“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” goes the Zen proverb, and few students ever were more ready than Steve Kerr to learn about leadership.
For 30 years, he took notes in a high-level course the likes of which few others have been privileged to take. The teachers kept appearing, and they were Basketball Hall of Fame faculty: Lute Olson, Lenny Wilkens, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich.
As a player, Kerr’s best four coaches were leaders who became legends. They understood people. They were comfortable in their own skin. They knew that the truly great teams were always much more than the sum of their players’ abilities.
“To walk in the footsteps of the coaching giants who have influenced him,” ESPN reported in April before the NBA playoffs began, “Kerr will need to contend for titles.”
Two months later, Kerr had aced his first major exam, winning the NBA championship in his first season as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. A photo of him on the team plane, with one arm around the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy and the other holding “The Boys in the Boat,” about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, illustrates his competitive and curious sides.
Kerr arrived at the UA in 1983, along with Lute Olson. A 4-24 season — the worst in UA history — preceded them, and there was work to do.
“When I met Lute Olson, I was 17 and didn’t know anything about anything,” Kerr says. “He introduced me to high-level basketball and to the environment you create, the importance of the group.
“We weren’t very good, but we felt special. There were team meals and barbecues and hard practices. We felt we were building something from the ground up. It was hard work, but we felt good about being part of it.”
With Kerr coming off the bench as a freshman, Olson’s first UA team went 11-17 and finished eighth in what was then the Pac-10 Conference. But the foundation had been laid for a run at the conference championship the next year, and sure enough, in Kerr’s sophomore year the Wildcats were in contention before a late-season trip to Washington and UCLA.
However, when two players stayed out past curfew in Seattle, Olson benched them for the first half at UCLA. Arizona lost that game and its chance to win the conference. Through wins and losses, Kerr was absorbing formative lessons.
“I remember thinking, ‘How does he do this with our goal at stake?’” Kerr says. “The message was clear: The process was more important than the result.”
The UA got its conference title the next season, the first of seven over a nine-year stretch. After a storied Final Four team in 1988 cemented Kerr’s legacy as a Wildcat, he went on to an improbable 15-year playing career in the NBA that included three consecutive championships as part of Jackson’s Chicago Bulls and two more with Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.
In Cleveland, before either of those stops, he noticed how Wilkens, who had been an economics major in college, valued being surrounded by smart people. In Chicago, he watched Jackson manage Michael Jordan and other strong personalities on the team and in the front office. In San Antonio, a low-key environment by comparison, he saw Popovich balance brutal honesty with unequivocal respect in his relationships with players.
In 2014, after an eight-year stint in broadcasting and a shorter one as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, Kerr finally felt ready for the coaching career he had always wanted.
“I had been preparing the last couple of years for this,” he says. “I wrote things down and put them into a rough draft, a manifesto.”
Kerr was named the Warriors’ coach in May 2014 and went to work right away on building connections with the talented players under his charge. Although the franchise hadn’t won an NBA championship since 1975, the team was coming off of a 51-31 season and some of the players weren’t excited about a coaching change.
“Without talented players, you won’t win,” Kerr says, “and you have to win for any of your philosophy to matter. I inherited a team with untapped potential. It was a perfect storm for me.”
With advice from mentors and friends to “be yourself,” Kerr went to visit each player in the offseason, offering some Popovich straight talk along with an Olson/Jackson appeal to become like family. But the gesture itself was all Kerr, important in establishing openness and transparency.
“That instantly made it less about him,” says Stephen Gilliland, associate dean for executive education and executive director of the Center for Leadership Ethics in the UA’s Eller College of Management. “Great leaders get to know each of their reports as individuals.”
Gilliland says he has observed a humility and other-centered focus about Kerr that can be difficult for leaders to put into action.
“When people get promoted, their first thought is, ‘I must be an impostor,’” Gilliland says. “So they take control to show that they aren’t, and then they start to not listen to others as much.
“A higher level of leadership is not about control. It’s about aligning the interests of everyone. It sounds so simple, but it’s incredibly difficult to accomplish.”
Kerr says his approach was less about humility and more about respect for his players and what it takes to succeed at the professional level.
“It helped that I played in the league for 15 years,” he acknowledges. “I know how hard it is. There’s pressure and adversity constantly. You’re exposed, and you’re constantly judged. It’s important as a player to know that you have a coach who cares about you.
“I wanted to get to know them. Relationships are the key to any move you make, particularly when you ask someone to sacrifice for the good of the team. In the NBA, playing time leads to stats leads to a contract leads to security for your family. There’s a lot at stake, and it’s hard to ask someone to take a step back. The only way you can do that is if you know them well.”
Kerr sought that kind of sacrifice from former UA star Andre Iguodala, who was accustomed to a starting role with the Warriors. Kerr wanted to use Iguodala extensively but to bring him off the bench with the second unit. Iguodala, a 10-year veteran, agreed to the move before the season began.
“You have to have a vision and be able to communicate it and show the path,” Kerr says.
After a 5-2 start to the season that “didn’t feel right” to Kerr, the team won 16 games in a row playing what he likes to call a “fast, loose, and disciplined” style of wide-open offense and solid defense. Things had begun to click, and the Warriors were the talk of the league.
The team finished the regular season 67-15, never losing more than two games in succession, and then began its march through the playoffs, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Iguodala, called on as a starter for the first time all season, was the Finals MVP.
Kerr’s enlightened style impressed Gilliland sufficiently that he plans to use it as an example in his classes at the UA, alongside that of former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, known for championing the efforts of those on the front lines.
“It’s such a wonderful role model when a leader puts their own interests aside,” Gilliland says. “Steve makes it look easy, but it’s a tough way to lead. Ultimately, it’s a lot more effective.”
Did You Know?
Steve Kerr started more games in his final season at the UA (33) than he did in his 1,038-game NBA career (30).
Kerr, known for his 3-point shooting, didn’t shoot 3s until his final season at the UA (1987-1988). The 3-point shot had been introduced to college basketball the previous season, which he missed because of a knee injury.
Kerr is the most accurate 3-point shooter in NBA history, with a percentage of 45.4. His star player on the Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry, is No. 3 on the list at 44 percent.
- Kerr’s UA teammates Jud Buechler (Chicago Bulls) and Sean Elliott (San Antonio Spurs) were on NBA championship teams with him.
- Kerr is the first rookie coach to win an NBA title since Pat Riley did it with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982.