Steve Kerr: Shooting For The Stars

Steve Kerr: Shooting For The Stars

The star-studded Chicago Bulls had been on a rampage in the NBA through the 1990s, winning three titles in a row from 1991-93, following it up with another one in 1996 and then finding themselves on the verge of a fifth one in the 1997 finals versus the Utah Jazz. While the spotlight glittered over the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and their legendary coach Phil Jackson, the final moment of magic was to come from someone else who had been waiting in the wings for the shot of a lifetime – point guard Steve Kerr.

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[L] Stever Kerr as a Bulls Player; [R] Steve Kerr as the Warriors Coach

The tightly contested final started off on a high for the Bulls as they claimed both of the first two games played at home in Chicago, setting up a potential whitewash against their breakthrough opponents who had qualified for their first ever NBA title shot. But, Utah Jazz – spearheaded by Karl Malone and John Stockton – had other plans, as they made a resounding comeback in their home games levelling the series up at 2-2 at the end of the fourth game. The journey of the Bulls through this season has been beautifully chronicled in the Netflix documentary series The Last Dance, providing a fresh perspective of the characters from the drama that unfolded that year with some very conspicuous organisational rifts and succession challenges in a team mainly comprised of seasoned veterans. It also unfolded some hitherto unclear aspects regarding the crucial game 5, on the eve of which Bulls superstar Michael Jordan suddenly developed severe flu like symptoms putting in jeopardy his participation. MJ candidly opens up about alleged food poisoning through a pizza that he had ordered on the very night, which was delivered in a rather suspicious manner by a group of 5 people. But, the ferocious champion that he was, he still stepped onto the court the next day after a painfully sleepless night scoring 38 massive points as they took a 3-2 lead with a victory.

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A visibly depleted Michael Jordan after Game 5 of the 1997 Final

They could now clinch the title back at home in the United Center at Chicago with a decisive 4-2 lead – the stage was set for a nail-biter and the game did not at all disappoint. With just 28-odd seconds left on the clock in the last quarter, the score was tied at 86-86 when the Bulls called for their final timeout. The series of events that unfolded next would then get immortalised in the NBA’s proverbial ‘wall of fame’ as one of the most iconic clutch moments in history.

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Michael Jordan, having realised from his experience in the last couple of games, was certain that the Jazz team would expect him to take the crucial shot for the lead and would double team on him from both sides. As the side line camera panned on him during the timeout, one could almost see him visualising exactly how the play was going to unfold and chalking out a plan instantaneously. He needed someone whose nerves he could trust to take that crucial shot in that moment – he could see none better than their 3-point-sharpshooter Steve Kerr. We can see him trying to intimate Steve (hiding behind the Gatorade glass that he was sipping) that he would pass the ball to him in case he was double teamed, to which Steve emphatically replies, “..if he comes off, I’ll be ready”, almost too loudly for MJ’s liking (something he chuckles about during his interview in the Last Dance). After the timeout, as the ball was thrown into play, Scottie passed it to MJ and just as expected, he drew immediate attention from two defenders trying to stop him. Faking a potential shot, he handed the ball to Steve who was left open. Which nerves of steel, Steve launched a regulated-spacecraft-like projectile into the net to get the lead and the Bulls eventually ended up winning the game 90-86 & thereby the 1997 NBA title.

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An ecstatic Kerr being congratulated by MJ after the win

Jordan has famously quoted that ‘Individuals can win matches, but teams win Championships” – this story is a testament to this as it not only demonstrated the incredible game anticipation of the legend but also his ‘awareness of and faith in’ the abilities of his teammates: a culture hardwired by Coach Jackson. In the post match interview, speaking about his most memorable moment of the game, he said, “Today, Steve earned his wings & I am so happy for him!” Steve on the other hand, chose a more witty tongue-in-cheek approach to convey his regards back to MJ. In the post-season processional event, he hilariously recounted ‘his version’ of what transpired between the two through the last time out:

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“A lot of people have been asking me about the shot the other night, and there have been some misconceptions about what actually happened. I wanted to clear it up – when we called timeout with 25 seconds to go, we went into the huddle and Phil told Michael, ‘I want you to take the last shot.’ And Michael said, ‘You know what Phil, I don’t feel real comfortable in these situations. So maybe we ought to go in another direction: why don’t we go to Steve?’ So I thought to myself, ‘Well, I guess I gotta bail Michael out again!’ Anyway, the shot went in. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”

While this game clinching moment from the 1997 NBA final still remains to be the most defining one that he gets identified with, there is so much more to the ‘Steve Kerr story’ than a mere 2-point shot. He is unarguably one the most interesting characters in NBA history, for all the good reasons. To this day, he holds the all-time record for having the highest 3-point conversion ratio (45.4%) in NBA history. He also held the record for the highest 3-point conversion in one particular season (52.4%) until it was broken in 2010 by Kyle Korver. His journey of self exploration, fuelled by a punishing quest to get better each day, truly fascinated me to the core.

The unfortunate MJ connection

Steve Kerr was born in Beirut to Ann and Malcolm H. Kerr – Malcolm was a university professor specialising in the Middle East and the Arab world, who would later go on to become the President of the American University of Beirut (AUB). While Steve was still a college freshman in the University of Arizona, the phone alarmingly rang at 3am on a fateful night. His father, Malcolm, had been killed by a local extremist group as he was on the way to his office.

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In 1993, MJ’s father – James Jordan – went missing and was later found to be murdered. This was a sudden unexpected shock to him of such magnitude that it led to his first retirement from the NBA, before he decided to make a comeback later. This unfortunate commonality between the stories of Michael and Steve was definitely instrumental in them sharing a completely different dimension, although never expressly stated, to their personal relationship.

A mentor par excellence

After finishing his playing career and a couple of stints in commentary & broadcasting, Steve was appointed as the head coach by the Golden State Warriors in 2014. In his first five years as head coach, Kerr’s Warriors made it to all the NBA Finals, winning three championships. In the 2015-16 campaign, his team set an NBA record for the most wins (73) in a single season which also gave him the coveted award for the ‘Coach of the Year’. He’s already being considered to be potentially among the ‘Top 5’ best all time coaches in NBA history, with frequent comparisons to the likes of Pep Guardiola in football.

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Steve in his new innings as Coach Kerr

While Steve holds quite a few distinctions to his name in terms of his peculiar achievements on the basketball court, the thing that really stands out is his rather affable demeanour and an easy going approach even through incredibly complex situations. It seems to me that after years of constant self scrutiny, he’s found his sweet spot between contentment and aspiration – the results and score sheets surely agree. Even the split second interaction during the final time out of the 1997 NBA final seemed reflective of a combination of humility and preparedness. His story may not always arouse the same kind of fervour as that of Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul Jabbar, but it shall always remind every single hopeful youngster that regardless of anything, no one can stop them from Shooting for the Stars!