THANKS LARGELY TO THE SYSTEM STEVE KERR PUT INTO PLACE, THE WARRIORS HAVEN'T SKIPPED A BEAT IN THEIR COACH'S ABSENCE
INSTEAD OF A suit, Steve Kerr now wears a sweatshirt to Warriors games. Rather than stand, he sits off to the side of the room, an observer in his own realm. He watches from the locker room, occasionally addressing the players at halftime, a man unable to stalk the sideline but willing to settle for proximity. It's been a month since Kerr stepped down to deal with ongoing complications from 2015 back surgery, and while team officials are optimistic he will coach again at some point, he remains out indefinitely.
Here is a man who owns one of the highest winning percentages in league history and who is so beloved that there is a movement—increasingly less facetious—for him to run for public office. In theory, Golden State should be lost without him. And yet in nine games this postseason, they literally haven't lost without him. Over two seasons, under a pair of interim coaches—first Luke Walton and now Mike Brown—they are 48--4 without Kerr.
How can a coach be both essential and unnecessary? Let us investigate the possible theories and clues, starting with....
1 THE OBVIOUS REASON(S)
Also known as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. "Everyone who gets into coaching in the NBA knows it's all about the talent," Kerr told me after a recent practice. And, indeed, the Warriors are deep and cohesive, possessing an almost telepathic chemistry. There is some truth to the idea that you could take someone from the YMCA noon run, install him or her as Golden State's coach and the team still might win the title. As such, the Dubs represent the closest thing the NBA has to a self-driving car.
Then again (at the risk of taking the automotive analogy too far), someone had to design the car so it could operate autonomously....
2 KERR POSSESSES SOME SUPER-SECRET COACHING SAUCE
Maybe Kerr broke into Gregg Popovich's stash. How else to explain all that winning? But here's the weird part: Normally, a 51-year-old man this successful—five rings as a guard, one as a coach, rave reviews as a TNT analyst—would be easy to resent. Especially because his only coaching experience before the Warriors was with Nick Kerr's middle-school team. (Nick says his dad's demeanor was "exactly like today.") And yet....
3 PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE LOVES STEVE
Coaches respect him. So do players. The media would clone him if possible, so that he might run every press conference for every team in every sport, reliably dispensing anecdotes and one-liners and big-picture context.
But perhaps Brown sums it up best: "Given all the success Steve's had, he could be an a--hole and get away with it. But he's not."
So, after filing that away as Steve Kerr's First Boldface Leadership Secret—Don't Be an A--hole—let us examine the potential reasons he's not....
4 A TIP FROM POP
When Kerr and I first discussed doing a story on his leadership style, he had a single condition: only one photo. He understood that we'd need to use one—"me standing there, pointing during a game or whatever"—but could we please leave it at that? It's something he learned from Popovich, during his time in San Antonio. The moment the players see you making it about you, not the team, you lose them. Which leads us to....
5 THE GUY ON THE STREET
The second time Kerr and I talked happened to be roughly the day his symptoms—which include headaches and neck pain—began worsening. Yet, being Kerr, he still ran practice that morning and showed for our lunch interview.
As we walked through downtown Oakland, a disheveled man across the street hollered, Steeeeeve! Kerr said what he would say later to the hotel security guard and a street vendor: "Hey, man. What's going on?"
The man hurried over, holding a battered piece of artwork, and related a tale of temporary homelessness, a run-in with the police. Kerr listened, nodding and asking questions—"Did you paint that? It's cool." Then he said, "Good luck to you," and handed the man $20 for art supplies.
Later, at lunch, Kerr said, "Think about the life that guy's had, you know?" For Kerr, seeing the big picture is paramount. "[Some people] are just so tunnel vision all the time and 'I'm going to succeed and kick ass in life,' and they just trample over everyone. The people to me who are the most powerful leaders are the ones who have great talent in whatever their field is, great conviction in their ability to teach it and act it, but an awareness and a humility and compassion for others."
6 THE TEAM IS OUT THERE RUNNING THE SHOW
When asked about Kerr's approach, Warriors players use words like freedom and trust. As reserve guard Ian Clark puts it, "He kind of lets us coach ourselves." During film sessions Kerr regularly asks for input, an idea he got while a member of the Spurs, late in his career.
"We're going to go under the screen," Popovich said during a team meeting.
"No, we gotta go over," replied point guard Avery Johnson.
Pop was firm. "We gotta go under."
And then Johnson slammed his fist on the table and shouted, "You don't see what we see out there!"
Kerr was blown away. "It was a good reminder to me, because this is Pop, one of the best in the world at his business." He continues. "On the sideline we can see something unfold, but we can't feel the speed with which it unfolds. Players might have a better call for a certain coverage based on the speed and their reaction abilities and the personnel we're going against."
By now the Warriors expect to be queried. "It keeps me on my toes," says Iguodala. "If he asks, I have to know what I'm talking about. I can't just throw anything out there."
Part of the coach's interest comes from the fact that....
7 KERR IS FLUENT IN GRINDER
It's easy to forget Kerr's path to this point. He received only one major scholarship offer, to Arizona, because the team was 4--24 the year before. "To be honest, I brought him on assuming we'd recruit over him the following season," says Lute Olson, the longtime coach, now retired.
Neither was Kerr expected to succeed in the NBA, for how many slowish 6'3" shooting specialists do? But after being drafted in the second round by the Cavaliers, Kerr ended up being a vital part of title teams in Chicago and San Antonio. Though he hung around for 15 seasons, he started a total of 30 games.
His was a life on the margins. He might go a week without playing, then enter a game in a high-leverage situation. So he eventually began writing FI on the toes of his hightops. F--- it. That way, every time he looked down, he'd see a reminder. You can only control so much.
As such, Kerr relates to players like Clark, a backup on a one-year deal. If Kerr knows Clark won't play on a given night, he'll pull him aside and say, "Hey, we're going with Patrick [McCaw] tonight because of matchups, but it's not a forever thing."
Kerr says such conversations are a conscious effort to "overcommunicate." Other times, he writes letters. It's a way not only to break through but also to time-shift a conversation. The player can reread it, digest it, sleep on it. "It's a long season with ebbs and flows, and Steve put things back in perspective," says Iguodala of the note he received last year.
But here we go, once again, making this all about Kerr, so let's not forget....
8 JAVALE MCGEE!
I mean, just look at him, bounding and swatting and making people happy, his triplicate rattails swinging like hairy metronomes. Who's to thank for that reclamation project? Iguodala, who played with the often erratic 7-footer in Denver and recommended signing him. Assistant Jarron Collins works with him. His teammates believe in him. And let's not forget the men who actually signed McGee: Bob Myers, Jerry West and Joe Lacob—one NBA Executive of the Year, one living legend and one ambitious owner. Which suggests that perhaps Kerr is just carrying out management's plan.
If so, he's doing it in creative ways. Like when he yells....
9 "HELL, NO!"
This is Kerr's gleeful cry whenever Green is ready to launch a three. For Kerr, Green represents a unique coaching challenge. The two have battled at times, never more volubly than last season, when Green became so angry at halftime of a game in Oklahoma City that arena security nearly got involved.
And yet Green says he now gets it, bringing up....
10 THAT GAME LAST SEASON IN NEW ORLEANS
As Green tells it, in the first half Curry pulled up for "some crazy shot." Then Thompson did the same thing. Kerr called timeout. "At that point," says Green, "I've taken, like, one shot and have, like, no turnovers. But [Steve] looks right at me and goes, 'What the f--- is wrong with you? Get your f------ head in the game!"
Green was shocked. Kerr was yelling at him?!?
"But he's smart because he knows exactly what I'm going to do," Green says. "I'm gonna get mad, and then I'm going to yell at everyone else and get them going." He pauses. "Now is that a tactic? Is it on purpose? I don't know. It doesn't matter. It's coaching, is what it is. Sometimes I sit there afterward and think, Damn, that mother------ got me." Green continues, "But he knows me. You couldn't do that to someone else. He has a feel for it. That's his thing. He has this feel for exactly what each player needs."
Which brings us back to Hell, no. "He knows yelling that turns on something inside of me," says Green. "If he just said, 'Don't shoot that shot; it's not right for us,' it wouldn't work."
Kerr explains, "I yell that partly as a joke and partly because I think it will motivate him. He's at his best with a chip on his shoulder, and I'm trying to keep it there." Which is as good a segue as any to....
11 COCAINE (O.K., NOT LITERALLY)
When Kerr was in college, a reporter asked the Wildcats for their New Year's resolutions. Kerr said he only had one: "To keep Coach off the cocaine next year."
Olson laughs at the memory: "Only Steve could get away with that."
This is standard Kerr: dry humor, mixed with affection. When Marv Albert, his old broadcast partner, arrives for the pregame coach's interview, he sees a dartboard with his face on it—and Kerr often pretending to be in the middle of a game.
There are, of course, good reasons: to cut through the self-seriousness of sports; to speak the time-tested male language of mockery ("Hell, no!"); and most important, to keep his team loose. Rarely does a film session go by without Kerr splicing in some clip, such as a snippet of Walton in The Young and the Restless.
But—and here would be Kerr's Second Boldface Rule—he saves his best material for himself. To go back through his interviews is to see a master of self-deprecation at work. Here he is, with the Cavs, on guarding Jordan: "I can hold Michael to 65 on any given night."
"The most important part of broadcasting," says Albert, in explaining Kerr's smooth transition, "is showing the audience you don't take yourself too seriously."
That could sum up Kerr's goal: Take things seriously, but not yourself. It's revealing to create word clouds from Kerr's comments, whether they be at a press conference or in an interview. Take his commencement speech at Arizona, in 2004. The terms that figure most prominently include team, family, coach, cultural differences, opportunity, kids and understanding. You'll find similar themes in his other speeches. For contrast, try pulling up a word cloud of, say, the current leader of the United States.
Which leads us to the fact that....
12 KERR KEEPS INSISTING THAT THE WORLD IS BIGGER THAN BASKETBALL
In April, when Kerr appeared on a San Francisco public-radio station, the host, Michael Krasny, asked Kerr if he planned on running for office.
Kerr's response—"It doesn't sound like a lot of fun"—was not surprising, because, well, it doesn't. But neither was the question. In an era of political disenchantment, when people are looking for someone to follow and the concept of "sticking to sports" is becoming increasingly antiquated, Kerr stands out. He has spoken out on gun control, immigration and race (and, in our conversation, referred to Trump as a "blowhard"). You can now buy POPOVICH/KERR 2020 T-shirts.
Kerr understands he could put the team in a bind, as his views don't necessarily reflect the organization's. But, as he says, "on the other hand, we should all speak our minds. It's an important time to do so. There's a lot of bull---- in the world. You got to call it out."
13 HE'S A FAN OF EVERYBODY
This is most evident with Curry, for Kerr often seems just as amazed as the rest of us by his exploits. But it's also apparent in smaller moments, such as the time this season when cameras caught Kerr on the bench showing Curry, in a relative slump at the time, how merely taking shots helps the team. "Carry on, my son," Kerr said.
It's not just players. Last June, Kerr met with Brown, who was between jobs, at the team hotel in Cleveland on an off day during the Finals. They covered a lot of topics, but one thing stuck out for Brown: "He said, 'Mike, everyone labels you a quote-unquote defensive coach, and that's b.s. I just need you to come coach and be you.'"
Which is reminiscent of....
14 WHAT PETE CARROLL SAID TO KERR
In the summer of 2014, Kerr spent a few days with the Seahawks' coach in Seattle. Recalls Kerr, "He basically told me, 'I've spent 10 years coaching to figure all this out. I got fired twice and learned a ton under Bill Walsh and then tried to formulate my coaching philosophy, only to realize I didn't really have one.'" The key, Carroll finally realized: Your approach has to reflect your identity.
"Give me one of your core values," Carroll said to Kerr.
Kerr thought for a moment. "Joy."
"O.K.," said Carroll. "That has to be reflected in your practices every day."
And on they went.
At the time, Kerr was two months from starting with the Warriors. He had a ton of ideas—he knew he wanted to play fast and loose—but that was it. And he knew he couldn't imitate his mentors, become Little Pop. "Players see right through it," Kerr says at lunch. "What I learned from all the coaches I talked to was that your entire process has to reflect your own values."
Which, I note, goes back to the source of those values. "My parents," Kerr says immediately. Then he pauses, and his eyes mist up.
15 MALCOLM KERR
In 1984, while president of American University in Beirut, Steve's father, Malcolm, was shot and killed on his way to work. Steve was a freshman in Tucson. Last December, John Branch of The New York Times wrote about the event and Kerr's childhood in Lebanon. Some of the Warriors read it and were surprised. Kerr had never brought it up, just as he never spoke about or used his health as a motivational tactic. Four days after our lunch I asked a few players how they thought Kerr was doing. Fine, they said, as far as they knew. "We all just assume he's doing well," said Clark.
The next day Kerr announced his leave of absence.
16 THE WARRIORS ARE CONTAGIOUS
Last fall, on his first team flight, Brown pulled out his laptop—"that's when I always lock in, on the flight"—only to notice music playing. Not from the players' section. The coaches'. He looked around, not wanting to make eye contact. But he wanted to fit in—"there are different ways to skin a cat, right?"—so he put his head down and then, surreptitiously, stuck in earphones.
In the months that followed Brown occasionally looked to Ron Adams, another old-school coach, for commiseration. When Kerr hired Adams, in 2014, the then 66-year-old took one look at Kerr's "fast and loose and fun" approach and told Kerr, "This is a f------ circus. It'll never work."
Midway through that season, however, Adams reassessed. "This is an interesting stew you've cooked up," he told Kerr, "but it works." Now, when Kerr tells Adams how much he's learned from him, Adams tells his boss it's the other way around. "I came from a coaching era that was very different," says Adams. "The coach had authority and you told people what to do, and it wasn't a horizontal, relational pattern."
By the way, the core values Kerr came up with in 2014, the ones he still writes on the whiteboard occasionally? Joy, competition, compassion and mindfulness.
Which leads us to the fact that....
17 KERR HAS CRAZY-GOOD EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Last year social psychologist Dacher Keltner attended a pair of Warriors practices. Keltner, who runs a lab at Cal, studies nonverbal cues, how people gain and keep power, and the dynamics of compassion. When Pixar wanted to understand emotion for the movie Inside Out, the studio called Keltner.
As he watched practice, Keltner was struck by Kerr's approach. Rather than barking orders, or standing with arms crossed—typical postures of authority—Kerr moved around the court, checking on players, sharing a joke, a subtle touch on the shoulder or a quick tip. When Kerr listened, he turned his whole body, leaning in. Later, when the two men had lunch, Kerr spent the bulk of it asking Keltner questions. When the conversation eventually turned to basketball, Kerr spoke about how grateful he was to be able to coach for a living. Keltner was struck by this, as he assumed Kerr's job to be stressful and knew the coach suffered from chronic pain. And yet, says Keltner, "He really did see it as a privilege to be a coach."
Rather than enforcing a traditional hierarchy, Kerr had in Keltner's eyes created "this really interesting collective."
18 MAKE A FIST
Though Kerr is not on the sidelines, he's still regularly communicating with the team, in particular Brown. That puts the interim coach in a challenging position. "He has to try to continue to grow our culture while at the same time make the coaching decisions that are in his gut, regardless of what I think," Kerr wrote in an email. "And yet I'm behind the scenes still talking with players and providing messaging and advice to Mike and his staff. That's a tough dynamic to reconcile, but he's doing a great job of it."
To Green, this all comes back to Kerr. "When Steve arrived, he built a culture of empowerment," says Green. "It's like the old saying, 'If I punch somebody with a fist, I'm gonna knock 'em out. But if I punch somebody with a fist with one finger up, I'm going to break my f------ finger.' You're more powerful like this"—and here Green makes a fist. He continues. "So he built a culture to where, one man down, the next man has to step up. The system he taught us is all about continuing to move on. You just continue to flow."
AND FLOW is what the Warriors have been doing since April 22, finishing a sweep of the Trail Blazers and routing the Jazz before going up 3--0 on the Spurs. "Some people crave that feeling of things falling apart when they're not there," says Bob Myers. "Steve's the opposite." Instead, Myers uses the analogy of a parent whose children go off to college. If well prepared, the kids will flourish without parental guidance "because your teachings are still there."
You know the references to leadership rules and secrets mentioned earlier? Kerr would find them hilarious, invoking one of his favorite words: bull----. The message is only good if you believe the messenger, right? And Kerr believes humans are adept at sniffing out bull----. So, no, he has no leadership secrets.
You want to lead like Kerr? Just be humble and grateful, curious and self-aware. Communicate, value family and empower others. When bad things happen, keep a broader perspective. Most of all, create something bigger than yourself, for as Keltner points out, the real test of a leader is what happens once they leave.
Which is to say that the reasons Kerr is so important to the Warriors are not all that complicated. They are the same reasons the team is doing fine without him.
IN AN ERA OF POLITICAL DISENCHANTMENT, WHEN "STICKING TO SPORTS" IS ANTIQUATED, KERR STANDS OUT. YOU CAN NOW BUY POPOVICH/KERR 2020 SHIRTS.
"HE KNOWS ME," GREEN SAYS OF KERR'S RIBBING OF HIS SHOT SELECTION. "THAT'S HIS THING. HE HAS THIS FEEL FOR EXACTLY WHAT EVERY PLAYER NEEDS."