Veteran sportswriter Scott Howard-Cooper didn’t need to travel to distant lands or exotic locales to settle on a subject for his new book.
The subject of his compelling book did, however, spend large chunks of his formative years outside of the United States. “Steve Kerr: A Life” connects the dots between his upbringing, his fierce competitive drive as an athlete, family tragedy, personal success in high school and at the University of Arizona, his early NBA career before landing with the Chicago Bulls, and the dream-come-true experiences of winning three titles with the Bulls and two more with the San Antonio Spurs.
Above all, Kerr is a people person who rarely takes himself too seriously, and self-deprecating humor is a recurring theme throughout the well-paced book. The author shares an abundant mix of rich anecdotes about Kerr’s deep affection for his family and friends and his close bond with teammates across the decades during his high school, college and pro days as a player.
Kerr’s natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge about every aspect of the game shines through as recounted by Howard-Cooper in passages about coaches Lute Olson, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Lenny Wilkens, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, as well as UCLA legend John Wooden, whose basketball camps Kerr frequented as a kid.
In a concise primer on the eight-time NBA title winner’s early years, Howard-Cooper wrote: “In his nearly sixteen years, Kerr had lived in the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and, counting months-long vacations, northern Africa. He had seen additional lands from car windows, played basketball on dirt courts against men, and been uprooted enough times to either build resilience or lose the stability kids cherish, or both.”
Howard-Cooper traces the Kerr family’s ties to Lebanon decades before his birth and his parents’ deep love of the land and Middle Eastern cultures.
The book’s first chapter (“Beirut”) gives a helpful introduction to his parents’ families history, including the circumstances of how and where Steve’s parents, Malcolm Kerr and Ann Ann Zwicker, met. In 1954, Ann spent her junior year abroad at American University in Beirut, where her future husband was working toward his master’s in Middle East studies.
Malcolm Kerr, whose career in academia included stints at UCLA and the American University in Cairo, became president of the American University in Beirut in 1982, when the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) was ongoing. On January 18, 1984, Kerr was shot to death by two terrorists who attacked him outside his office on campus.
Howard-Cooper quotes from Ann’s diary in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination and dedicates ample space to describing the family’s outpouring of grief on multiple continents. At the time, Steve was a freshman at the University of Arizona.
Providing historical context to the elder Kerr’s tragic death, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s statement hours later is published in the book. In part, Reagan said, “His work strengthened the historical, cultural, and academic ties between the United States and Lebanon and other countries of the Middle East. Dr. Kerr carried on a family tradition ー he himself was born in Beirut to parents also dedicated to the service of mankind.”
One of this writer’s favorite sections of the book is the details of Kerr’s performance against Arizona State on January 20, 1984. Being with his teammates was cathartic for Steve just a couple days after his father’s death, and Kerr entered the game with 12:58 left in the opening half on that Friday night in Tucson.
The story of that game, only a few months into Kerr’s freshman season, gives a glimpse of his emotional toughness, competitive fire and love for the game. Olson wasn’t certain, though, if Kerr would be able to compete due to the heartbreaking circumstances that he and his family were dealing with. “I was worried for him,” Olson was quoted as saying.
“But when Kerr got the ball for the first time eighteen seconds after entering the game, and only a few minutes after crying through the memorial for the wonderful man he would miss forever he moved on instinct. The twenty-five footer swished,” Howard-Cooper wrote. “The crowd erupted in a frenzy ー ‘an explosion of sound,’ Olson called it. The next shot, from fifteen feet, splashed through the net the same way.”
Kerr ended up with 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting in 25-plus minutes. It was the beginning of his becoming a Wildcats legend known forever thereafter as “Steeeeeve Kerrrrr” in Tucson.
“It may have looked like I wasn’t thinking of my dad,” Kerr said, as recounted in the book, “but I thought of him the whole time.”
Playing that night seemed “very natural,” he confessed. “It was a nice outlet for me to play. If I hadn’t played, I would have dwelled on it even more. I played well and we won. It was a crazy atmosphere. I remember going through 1,000 different emotions.”
Kerr’s brutal honesty in this life-changing period of his life is one of the book’s signature traits. In the chapters that follow, he says what he thinks in times of unabashed joy (championship-clinching moments) and in tougher times (injuries, team feuds), as well as using his high-public profile as a three-time NBA title-winning head coach to speak his mind about Donald Trump’s presidency and the scourge of gun deaths in the United States, among other important issues.
Above all, the heart of the book is ー and appropriately so ー an incisive chronicle of Kerr’s 15-season NBA career (1988-2003) and how he experienced life on the bench, on the road, in practice sessions and on the court throughout those years. From being a seldom-used backup with the Phoenix Suns as a rookie to a more active role with the Cleveland Cavaliers to a limited role with the Orlando Magic before arriving in the Windy City as a grizzled veteran in 1993 before Michael Jordan’s first retirement began, we learn a lot about Kerr’s personality, perseverance and professionalism.
“Kerr had gone from unwanted to major factor within two months and just as quickly built a relationship with Jackson that would become important to both,” the author noted.
In his first four Bulls seasons, Steve Kerr appeared in all 82 regular-season games each time. Indeed, he had arrived as an important piece of the puzzle.
A vital role player for Coach Jackson, Kerr didn’t start once but saw steady minutes while winning championships in the final three season of the Jordan era (1995-96 to 1997-98), and then played one more for the Bulls, who went 13-37, in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign under Tim Floyd.
And despite his well-chronicled alteration with Jordan at a Bulls practice, Kerr and His Airness developed a strong alliance and respect for one another.
Or as Howard-Cooper put it: “But while Kerr would spend decades joking about losing the only fistfight of his life quickly and badly, the actual impact was life-alteringly serious and remained an important development, even a turning point, long after the color around his right eye faded: he had earned Jordan’s trust, an accomplishment that could not be overstated.”
Jordan’s faith in Kerr is captured with everything on the line in chapter 8, which is aptly titled “I’ll Be Ready.”
Game 6 of the 1997 Finals in Chicago, perhaps more than any other in his NBA career, underscored Kerr’s value to his team. (And scenes like it give memorable glimpses of the game within the game throughout the tome.)
During a Bulls timeout with 28 seconds left, and the score knotted at 86-86, MJ spoke to Kerr about what he expected to transpire on their next possession.
“Jordan turned to Kerr in the huddle and predicted that John Stockton would leave Kerr to help double-team him,” Howard-Cooper reported. “Kerr, one seat to Jordan’s left, flicked a quick single poke with his right index finger back at him.”
“If he comes off,” he was quoted as saying, “I’ll be ready.”
History proves that Kerr was ready, and the offensive sequence unfolded exactly as MJ predicted, with the ball passing from Scottie Pippen to Jordan to Kerr after Stockton left Steve to help double-team Air Jordan.
“The ball launching from Kerr’s right hand with a flick of the wrist and arcing in midair with one second on the shot clock was nothing less than a freakish intersection of his life,” Howard-Cooper observed, “the commitment to preparation and especially the people in the scene…”
Three days after the Bulls won the title, their victory parade wrapped up at Chicago’s Grant Park, where Kerr’s distinct brand of humor was on display. (In plentiful doses, his comic side is on display in his work as Warriors coach and described later in the book, too.)
“So I thought to myself, ‘Well, I guess I gotta bail Michael out again,’ ”Kerr told the crowd with a half-shrug and a quick smile. “But I’ve been carrying him all year, so, you know, what’s one more time. Anyway, the shot went in, and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
Classic lines from Steve Kerr.
The exploration of his transition from player to high-profile broadcaster, NBA general manager and, eventually, head coach are enriched by stories, anecdotes and poignant observations from Kerr and those within his daily orbit.
A stickler for details and a confident man with a million fresh ideas about the game, Kerr’s energy and passion for basketball and coaching, even when dealing with agonizing back pain while taking a necessary sabbatical from coaching the Warriors, are captured from start to finish in Scott Howard-Cooper’s stellar book.