OAKLAND, Calif. — Steve Kerr makes one thing perfectly clear: This special season is not about him. Far from it. Even if he is so perfectly entwined with the record-setting Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls group Kerr played for 20 years ago that just lost its all-time wins record to the team he now leads.
Kerr will tell you he didn’t even coach the first 43 games and that record 24-0 start, after all. And he wants Luke Walton to receive the proper credit for the initial, special stretch of the season before the Warriors’ second-year coach returned Jan. 25 from a leave of absence, which began the first week of training camp in October following complications from two back surgeries.
Kerr jokes how easy he has had it this time around, with a deep lineup starring reigning MVP Stephen Curry and triple-double machine Draymond Green.
“We try to pick our spots. Over 82 games, a coach’s voice gets old quickly, so fortunately Luke coached the first (43), so they didn’t hear mine that often,” Kerr said in his usual good-natured tone. “But I think the thing we try to do is to not really worry about wins and losses. It’s more how we’re playing.”
Yet in recent weeks, Kerr faced constant questions about victories and chasing records – Golden State’s pursuit of his old 72-10 mark with the 1995-96 Bulls, to be exact. While Kerr acknowledged being uneasy about putting so much effort into a goal other than winning a championship, he relented because of his players’ desires.
Last month, he called a team meeting and asked his players if they wanted to go for the record or get some rest for the playoffs. When the majority desired to take a run at 73, Kerr agreed only with the guarantee that they would be honest with him about their health and when they needed a breather.
“He’s the coach of the year. Any time you coach a team to the record we have and the behind the scenes stuff, he’s been orchestrating everything,” guard Klay Thompson said. “He’s our head honcho and all these great ideas always flow for him. He’s really a players’ coach. He knows what we’re going through.”
Kerr played alongside Michael Jordan – “Yet another time the two of us are mentioned in the same breath. Whatever,” Kerr quipped – on the record-setting Bulls team, then his Warriors bested that mark by beating Memphis in Wednesday’s regular-season finale. Golden State hosts Houston on Saturday to start the playoffs.
Kerr played all 82 games for Chicago that season, and did so in four straight years overall – from 1993-94 through 1996-97. He takes pride in that durability and stability he brought the Bulls while winning three championships.
He went on to win two more titles as a player in San Antonio before launching a successful career off the court.
After a stint as general manager in Phoenix and then his TV work, Kerr immediately left his mark on the Bay Area. For all of those who questioned his ability with no experience, there’s no denying now that he’s a top-flight NBA coach – capturing a championship in his first season and setting the wins record in his second.
“Steve, he’s a terrific leader. This is not anything that’s new,” said New Orleans coach and former Kerr top assistant Alvin Gentry. “He’s been preparing for this for a long time. He put in so much work. I didn’t have any doubt that he was going to be a great coach.”
All the while during this exhausting, pressure-packed season, the 50-year-old Kerr tried to remain patient as he recovered from the back procedures that left him with agonizing headaches and other frustrating, debilitating physical issues. He missed practice just Tuesday for a doctor’s appointment.
Kerr still cracks jokes, smiles and constantly thinks of others – even if he regularly has to pull on an ice bag or heating pack an hour before tipoff because he’s still in pain. He wears a patch on his neck, too.
At team headquarters, Kerr welcomes coaches from all levels to practice, and recently allowed 10-year-old motivational speaker Ezra Frech – a spot-on shooter from Los Angeles with a prosthetic leg – to give a game-day pep talk.
That open-book approach has made Kerr a favorite among colleagues everywhere.
Curry appreciates how Kerr is never content. He wants to coach another champion.
From Day 1 of training camp, he challenged Golden State to do even more on the offensive end – and the unselfish, pass-happy Warriors have obliged.
“He’s got the same temperament, the same kind of passion but his IQ for the game and the adjustments they make day to day are definitely noticeable,” Curry said. “The foundation of our offense is pretty much set but in-game adjustments and plays that they call, they’ve definitely gotten smarter and it shows.”
Kerr insists he has been forced to adjust, actually.
“It’s a little tougher to deliver a message this year than last year for sure,” he said. “Last year we hadn’t won a championship and I could always play the card, `I know how to win a championship and you don’t.’ They know how to do that now and we did it together last year. It’s more of the case of me reminding them of why it’s important. It does get tougher as you go once you have won one and trying to repeat and trying to do it again and again. The message gets old. Got to find creative ways to deliver it I guess.”