By: Chris Korman
June 3, 2015
Hours after finding out his father had been shot twice in the head and killed on the other side of the world, Steve Kerr sat on the bed in his dorm room at the University of Arizona and received teammates who came to offer condolences.
Lute Olson, the first-year coach who’d been desperate enough to give Kerr a spot on his team, sat there with him.
What most of Kerr’s old teammates remember is that he did not have much to say.
He had, upon hearing the news via phone from a family friend, gone running into the streets aimlessly.
He was calmer now.
It was the middle of the night. The players were bewildered. Their coaches had knocked loudly, pushing them from slumber toward a room where an 18-year-old boy they were just getting to know was dealing with the loss of his father far away from family; one brother was in Cairo, another remained in Lebanon with their mother and his sister was in Taiwan.
Malcolm Kerr, a devoted academic not even 18 months into his dream job as the president of the American University in Beirut, built his life around bridging the divide between Christians, Muslims, and Jews when, for most Americans, those matters were abstract and distant.
They weighed heavily on President Ronald Reagan, who released a statement:
“Dr. Kerr’s untimely and tragic death at the hands of these despicable assassins must strengthen our resolve not to give in to the acts of terrorists. Terrorism must not be allowed to take control of the lives, actions, or future of ourselves and our friends.”
Malcolm Kerr’s death, on Jan. 18, 1984, would become national news — a dispatch on terrorism in a land roiled by strife, another in a long scroll of warnings about how religious beliefs would lead to violence there for decades to come — but before the story spread it was a simple fact that a team of young basketball players found difficult to believe, let alone begin to comprehend.
Pete Williams, a junior college transfer who would lead the team in scoring, remembers the night as a blur.
“There was a commotion, so much commotion, but I don’t remember much beyond that other than how shocked we were, how unreal it all felt,” he said. “We didn’t think about terrorism then. Ever.”
Even Kerr, who was born in Lebanon and had witnessed the civil war tearing the country apart, would later say he never imagined this sort of thing could happen to his family.
Players lingered on the balcony outside – the building was once a hotel – and stared out into the night, unsure of what to say or how to help their teammate move forward.
Kerr didn’t fly to Beirut for services after his father’s death.
Instead, he attended practice and played against Arizona State. He hit 5-of-7 shots in a 71-49 win. It was Kerr’s best game of his freshman season.
The Wildcats would win eight of their final 14 games to finish 11-17. Arizona hasn’t had a losing record since.
“A bunch of us gave him a nickname, and I don’t really know if it’s out there much,” said Brock Brunkhorst a guard on the team. “We called him Ice. Because that’s just how he was.”
Four years later, when Arizona State fans chanted derogatory comments about his father, he hit six 3-pointers in the first half.
“He was just so [expletive] angry,” said Bruce Fraser, one of his best friends on the team and a current assistant with Golden State. “But that was Steve. He could turn it toward the court and win.”
By then Kerr had become an unlikely force in hauling Arizona from the bottom of Division I basketball to the Final Four, paving the path for Olson’s historic run.
Yet his teammates couldn’t imagine what was next.
Kerr’s 15-year NBA career, his five rings, the winning shot off a feed from Michael Jordan in the decisive game six of the 1997 finals, the career 45.4 percent shooting from 3-point, still the best in association history, none of that seemed remotely possible for the guard who’d used guile and a fierce competitive streak to fashion himself into a solid college player.
What they could have imagined, though, is Kerr as a head coach molding a talented team into a great one capable of playing for a championship. Kerr’s Golden State Warriors will do just that starting Thursday, when they face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
He thought about the game at a high level and cared deeply about learning how to make disparate pieces come together. Coaching was his dream, too, he confided to teammates, though he figured he’d have to work his way through the college ranks after school.
But this is Kerr’s first season as a head coach, after two stints as a television analyst and one as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns.
The delay had everything to do with family.
“I think all along, Steve was waiting for his kids to grow up a little bit and spread out before he got back into coaching,” Fraser said. “He knew that being an analyst or even a GM didn’t really do it for him; it didn’t get him close enough to it. He had to have more at stake to feel fulfilled. He was right all along: He was made to be a coach.
“But he was never going to do that while his kids were younger and he could be around them. He had more chances than anybody knows about, and it never swayed him.”
Two of Kerr’s three children are in college in California now; the fact that his daughter, Maddy plays volleyball at Cal was a factor in Kerr’s decision to spurn mentor Phil Jackson’s offer to coach the New York Knicks, Fraser said.
“He’s a doting father,” Fraser said. “His kids are everything to him. And I think that says a lot about how he felt about his own dad.”
Kerr has not spoken frequently about his father, though he also has periodically used the league’s bright spotlight to echo Malcolm Kerr’s call for peace and understanding, as when he opposed the invasion of Iraq following the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Last month, he reflected on his father, telling the San Jose Mercury News, “I feel his full impact on my whole life. It’s there every day.”
Kerr’s sister and mother both wrote books about dealing with Malcolm’s death, and his brother, Andrew, worked in national security and eventually uncovered details about who killed his father. Though several factions initially took credit for the murder, the family eventually traced it to Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded Islamic organization within Lebanon.
Though Kerr’s basketball career made him the most recognizable member of the family, he dealt with his grief mostly silently, as was usually his way.
Fraser believes it changed him in two ways immediately, though.
“It feels strange to say this, but I’ve thought about it for a while and I believe it,” he said. “I think the death of his father helped Steve as a basketball player, because he realized it was just basketball. He was more worldly than most of us already because of his background, but this changed his whole outlook.
With shooters, it’s all about how you respond to a missed shot. And for Steve, who is the most competitive person I know, there just wasn’t anything to get upset about anymore. The weight of a miss, the weight of a loss, the weight of a big moment … they just didn’t mean anything to him anymore.
“That, and his father’s death made him turn to the team as family. He became really vested in the players there and what Lute was trying to do.”
The Wildcats weren’t a particularly close team during Kerr’s first season. Olson was the third coach in as many years, and he’d built his first squad around two junior college transfers and a promising young guard named Michael Tait. He added Kerr – who had little interest from other Division I schools – after noticing him while scouting younger players.
Kerr’s signing at first seemed to underscore how dire things had become. He could shoot the ball but do little else. Athletically he wasn’t anywhere close to being Division I caliber, and the other players knew it. Kerr struggled in the team’s earliest pickup games, unable to keep up on offense or defense.
“I went back to my dorm room the first time we played and told my roommate, a team manager, that I couldn’t understand why this new coach would ever sign this guy,” Brunkhorst said.
Within the confines of Olson’s team-oriented system, though, Kerr began to flourish. Off the court, he gained the admiration of teammates with his self-deprecating sense of humor and relentless honesty.
“He was just a great dude, in every way,” Williams said. “You can say something good about somebody because they’re nice, but it was more than that with Steve, it went deeper. He wanted the best in you, to help you find it. And he hasn’t changed at all. That’s the amazing part.”
When Fraser rejoined Kerr with Golden State – he’d worked for him as a scout in Phoenix – he and other former Arizona players scoffed at the notion that Kerr wasn’t ready to be a head coach.
“I knew Harrison Barnes wasn’t happy with his role last year, and was thinking that he maybe should move on,” Fraser said. “So I asked him recently what happened to get him to stay.”
Kerr had flown to visit Barnes during the offseason, and the meeting went well.
“But I wasn’t sure why,” Fraser said. “Harrison just told me, ‘I asked him every difficult question I could think of, and he answered honestly. That’s all I want.’ ”
Kerr let the Warriors keep some traditions left over from former coach Mark Jackson, and even adopted some of his on-court strategy while working his own ideas – he’d been the beneficiary of the Triangle Offense in Chicago – into the mix. League MVP Steph Curry has heaped praise on Kerr for the way he’s handled the team.
Fraser and Kerr passed briefly at the team’s facility on Sunday morning, where both men were trying to keep busy as they waited for the series with the Cavaliers to begin. They had little to say to each other.
“I told him that after 30 years it had turned into a bad marriage,” Fraser said. “But at least we’re comfortable with silence.”
Fraser can’t recall ever talking to Kerr about his father’s death, or hearing him say anything beyond how much he appreciated Malcolm Kerr.
There was one way it did change their friendship, though slowly. Without stating it, they started opting for comedies instead of action movies whenever they went to the theater.
That way Kerr could sit peacefully, instead of wincing each time a gun went off on screen.