Steve Kerr is experiencing a run of unprecedented success with the Warriors. But before he made it in the NBA, he was key player on Arizona’s first Final Four squad.

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Xavier v Arizona Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

According to neuroscientists, the part of the human brain responsible for rational thinking is not fully developed until around age 25. A fascinating chunk of Steve Kerr’s formative basketball years, before his brain was fully developed, occurred before my birth (October 1992). Now that I’m finally a month into year 25, I can rent a car, but can also analyze Kerr’s playing career with a fully developed brain.

See, 2017 hasn’t been that bad.

Kerr played college basketball at the University of Arizona. He was not a prized recruit. In fact, he wasn’t even offered a scholarship. At the last second, then-Arizona coach Lute Olson swooped in and gave him a chance. Kerr spent five years in Tucson, one of which he sat due to a knee injury he suffered in the 1986 FIBA World Championships. So let’s do a deep-dive into of Arizona’s 1987-1988 season, straight from the mouth of a romanticized era that I’m told really wasn’t that great.

They had a song! The team spells out “Wild,” then all say “CATS!” It’s like the college hoops version of the Super Bowl Shuffle, but with better lyrics. The tag line you ask?!

Ask the Gumbies,

Ask the rest,

We don't do drugs cause we're the best.

For those who think of the late 80’s as President Ronald Reagan’s golden age of reign, remember that a college basketball team’s theme song included a message about drugs and GUMBY. In the current one-and-done era, the best teams lack this type of camaraderie. I’m not disparaging current teams. Anthony Davis, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Enes Kanter, and Nerlens Noel could have made a Kentucky rap video if they had stuck around and got to know each other.

“The Gumby Squad” or “The Gumbies” was the affectionate moniker given to Arizona’s bench mob during Kerr’s senior year. The nickname was initiated by Bruce Fraser, then Arizona’s graduate assistant, now a Warriors assistant coach. In a 2013 USA Today article, we learn that to be a Gumby, one must be “perpetually pliable while being bullied or battered in on the Arizona scout team...Fraser even kept a small rubber Gumby doll in his sock.”

The Starters: Sandlot Style

The starting five on the 1987-1988 Final Four Arizona Wildcats
Allsports Tuscon, University of Arizona

Steve Kerr, you sun-kissed, cherubic, Wildcat-baby of a man. On the cover of the above media guide, Kerr does resemble Hermey the aspiring-dentist elf from 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special. He’s supposedly the grizzled, fifth-year senior guard. Fooled me.

Craig McMillan, the team’s point guard, complemented Kerr on one of the only all-white starting backcourts ever. Is there a better, all-white NCAA backcourt in history? McMillan scored less than Kerr, but had a plethora of options for dishing the ball out.

Sean Elliott was the real star of the team and is arguably the greatest player in Arizona basketball history. He was the third draft pick in the 1989 NBA Draft. Tim Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Vlade Divac were other familiar faces drafted that year. In Kerr’s recent interview with Bill Simmons, he acknowledges that Sean Elliott was his favorite teammate ever. Without Elliott, we may have never known a Coach Kerr.

Tom Tolbert transferred to Arizona for his junior and senior year. With hair, he actually looks just like Luke Walton. As we learned from another Kerr story on Simmons’ podcast, Tolbert met his wife at “what might have been a Fridays” as she was the team’s waitress. He also averaged over 13 points a game for the Wildcats in the 1987-1988 season. After a successful NBA career, he turned to broadcasting. He was formerly the Warriors radio color analyst and has been a Bay Area fixture on KNBR for a long time.

Anthony Cook, like Tom Tolbert, had a decent NBA career as a journey man. He was a junior (imagine, a team of all upperclassmen!) on the Final Four team. More importantly though, he averaged 13 points a game as a junior and 17 points a game as a senior. Of the “Winning Hand” starting five, only McMillan averaged single figures in points per game.

Kenny Lofton

Stick with me. My favorite baseball player of all-time is Ray Durham (I promise, this is going somewhere). As a White Sox fan, I constantly endured tearful nights because of the beatdowns by the 90’s Cleveland Indians. As a young boy, I naturally considered Durham to be the best leadoff hitter in the league (because he was god) from 1998-2003—but in hindsight, I was in denial. KENNY LOFTON, the Indians’ leadoff man and six-time All-Star was better. What’s more? The White Sox traded for Lofton in 2002, moving Durham to the second hole in the lineup (Lofton had a bad season).

But get this, before shattering my heart into a million pieces multiple times, Lofton was also a junior coming off the GUMBY SQUAD on the 1987-88 team. He hung out with 23-year-old Steve Kerr. Kerr was allegedly a fantastic baseball player in high school, so I’m curious to learn more about their relationship. To this day, Lofton is the only player to play in a Final Four and a College World Series. He averaged nearly five points a game for the Wildcats. My hope is that he’s featured as a celebrity guest at the Finals this year in support of his former teammate.

Arizona’s own Kenny Lofton (far left), Joe Turner and Steve Kerr cause trouble for an Iowa player during the West Regional semifinal game of the 1988 NCAA Tournament.
Photo by Clarence Tabb, Tuscon Citizen

Back to Bruce

Do you have an older sibling figure in your life who you always want to please? You are told:

“Hey, go jump on that garbage can and start rapping Kanye West songs in front of people you don’t know.”

“Hey, take out the gas pump from the car and wave it around.”

“Hey, if Kerr makes that shot, you need to pretend like you just became possessed by an evil, Blue Devil spirit and show everyone on national television.”

And every time you sort of shrug and say, “OKAY!”

The dude asking you to do all those things was Bruce Fraser. He must have loved the older sibling role on the team as a grad assistant. Look at him! He’s like a trusty, handsome “Leave it to Beaver” character and I’ve never even seen that show. I want to do what he wants to do. Now he’s like a Bay Area version of James Bond, helps Steph with his shot, and chills with Kerr. What a life!

Golden State’s Assistant Coach, Bruce Fraser, before he became the Silver Fox.
University of Arizona Basketball @APlayersProgram

Stay Tuned

This is just the start of my distinguished career as a historian and quest to eventually write Kerr’s biography. Join me on this journey next time as we move beyond Tuscon into the dark underbelly of the NBA.

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