Steve Kerr’s potential for outburst has always been there, under the judicious manner and the suavity. He was almost uncontrollably tempestuous as child until he was tamed by his parents’ scholarly patience — only to have one of those parents assassinated by a Islamist militant’s gun. His career in basketball has been a long personal quest for emotional self-rule, and his outward daily mildness can lull you into forgetting that, into losing sight of the utter outrage underpinning his life. Until another gunman fires a reminder.
Nevermind whether you agree with him on gun reform. What matters is that unlike a lot of siloed athletes, the Golden State Warriors head coach has actually lived the grief of which he speaks, not merely played out false dramas on courts or in demonstrations, and he has struggled mightily for every ounce of self-possession that he has. When it wavers, as it did on Tuesday night after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., when his voice cracks and his palm hits the table, you remember what’s under there, and it renews your respect for the healing resolution he’s found for himself in the game.
If Kerr has one quality above all others, it’s a sure perception of context, that basketball is not the most serious endeavor, but a balm. In a phone conversation a couple of years ago during the pandemic shutdown, I asked him a simple question: Why is basketball important? He laughed. “I’m not sure that it is,” he said. His pregame demeanor is usually so relaxed that his face practically won’t hold a face mask; it keeps slipping down. The voice is smooth as cloth and his posture is habitually lounging. So, when Kerr began his news conference before Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks with the skin around his mouth stretched tight, and his hands one minute smacking the table and the next rubbing at his forehead, it demanded attention.
“Any basketball questions don’t matter,” he began. “Since we left shoot-around, 14 children were killed 400 miles from here.” Then he paused and stared down at the table.
“And a teacher,” he said, swallowing heavily, almost choking on the word.
Malcolm Kerr was a teacher, a worldly professor of political science at UCLA who loved to compete yet prided himself on his reason and broad perspective. Kerr’s mother Ann Kerr-Adams was also a scholar, who now heads the Fulbright scholar-enrichment program at UCLA. There were times when their hyper-reactive, ball-addicted son baffled them. “They might’ve looked at my obsession with basketball with a little bit of, what’s the word? I don’t know if condescension is the right word; that’s the wrong word. Puzzlement,” Kerr said in that phone conversation. “Like, ‘what’s the deal?’”
Great teachers don’t seek to control their students, they seek to foster self-command in them. Kerr’s parents were more interested in that, than in curbing a disposition that regularly embarrassed them in public. “I was a disaster as a kid with my temper because I was so competitive,” he confessed. One Easter when he was about seven, Kerr lost the annual egg hunt, failing to find the golden egg hidden in a garden. He dissolved into a weeping, screeching tantrum. “I completely broke down crying and throwing a fit, and everybody thought I was crazy,” he said. “And I was. I couldn’t help it, that’s just who I was.”
The Kerrs understood that trying to constrain him would not have worked — compression only creates more combustion. His temperament remained a work in progress throughout his adolescence, his competitive intensity flaring obnoxiously. He was an overwrought, sweat-flushed striver who seethed over every mistake. His parents dealt with it by displaying their own self-discipline. At Kerr’s games while all the other parents yelled urgently at their kids from the stands, they would sit quietly, undemonstrative, all but still. Noticeably so. After the game, he would simmer in the car ride on the way home, as his parents listened with detached calm. Silently. They’d wait, patiently, until he cooled off, before saying a word.
Later, after some of the heat had gone out of him and he was capable of listening, Malcolm would explain that temper only compounded his problems. When opponents saw him running too hot, they knew where he was vulnerable. Kerr gradually became aware that his parents possessed that quality called composure. Which was the source of real command in any contest. “I learned to at least pretend like I was composed,” he said. “Where I’d make a mistake in a game and be furious with myself and could pretend that I wasn’t bothered. It took me quite a long time for that.”
Today, when Kerr is asked to give advice to parents of athletes, he replies, “Keep your mouth shut. Just shut up.”
It was a lesson Kerr never forgot. “Coaching isn’t controlling,” he has said. Obedience is merely a grudging, forced, external result. It’s a mistake poor coaches or overinvolved sports parents often make, but one that great coaches don’t. “My goal by the end of the year is to just sit there and do nothing,” he remarked shortly after his first championship with the Warriors. “And that means it works. Because that’s what a coach’s job is. It’s not to pull strings and call every play and direct traffic. It’s to say, ‘This is your team.’”
Those looking for the source of Kerr’s extraordinary success in coaching — on the brink of making a sixth NBA Finals in eight years with the Warriors — naturally go to his basketball mentors, to Lute Olson, to Phil Jackson, to Gregg Popovich, and no question he took a little from each. But the real seed of it was perhaps planted much, much earlier, by the scholar-father who embedded that first clue, the power of thoughtful self-possession, the ability to compete with a sense of inquisitiveness rather than insistence or recrimination.
Kerr’s great strength, his riveting signature as head coach of the Warriors, is his conveyance of that same freeing vantage point to his players. “There is such great value in going for it and putting yourself in the moment and not fearing the repercussion of the miss or the loss,” he has said.
Kerr’s parents taught him the value of developed reason, by exemplifying it themselves. He found a way to pursue that philosophy even in the face of an event that destroyed reason, through a career that has been all about self-mastering fears, insecurities and angers. But it’s tested over and over again, whenever a gun goes off.
A gunshot wrecks all self-control, all curiosity in outcomes — including that of the shooter — with the most fearful repercussion. A bullet in the air renders everyone and everything impotent against it, and vulnerable to its collateral chaotic ricochet. Kerr was 18 when he felt that fatal abbreviation; his father was murdered in Lebanon in 1984. He is now 56. “I’m tired — I’m so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families that are out there,” Kerr said Tuesday night. “I’m tired of the — excuse me, I’m, I’m sorry, I’m so — I’m so tired of the moments of silence. Enough.”
Somehow, Kerr goes on. Whatever you think of his political stance, he is worth attending to, closely, for his testimony on the subject, and for his attempt to wrest some self-control back from the most annihilating event.