His father was murdered by jihadi gunmen and after he stood up to Michael Jordan (and got a punch in the face), he changed basketball history…The incredible story of Steve Kerr, an unlikely star of The Last Dance on Netflix
- Steve Kerr’s story was a brilliant tale to emerge from Netflix’s ‘The Last Dance’
- Not highly recruited as a youngster, he was ‘an overachiever’ who excelled
- He hit big shots, such as the 1997 Finals winner, and was the ultimate role player
- Since retiring, he has revolutionised the game as Golden State Warriors coach
- Comparisons to Pep Guardiola are apt given their impact on respective sports
For many, Netflix’s ‘The Last Dance’ series highlighted the greatness of Michael Jordan, showed his win-at-all costs mentality and his flawless NBA Finals record of six wins from six visits.
But for Steve Kerr, he got a front row seat for the action as a team-mate during the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat from 1996 to 1998. He saw one of sport’s great dynasties unfold in front of his very eyes – and used that to build one of his own as a coach.
And yet while the focus was on Jordan for much of the 10-part series, a look at his gambling, the murder of his father James and stand-out moments like the famous ‘Flu Game’ in Utah, it was Kerr’s own story – both tragic and inspiring – that perhaps stood out most to those unfamiliar with the Bulls’ dynasty.
Steve Kerr (left) emerged as the people’s champion from Michael Jordan’s ‘Last Dance’ series
The defining play of Kerr’s Chicago Bulls career came with a late shot to win the 1997 Finals
It was no coincidence that social media was awash with messages of Kerr jerseys from that three-peat era shooting up in demand on Monday and people anointing the 54-year-old as their new favourite player after watching the series finale.
Kerr was not a Hall of Fame player, he was smaller than a lot of his team-mates and opponents and was never the first or second best player on a team in his 15 years in the NBA.
And yet coming away from ‘The Last Dance’, Kerr stood out. He was personable, relatable and had managed to carve out a niche for himself as the ultimate role player for Jordan in Chicago. He accepted his status, learned how to win with just ‘five or six shots’ per game and became what he himself termed an ‘overachiever’.
That assessment may be a tad harsh on himself but further highlighted the selflessness that Kerr has carried forward into his coaching.
Kerr remains the only NBA player in the last 50 years to lift the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy in four straight seasons, following up his three-peat with the Bulls under Phil Jackson with the 1999 title under Gregg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs.
In the game today, Kerr is respected as a fine player in his day but all the documentary did was remind the masses – in the US alone episodes generated viewing figures of almost 13 million per week – of his immense value.
Nothing has come easy for Kerr, on or off the court. His father Malcolm was brutally murdered in Lebanon, while serving as the president of the American University of Beirut when Kerr was just 19.
Kerr (right) was not highly recruited as a teenager and described himself as an ‘overachiever’
STEVE KERR CAREER
1988-89 – Phoenix Suns
1989-92 – Cleveland Cavaliers
1992-93 – Orlando Magic
1993-98 – Chicago Bulls
1998-2001 – San Antonio Spurs
2001-02 – Portland Trail Blazers
2002-03 – San Antonio Spurs
2014-PRESENT – Golden State Warriors
8 x NBA champion (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2015, 2017, 2018)
1997 NBA 3-point champion
2016 NBA coach of the year
Kerr was born in Beirut and spent much of his childhood there. It was particularly dangerous for American citizens at the time amid ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and episode nine of ‘The Last Dance’ saw Kerr emotionally reflect on how he discovered the tragic news that two gunmen, who were members of the Shia Lebanese militia called Islamic Jihad but posing as students, shot his dad in the head on January 18, 1984.
It is not something he opens up on often, making his candidness and openness in the Netflix series about receiving a call in the middle of the night while at college in Arizona particularly striking.
He ‘threw himself into basketball’ as he grieved, his mother said in episode nine, and he became fiercely determined to make it in the NBA despite the limited hype around him.
His dad was a big basketball fan at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and so Kerr’s motivation was set. Despite the prospect of playing alongside one of the greatest to ever play the game wholly remote in 1984, when barely anyone tried to recruit him, Kerr was not giving up.
That fighting spirit translated well to viewers and while Kerr appeared mild-mannered, it was a famous bust-up with Jordan that ultimately secured respect from his team-mate.
One particular practice work-out became heated as Jordan goaded Kerr and eventually he snapped back, punching him in the chest, much to the surprise of Jordan.
Jordan responded by punching him in the face, something he later apologised for, but for Kerr, it was one of the best things to happen to his career. From then on he had respect and he was trusted to go into battle.
Kerr mastered the art of being a role player and is the only player in the NBA in the last 50 years to win four consecutive championships – three with the Chicago Bulls and one win San Antonio
Jordan was demanding of team-mates but Kerr stood up to him, got punched in a practice session and from that point on he had earned his stripes and got Jordan’s respect
That trust was never better encapsulated than Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals against Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz.
Jackson called a time-out with the score tied at 86-86 and with 28 seconds left on the clock, a play was to be drawn up to try and clinch the game and avoid a Game 7.
In those game-closing moments it was typically Jordan who took the limelight. He was the best player and could do things others would never be able to pull off. And yet, he knew the Jazz were going to double-team him, meaning the play had to be for someone else.
Scottie Pippen was the team’s second best player but while Jordan was sat down for the time-out, he turned to Kerr and urged him to ‘be ready, this is your moment’. It was Kerr’s time to win it all.
‘I’ll be ready,’ Kerr shot back like a hyperactive child. ‘I’ll be ready.’
What happened next became one of the defining plays of Kerr’s entire career.
Pippen stood tall from the inbound to find Jordan outside the arc and, as expected, he was met with a double-team from Bryon Russell and John Stockton, who was supposed to be on Kerr.
At San Antonio, Kerr (right) worked under legendary coach Gregg Popovich and along with working under Phil Jackson in Chicago, Kerr had honed his ability to be an elite NBA coach
He took over the Golden State Warriors in 2014 and transformed stars like Stephen Curry (left)
Jordan broke between the double-team before kicking it out to Kerr who was wide open from 17-feet away. He caught, rising in his shooting motion, and sank the shot with ease. Jordan had told Kerr that it was his moment and he was right. A late dunk from Toni Kukoc sealed the win but it was Kerr’s jumper that sealed the Bulls’ fifth championship. He was the hero.
That moment of trust has always stayed with Kerr, and Jordan’s willingness to defer in big moments to team-mates, and he used it as Golden State Warriors’ coach in a conversation with star man Kevin Durant.
Durant is one of the best players in the NBA right now and yet during a time-out Kerr cited Jordan and wanted his main man to do similar in ‘trusting’ the role guys, the Warriors’ own versions of Kerr.
‘When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a play-off game,’ Kerr began to Durant. ‘He just kept trying to score and he was scoring but we weren’t getting anything going. Phil Jackson said “who’s open?”. John Paxson was.
‘I want you to trust your team-mates early. What you’re doing is getting to the rim then trying to kick out. I want you to trust the first guy.’
But it is not just Jordan anecdotes and pep talks with star players that have made Kerr an all-time top five NBA coach. What he has done can be compared to Pep Guardiola in football in revolutionising his sport.
In one famous exchange with Kevin Durant, Kerr uses a Jordan analogy to get the Warriors forward to trust his team-mates, just like Jordan had done with Kerr in Utah back in 1997
Durant helped form part of a dynasty with the Warriors and Kerr is considered a top-five coach
Guardiola’s tiki-taka style turned Barcelona into one of football’s greatest ever teams from 2008-12 and he has since transformed Manchester City into one of the most attractive sides in the world.
On the other hand, Kerr, with his work on three-point emphasis, building a dynasty of young stars from inherited draft picks and taking away the reliance of a dominant center, will go down as a revolutionary for those that follow him.
In Jackson and Popovich, Kerr got to work under two others that rank in the top five of all-time and, along with his self-improvement as a player, his grief is something he has been able to channel into coaching thanks to his former coaches’ influence.
‘I really realised from [Popovich] and [Jackson] that I could use my experience as a kid and growing up to my advantage as a coach,’ Kerr told the New York Times in 2016.
‘And connect with players and try to keep that healthy perspective. Keep it fun, and don’t take it too seriously.’
As Kerr, 54, stands before basketball fans now, here is a man with eight championship rings. He is far more than the role player loved by Bulls fans in the Jordan era.
There are cross-sport similarities between Kerr and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola
Kerr has revolutionised the NBA like Guardiola has football and deserves immense credit
Kerr turned Steph Curry into the first ever unanimous NBA MVP (most valuable player) in 2016. He formed the ‘splash brothers’ with Curry and Klay Thompson and they have put themselves into the position of being the greatest shooting back-court in the history of basketball.
But while there have been stars such as Curry, Thompson, Durant and Draymond Green, he has also made players such as 2015 draft pick Kevon Looney a key role piece – nobody is better than Kerr for mastering such a role.
He took charge in 2014, got his feet under the table having been a general manager prior with the Phoenix Suns, and within a year he was back lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
In fact, the success was unrelenting, under Kerr the Warriors have had five straight trips to the NBA Finals, winning three and losing one to LeBron James’ Cavaliers in 2016 as well as last year, when injury struck down Thompson and Durant against the Toronto Raptors.
Kerr is an intellect who has carried on his dad’s legacy in speaking out for activists on political issues. But much of his story comes down to ‘being ready’. He was ready that night in Utah in 1997, was ready in his debut season with the Spurs in 1999 and was ready when he took over the Warriors in 2014.
He may have spoken highly about Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp in the past but if Kerr steps into the light with anyone from football, being the Guardiola of the NBA fits best.
The Warriors won their first championships since 1975 once Kerr took over as head coach
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