On my birthday in 1986, I sat on a bus from Málaga, Spain, to the Rock of Gibraltar. Steve Kerr sat across the aisle. Pretty good birthday, huh?
He told me he did not like it when the newspapers, or anybody, called him “Opie,” a term of affection that had gotten a bit out of hand in Tucson.
Nor did he enjoy being called an “overachiever.”
“I prefer to think I’m an achiever,” he said.
That was Kerr’s version of clearing the air. Treat me like a grown up. Move on.
Kerr was one of four guards in Lute Olson’s Team USA rotation at the 1986 world championships, sharing time with Kenny Smith, “Muggsy” Bogues and Tommy Amaker.
It was often suggested that Kerr made the team only because Olson was the coach; it was a stretch to think Kerr would ever play a minute in the NBA.
On the bus ride that day, Kerr told me he hoped to be an athletic director some day, and that’s what he studied — sports management — in his final year at Arizona. It wasn’t just idle talk either; he spent time working in the school’s sports information department, doing such menial work as entering football rosters into a computer database.
A week after Team USA’s visit to Gibraltar, Kerr dribbled to the basket with 4:07 remaining in a rousing semifinal victory over favored Brazil. He collapsed, grabbing his right knee, rolling on the ground.
The team doctor, Tim Taft of the University of North Carolina, told me: “To most athletes performing at such high competition levels, an injury like this is career-ending. He will never have 100 percent strength in that knee again.
“But of course, I can’t predict the future.”
I stood in the lobby of a downtown Madrid hotel the next morning, watching as Kerr’s wheelchair was loaded into the back of a van and he was escorted to the airport.
Olson’s wife, Bobbi, embraced him. There were tears everywhere.
I quoted Kerr as saying “Career-ending. Can you believe it? Those are the words that are ringing in my mind.”
Now, two days after Kerr was named head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, you can say that tearing up his knee at the Madrid Sports Palace on July 17, 1986, was the luckiest break of his life.
Serendipity? Yes. Serendipity.
Because Kerr missed what would’ve been his senior season at Arizona, 1986-87, he was a fifth-year senior when the Wildcats became No. 1 for the first time in school history, finishing 35-3, reaching the Final Four.
It was the right place at the right time.
Had Kerr not been injured in Spain, he might be Arizona’s athletic director today.
By the time the ’87-88 season began, Kerr had grown out of his “Opie” days and become a man. He established his own identity, setting the NCAA record for three-point shooting (57.3 percent) and created a value to NBA teams that went beyond being a smart guy and team leader, to one who could shoot well enough to be considered a prospect.
The Phoenix Suns picked him with the 50th overall selection in the 1988 draft.
No one confused him with an overachiever again. He played in 910 NBA games and won five championships. He fought with Michael Jordan. He became general manager of the Phoenix Suns. He evolved into one of the top TV analysts in both the NCAA and NBA.
How’s that for an achiever?
At 48, Kerr begins his coaching career at the highest level of basketball. It is inevitable that critics will say he is a) too nice b) too soft and c) too inexperienced to be successful at Golden State, but those who have underestimated him have always been wrong.
He is, if anything, a tough guy.
One week before he was to enroll as an Arizona freshman, August 1983, Kerr arrived at the airport in Beirut, Lebanon, for his flight to Tucson. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was the president of American University of Beirut. Kerr had never been to Tucson. He did not take a recruiting visit here.
A Druze rocket exploded at the airport. Then another. Then two more.
The Druze, members of an Islamic sect, terrorized Beirut; the airport was closed.
For the next two days, at great risk, Kerr was taken to a Marine base where he hoped to catch a flight to Cairo. Both times he was sent home because it was judged too dangerous.
Finally, in a plan devised by his father, Kerr was driven past Druze outposts through Syria to Jordan. It took 10 hours. He reached Egypt and arrived in Tucson a day before classes began.
Five months later, his father was assassinated in Beirut.
His son, a rock, goes on and on and on.