The coach of the best regular-season team in history (and player on the now-second best) sat down before the start of the Western Conference finals to ruminate on coaching, learning from your mistakes and enjoying the moment.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: In your Coach of the Year press conference, you said you had always wanted to be a coach. That was interesting to me because I don't often hear that from former players. Was playing in the NBA almost a means to an end?
Steve Kerr: I didn't think I was going to play in the NBA at all. When I was in college and I became a good college player, I thought, 'All right, maybe I can come back to Arizona as an assistant coach or grad assistant and get my start there.' I didn't think I was going to play in the NBA. Once I started playing in the NBA, I was like, 'All right, maybe I can last a few years. If I play for three or four years, and then I get cut, I'm still thinking go back to Arizona, work under Lute [Olson], learn the ropes, be a college coach.' That was always there, but I ended up playing 15 years.
I was always going to play for as long as I could. I mean, there's nothing like playing. Playing is more fun than coaching. Obviously, you make good money and all that. I was always going to play as long as I could. I kind of surprised myself by playing as long as I could, and I was 37 when I retired. By that time, I was really deeply entrenched in the NBA, and the college stuff had sort of gone out the window. I wasn't thinking about college coaching anymore. I was thinking much more about NBA coaching, but I also knew the sacrifices you made. When I retired at 37, my kids were like 9, 7 and 4 or something, or maybe 10, 8, and 5, something like that, and I wanted to be home. That's why I went into broadcasting.
Now at that point, I'm like, 'I'm going to broadcast for a few years and then get into coaching.' The Suns GM stuff kind of fell in my lap. [Robert] Sarver is a U of A person. Lute Olson connected us. I helped him meet David Stern in New York, thinking probably nothing's going to come of this. Then he ends up buying the team and offers me a consulting position. I'm like, 'This is perfect. I'll just keep doing TV, but I can kind of get my feet wet on scouting and team-building.' That's kind of the path that I took. While I was a GM, I knew I wanted to coach. I had suspected that before, but being a GM sort of confirmed that. I wanted to be on the floor and not upstairs in the office.
Once I left the Suns to go back to TNT, my kids were pretty much in high school, one in junior high. That's when I started preparing to coach and going to different clinics, owner's conferences, being on different panels and talking to Jeff Van Gundy and Flip Saunders, different people, about preparing and how to prepare. That's my whole story.
Strauss: That was a lot of expository! One thought cropped up in my mind when you mentioned GM-ing confirming your wanting to coach: You said last year that you didn't think you were a very good GM.
Kerr: I did say that. Yeah.
Strauss: That's interesting. I don't think I've ever heard any former GM say that. Was it just because you wanted to be on the floor? What was in your personality that lent itself more to coaching than being a GM?
Kerr: I think my communication skills are more suited to coaching than they are in management. I think that you still have to communicate well in management. More than anything, I think I learned on the job in three years how important certain dynamics were. The relationship [of] coach to GM, to owner, to star player. Those relationships are all key, and then unifying that group. I've said this before: I made some mistakes. I could have handled those duties better. Especially with [Mike] D'Antoni. Things I could have done better. Not just moves that we made -- we made some moves that were controversial, especially the Shaq thing -- but it was more just understanding the dynamics of how the league works.
That experience was huge for me when I came here as a coach because I knew how important it was to bond with Joe [Lacob] and Peter [Guber] and Bob [Myers], along with the star players and all the players, really. I sort of had seen the dynamic at work, in a good way. We had a really good team in Phoenix, but I knew where I had made some mistakes as well.
Strauss: I remember Suns beat writer Paul Coro once described you and D'Antoni as the two nicest guys who couldn't get along. Has coaching given you any perspective, as far as what his perspective might have been at that time?
Kerr: D'Antoni's perspective? Yeah, and I think part of what ... Mike would tell you the same thing. We've talked about all this stuff, and we're very friendly now. We're fine. When we see each other, we talk and we're good. I have a ton of respect for him. I think he's a hell of a coach. I think he revolutionized the way the game is played. I think what you see on the floor now has a direct correlation to the Suns in '04, '05, at the beginning of his run there. I think, circumstantially, Phoenix was at a place where we were close but hadn't gotten over the hump.
I took over as GM after, it was 2007, so it was after the famous Diaw, Stoudemire, running on the floor against the Spurs, that whole thing. It was a really painful time for the organization because we had probably just passed our best chance to win a title. We had this devastating loss. I was a consultant at the time, and the following year, we kind of felt like we're just not good enough to beat San Antonio and the Lakers. They had Gasol, and we were still with small ball, which was very effective, and we knew it was going to win us 55 to 60 games, but we just weren't good enough defensively and in the post. ... There's different stages of vulnerability, but we were in a ironically vulnerable state, if that makes sense: good enough to win a lot of games, not quite good enough to win a title.
We made the decision to really go for it with Shaq and just say, 'Let's get big.' We really sort of changed, on the fly, midseason, our style. That's a lot of pressure on an organization. That's when you really have to hold firm, and we weren't bonded enough. It's hard to describe what that means, but there were just little things that we needed to be locked in on, that we weren't. Mike would tell you the same thing. He has some regrets. I have some regrets. It is the biggest regret in my entire career in basketball, not being able to make it work between the two of us, because we should have been a good combination.
Strauss: Do you think that informs how you went about approaching Bob? You guys are very good friends. How important is it that you get along with Bob the way you do?
Kerr: It's very important. It helped that Bob had just been through his own similar situation with Mark Jackson, in terms of ... I don't want to speak for Bob, but obviously there was internal turmoil. I think Bob and Mark got along really well, but there were relationships that hadn't worked within the organization, which is obvious, right? I mean, fired coaches and all that stuff. Bob had just been through his own adversity, so he and I came in a little bit damaged. That's probably not the right word. We both came in a little bit wounded, and we knew it doesn't work that way. We knew we needed to bond, and we knew that both of us needed to be on the same page as Joe and Peter.
We already had a little bit of a relationship because Bob represented Robin Lopez in Phoenix and I was GM. That's when I first got to know Bob. We just hit it off then, even though we weren't real close [and] we didn't see much of each other. I just really liked him. I liked his style: understated, smart, good listener. I think he felt the same way about me, and so the combination of we kind of hit it off naturally, we had both been through our own adversity and [we] knew what had to happen, it was perfect timing.
Strauss: You seem to get a lot of excitement from certain plays that you guys implement. Is that a tremendously fun part of the job? And what is the process of implementing an idea like that?
Kerr: It's not so much plays that we necessarily put in, it's when the players execute something perfectly, even if it's not. ... They do some stuff on their own, and that's maybe when I get the most pleasure. All of us on the staff. It's the concepts that you're trying to introduce, just passing and moving and cutting, all those things that we're constantly talking about. When we get a possession where the ball moves seven times, and it's not even a play, but it moves seven times, and one makes a backdoor cut that the defense responds to, then on the other side, because the defense has rotated to cover that backdoor cut, somebody pins down, and Klay pops up and gets an open shot. It's like, "Oh, my god!" It's like the heavens opening up, like this is what it's all about. That's when it's awesome as a staff, to see all that stuff that you're trying to implement and trying to get across, when it comes to fruition. It's a great feeling.
Strauss: What is a day like? When do you have your staff meetings, etc.? Let's take a non-game day, a day such as this. How does it go, effectively, apart from the stuff that we see?
Kerr: Usually, I meet [Bruce Fraser] for coffee at Peet's. He always has a good pulse of the team. We'll meet before practice, have some coffee, come over here. We don't do a lot of staff meetings. We do in the playoffs, but everybody does a lot of their own stuff. Some of the coaches before practice are on the floor working guys out. I'll usually grab Luke [Walton], say, "What do you think we should do offensively?" Ron [Adams] will swing by my office, "Do you want a defensive segment today?" I'll either say yes or no. I could ruin his day if I say no. Quick conversation, let's go over X, Y or Z. Guys grab breakfast in here, downstairs players are milling about, and we draw up a practice plan.
It's not rocket science, you know. You're kind of doing the same stuff day in and day out, but you try to keep it fresh, if you can. You try to build good film sessions. We usually watch tape beforehand, and if we can put something funny in there, we do. Nick U'Ren always has ideas, different guys will have an idea, we'll talk it out beforehand, we'll splice it in. Then we'll run through our practice, and during the regular season, our practices are an hour at the most because they need their rest more than anything.
Strauss: It seems like you're really proud of Luke getting this Lakers job, but it also seems to have taken a bit of an emotional hit on you. What is that like to process?
Kerr: Can't replace him, you know? I had a pretty good vision of what I wanted to accomplish here. I wanted to bring in people who knew basketball but who were just unique, fun human beings, great senses of humor, fun to be around. Losing Alvin last year, which I kind of knew was going to happen more than likely, and now losing Luke, it's tough. There's lots of great basketball coaches out there, and we'll find one, we'll find someone who's going to do a great job, but when you're talking about a close friend ... I mean, you develop this bond where you're together every day at home and on the road. You go out to dinner on the road, and you watch tape together, you joke, you talk s--- to each other, and you laugh constantly, and then that person goes to a new team. That's it. You see them four times a year, maybe twice a year. I'm going to miss the daily interaction with Luke. What he brings to the players is pretty powerful. He's going to be tough to replace.
Strauss: You've said to me that as a child of academics, you like to share. Do you think that's a part of this whole thing and part of why you enjoy it?
Kerr: I guess so. I was never an academic. My parents were teachers, and so I never was that into school, but coaching is teaching. I guess that it's probably in my blood to teach and to want to be part of a group because that's what a classroom is. You're part of a group of people, and you inspire each other, and you learn from your students just like they learn from you. In the best classrooms, everybody's sharing ideas, and you're all sort of thinking new thoughts. That's what I enjoy about the team: working with the players. That's one of the reasons I think it's important to include them in decisions and to listen to them. They're the ones doing stuff, they're all smart, and they all have great ideas. When we hash stuff out, a game plan, a play, and a player makes a suggestion, and another player makes another suggestion, and we work it all out, and we finally find it? That's really gratifying.
"When we get a possession where the ball moves seven times, and it's not even a play, but it moves seven times, and one makes a backdoor cut that the defense responds to, then on the other side, because the defense has rotated to cover that backdoor cut, somebody pins down, and Klay pops up and gets an open shot. It's like, "Oh, my god!" It's like the heavens opening up, like this is what it's all about."Steve Kerr
Strauss: What's the worst part of the job?
Kerr: Probably long flights home in the middle of the night. That can jack you up for a couple of days. I haven't really felt what truly would be the worst part of the job, which would be losing. I haven't had to feel that yet because I inherited this great roster and talented team. Right now, we're on a joy ride, and we know that. I'm also well-aware that these things don't last forever, and you enjoy it while you can. Losing is no fun.
Strauss: Losing seems to eat you up. Tom Tolbert talked about that, about how losing would just wreck you in a way that was unusual, back in college. Let's say you took a different job. Do you think you could have handled that with equanimity? Let's say you were coaching a lottery team. What would that have done to you?
Kerr: I don't know, but I wasn't going to find out. I was waiting for the right one.
Strauss: Let's say you were coaching a hypothetical team called the New York Knicks.
Kerr: Exactly. Trust me: I was waiting. I was going to wait for a good team. The Warriors, obviously, were a complete surprise that that job opened up. I was lucky that it did. I'm a hard loser. I do think having the success that we're having now will allow me -- and all the stuff I'm going through, physically, health-wise -- I think I will be better equipped to handle a different situation. Like I said, this is not going to last forever. I've got to enjoy it while I can, and then I think I will have a good perspective on how to handle a different situation.