The Modern Rise of an Unexpected Hero
With The Last Dance taking the world by storm, many are discovering the story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for the first time. However, one story has garnered much more attention due to this series. Jack Donnelly takes a look at Steve Kerr’s story and career, with the current Golden State Warriors coach finally gaining the recognition he has deserved for years.
In a troubled time for the entire world, many have turned to streaming services and binge-watching to tide them over until lockdown is lifted. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time for a brand new docu-series that’s been over three decades in the making.
The Last Dance, released on ESPN domestically and on Netflix, has taken the world by storm, as director Jason Hehir expertly tells the tale of the dynasty that Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause built at the Chicago Bulls that saw them win six NBA Championships in eight seasons during the 1990s. It has gone on to be the most viewed documentary series in ESPN history, with an average of 5.6 million viewers tuning in to each of the 10 episodes. The programme has taken the world by storm and has educated millions on just how influential Michael Jordan was to not only his team, but the sport of basketball as a whole.
While Jordan was one of the greatest to ever play the sport, with the documentary displaying his unparalleled drive and hunger for success, various episodes gave a platform for a number of MJ’s teammates to have their story told. Scottie Pippen had his struggles with injury and constant media attention due to rumours of him being traded on film, while Dennis Rodman has already had his wild off-court antics detailed in ESPN’s 30-for-30 series. However, both Pippen and Rodman were well known names, even to those outside the immediate sphere of the NBA. One man that The Last Dance shone a light on that didn’t seem to have the same notoriety or reputation to those uneducated on basketball as those previously mentioned was Steve Kerr – now, his story is one of the most respected and celebrated, rivalling that of Jordan’s.
Personally speaking, I am a novice when it comes to NBA knowledge. I obviously knew of Jordan and was familiar with Pippen and Rodman as well but had no clue who Steve Kerr was. Even after the first few episodes, I thought Kerr’s inclusion in the documentary was similar to that of Bill Wennington’s or John Paxson’s – to have been a part of the Jordan dynasty and being involved for some crucial moments (like Paxson’s last minute three-pointer that won the Bulls the third title in their first three-peat) but his involvement was something more altogether. I didn’t realise that Kerr had such a monumental status in Chicago but after watching Episode Nine of the documentary, I learned about a man who has gone through hell and back before being immortalised in NBA folklore.
Born in Beirut in 1965, Kerr spent the bulk of his youth in Lebanon and several other Middle Eastern nations. He finished his schooling in Los Angeles, attending the Palisades Charter School before graduating in 1983. Very few colleges were scouting Kerr in his senior year, but he eventually received what he described as a “last second” offer from the University of Arizona. Kerr had never even considered Arizona as a destination, not having once visited the university but was just “thrilled to have a place to go.” Things were finally looking good for the NBA hopeful, but his story reached its lowest point less than a year after his enrolment in college.
Having been appointed as the President of the American University in Beirut, Steve’s father, Malcolm Kerr, was living in a highly dangerous area and represented everything that the militia hated. Disguised as students, two members of the Islamic Jihad Organisation approached Malcolm outside his office before shooting him twice in the head. Receiving the news in the middle of the night, Steve dealt with his grief by pouring himself into basketball, even making it into practice the very next day as it was the only way that he could get his mind off of the trauma. The loss of his father spurred Kerr on and made him devote even more of his time to the passion that they had shared.
Despite the extra work, Kerr wasn’t a vastly sought-after prospect when it came to the 1988 NBA Draft. Kerr was selected by the Phoenix Suns as the last pick in the second round. He spent a year in Phoenix before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He began to make an impact during his time at the Cavs, averaging 6.0 points and 2.7 assists per game in 18.4 minutes per outing. Furthermore, he was able to showcase his talents from three-point range for the first time, amassing an impressive 47.2% success rate from three-point range. After spending part of the 92/93 season with the Orlando Magic, Kerr was recruited by the Bulls for the start of the 93/94 season.
Kerr had moulded his game on John Paxson, who was entering his final season of an 11-year playing career at the Bulls. The senior role player took Kerr under his wing upon his arrival, with it being evident that Krause and Jackson had brought him in to replace Paxson after his retirement. However, due to Jordan’s abrupt retirement in October of ’93, Kerr and the Bulls went through a fairly underwhelming two seasons, despite MJ returning for the business end of the 94/95 season.
Even after his first championship win in 1996, Kerr remained as a role player in the Bulls roster, while players like Jordan, Pippen and Rodman grabbing the headlines. However, Kerr’s time would come – and it came in Game Six of the 1997 NBA Finals.
The Bulls were competing against the Utah Jazz for the championship, a team who were competing in their first ever NBA finals. As was commonplace in the big games, Jordan entered the series with a personal grudge with the Jazz, due to the fact that Karl Malone had won MVP that year instead of him. Adding more fuel to the the fiery series was what would come to be known as the Flu Game, as Jordan pushed through various flu-like symptoms that had him up all night before Game Five to score 38 points in 48 minutes. Despite leading the series 3-2 going into Game Six, all but one of the games so far had come down to the wire, meaning that a physically and mentally drained Bulls team had a huge challenge ahead of them if they were to avoid a Game Seven scenario.
Kerr hadn’t played particularly well in this game, missing his bread-and-butter shots that would normally have been guaranteed points. The Bulls had already had to claw their way back into the game after going behind early, but the Jazz tied the game up with two minutes left to play. When Phil Jackson called timeout, Jordan and Kerr knew exactly what the Jazz’s play would be. In Game Four, Jordan gets doubled up on and Stockton steals the ball from a wayward shot before firing it down to Malone who takes the lead. Jordan knows they’ll try it again, so orders Kerr to stay open.
Tied at 86-86, Jordan is surrounded by Stockton and Bryon Russell, as predicted. He fires it to Kerr, who sinks it in to give the Bulls the lead with five seconds remaining and the United Center erupted. Kerr had hit the most important shot in his entire career and won the game 90-86, winning the series and the championship with a game to spare. This was the first time that Kerr had gone above that of a role player and, like John Paxson before him, etched himself into Bulls and NBA history, with Jordan claiming that he had “earned his wings.”
With his second championship secured, Kerr and the Bulls marched on and secured their second three-peat in 1998, which ended up being Jordan’s last season in basketball, and the final celebration of The Last Dance. After the 97/98 season, the Bulls dynasty began to separate – Jordan retired, Rodman was released and Pippen and Kerr were both traded, with the latter signing with the San Antonio Spurs. Success seemed to follow Kerr, who was riding high off of his three consecutive title wins – so much so, that he added a fourth in 1999, as the Spurs won their first ever championship in their first appearance in the finals, beating the New York Knicks in a 4-1 series. This made Kerr only the second ever player outside of the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1960s to win four consecutive championships, and he is one of only three players to have won two consecutive championships with two different teams.
Kerr spent another two years in San Antonio before being traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer of 2001, but after a fairly uneventful 01/02 season, Kerr returned to the Spurs for the final year of his playing career. In a fairy-tale ending, Kerr’s final season ended with yet another championship, defeating the New Jersey Nets in a 4-2 series. Kerr retired as a five-time NBA champion and held the records for both the highest three-point percentage in a single season (52.4%) and the highest career three-point percentage (45.4%), the latter of which he still holds today.
After retiring, Kerr turned to broadcasting and analysis for a number of years and was a member of a consortium of buyers that purchased his first professional team, the Phoenix Suns, from then-owner Jerry Colangelo for around $300 million. Originally on the management team as a consultant, Kerr took over the role of general manager in 2007 in time for the new season. Kerr took it upon himself to reshape the roster and brought in players like Shaquille O’Neal during his time in the role. The Suns made the playoffs just once in Kerr’s three years as GM, before leaving the role in 2010.
After some time away, Kerr returned to basketball as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, a role he still holds to this day. As far as debut years go, Kerr’s was unrivalled. He became the first coach to start the season with a 19-2 record (which included a 14-game winning streak) and was the first rookie coach to win 21 of his first 23 games. At the end of the regular season, Kerr’s Warriors had one of the best seasons in NBA history, and the best in their franchise’s history. With a record of 67-15, Kerr surpassed the record set by Tom Thibodeau in 2010/11 as the highest winning rookie coach in the NBA.
The Warriors reached the NBA Finals for the first time in 40 years. Trailing after three games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kerr went against the grain and gave the versatile Andre Iguodala his first start of the season, creating the first iteration of the famously known Death Lineup, which consisted of Iguodala, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes (Barnes was later replaced by Kevin Durant in 2016/17). This gave the world a look at one of the earliest instances of “positionless basketball,” and the lineup won Kerr his first championship as a coach, his sixth overall.
Despite missing a large part of the 2015/16 season due to an ongoing back injury, Kerr returned to break yet more records. The Warriors broke the record set by the 95/96 Bulls, with a 73-9 season to their 72-10. Kerr became the first person in NBA history to be a part of a 70-win team as both a player and a coach and was named as NBA Coach of the Year. He took the Warriors to the Finals yet again, but despite a 3-0 lead, lost to the Cavaliers in a 4-3 series.
Although Kerr missed the playoffs in the 2016/17 season because of his recurring injury, he returned in time for the finals and defeated old adversaries in the Cleveland Cavaliers across a five-game series. The Warriors continued their mini dynasty a year later, making it three championships in four years as they defeated the Cavs yet again in a four-game sweep, making it Kerr’s eighth championship overall and his third as a coach.
A legend of the NBA as both a player and a coach, Steve Kerr has found success in everything he’s done. The loss of his father made him the man he is today and, as we saw in The Last Dance, it allowed him to relate to one of the gods of the sport In Jordan. The documentary is introducing a new wave of fans to Kerr’s career and they’ll be better off for it. I know I am.