East Bay Person of the Year: An Unselfish Warrior

Steve Kerr is a champion both on and off the court, but he never takes the credit.


Photo by D. Ross Cameron

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Steve Kerr is a gifted communicator, and his ability to express himself clearly and motivate others has played a critical role in his historic success as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. The team may be headed this season to its fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals and its third title since Kerr arrived nearly four years ago.

Kerr has also used his uncanny ability to speak frankly without seeming arrogant to be a powerful and dignified critic of President Donald Trump and an advocate for civility, compassion, justice, and wisdom in the nation’s increasingly fractious political discourse. And he’s done it all while battling a serious back injury that has caused debilitating headaches during the past two years.

For these reasons and more, the magazine has named Steve Kerr its 2017 East Bay Person of the Year.

Kerr’s family members, Warriors’ players, and team officials describe him glowingly as passionate, hard-working, witty, genuinely humble and thoughtful, and educated about what he says, particularly when weighing in on controversial matters like gun control, racism, national-anthem protests, and presidential politics.

“I love talking about Steve,” said Joe Lacob, Warriors majority-owner and CEO. “He had never coached before at any level and yet he was able to come in, because he is so intelligent, so well-prepared, and do a job that was so incredible no one has ever done it before.”

Warriors superstar forward Kevin Durant said Kerr’s approach to coaching brings out the best in players. “[He’s] just empowering everybody to be who they are and bring what they bring to the table,” Durant said.

A key quality Kerr picked up from his early home life is a healthy perspective on self-importance, said his brother, John Kerr, a professor of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. “The most important thing is: He doesn’t have much of an ego,” John Kerr said. “That’s definitely something he got from our parents—it runs in our family.”

Bob Myers, who is Warriors president of basketball operations and general manager and is a close friend of Kerr’s, said players respond positively to Kerr because his motivation is to help others be better, and “it is very evident that his humility is real.”

“That’s what makes him such an amazing coach. He is not coaching for himself; he is trying to lead and educate the players. That’s the nuance. That’s the special sauce,” Myers said. “How do you balance freedom with accountability, joy with discipline.”

In 2017, Steve Kerr’s impact extended beyond the basketball court and the sports pages. The Berkeley resident became one of most outspoken people in sports, regularly expressing his opinions on politics and taking strong exception to the actions and words of President Trump. Kerr has not only defended former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his right to protest during the national anthem, but he also jabbed at Trump when the president rescinded an invitation for a visit by the Warriors to the White House this winter after star guard Stephen Curry said he didn’t want to go.

“He was going to break up with us before we broke up with him,” quipped Kerr, referring to Trump.

The president, Kerr said, has fomented discord and division, and he called out Trump for referring to protesting NFL players like Kaepernick as “sons of bitches” because they were peacefully protesting racial inequality and police brutality. “We see what President Trump does with his words, with his actions, and it’s difficult to reconcile that and just say we’ll put all that aside,” Kerr said.

Kerr initially agreed through a team spokesperson to be interviewed for this story. But then later, true to form, he said he wanted to keep the focus on the Warriors’ players, not on him, and declined to comment.

Though Kerr, 52, has won seven NBA titles—five as a player and two as Golden State’s coach—he shies away from personal grandstanding. Like his Warriors’ teams, he’d rather pass the ball to an open teammate than take the shot himself.

John Kerr said his brother has talked repeatedly over the years about coaches having trouble connecting with players when they forget they are there to help the team. “He’s said he’s seen a lot of coaches who lose their players because they start making it about themselves.”

When Joe Lacob approached Steve Kerr about taking the Warriors coaching job in 2014, the two men had already known each other for 15 years since meeting through a friend on a European golf trip.

Lacob believed strongly that, even without coaching experience, Kerr was the best person to lead the Warriors because of his smarts and his experience with the NBA and championship teams.

Though only lightly recruited out of high school in Pacific Palisades, Kerr became a star at the University of Arizona through his work ethic, leadership, and knack for sinking long-range shots.

He subsequently spent 15 years playing for six NBA teams, the last decade with the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs. Despite a shaky start in the NBA, he forged a career as a bench scorer who made key plays when he was given game time, like the dramatic moment he took a last-second pass from Bulls legend Michael Jordan and drained a jumper to clinch the 1997 championship against the Utah Jazz.

Out of more than 900 games, Kerr started in just 30, but he still holds the highest career 3-point percentage (45.4 percent) of any player with at least 250 3-pointers made in NBA history.

After retiring from playing, Kerr spent a total of nine years as a basketball analyst for Turner Network Television, learning all the time by interviewing coaches and dissecting game play. His television career was punctuated in the middle by a three-year run as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, during which the team went to the playoffs twice and the Western Conference Finals once.

Just before Kerr joined the Warriors in 2014, it was widely believed that he was about to become the head coach of the New York Knicks, where Kerr’s former Bulls coach Phil Jackson was then the team president. In fact, Kerr initially declined Lacob’s offer, saying he was all but certain to go to the Big Apple.

Kerr, however, had a home in San Diego and three children in California, and he liked the Warriors lineup, which included rising stars Curry, Klay Thompson, and others, so he called back asking for a meeting.

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