HoopsHype.com Articles

"I just got by with what I had"
by David Friedman / May 14, 2007

Steve Kerr parlayed one exceptional skill the ability to consistently make outside shots into a 15-year NBA career, during which he played on five championship teams. Along the way he overcame family tragedy and personal adversity. Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was a professor who specialized in Middle East studies. In 1982, he became the President of the American University in Beirut, a position he held until he was assassinated on January 18, 1984; Steve Kerr was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Arizona at that time. Opposing fans sometimes taunted Steve Kerr about his father’s death.

In 1986, Kerr played on the last USA Men’s Senior Team comprised entirely of collegians to win a gold medal in international play. Team USA captured the FIBA World Championship with an 87-85 win over the Soviet Union. Kerr averaged 9.2 ppg in the tournament, but suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss the 1986-87 season. Kerr recovered from that setback well enough to become a 2nd Team All-America in 1987-88, his senior season. Kerr averaged a modest 12.6 ppg but shot a blistering 114-199 (.573) from three-point range, providing a nice outside complement to the all-around play of 1st Team All-America Sean Elliott. The Wildcats made it to the Final Four before losing to Oklahoma, 86-78.

Kerr never averaged 10 ppg in any of his NBA seasons, but he dismisses the idea that it was difficult to make the transition from being a prominent collegiate player to having a smaller role as an NBA player.

“I wasn’t a huge star in high school or college,” Kerr says. “I was in some ways a role player on those teams too. So it was really a very natural fit for me to come in and play off of other people and feed off of players who were better than I was. That’s what I had been doing even before I got to the NBA.”

The Phoenix Suns selected Kerr 25th overall in the 1988 draft, but he only played 157 minutes in 26 games as a rookie on a team that featured All-NBA guard Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle.

“Once I reached the NBA I picked a few guys who I tried to emulate,” Kerr says. “Craig Hodges was one. John Paxson, Jeff Hornacek those were the guys who I tried to emulate because they were all very accomplished players and they were similar in size and it helped me a lot to watch them and see what they did with their games. That helped me to become a better player.”

After his rookie season, the Suns traded Kerr to Cleveland for a 1993 second-round pick. Kerr played more than 20 mpg for the Cavs in 1989-90, averaging 6.7 ppg and leading the NBA in three point field goal percentage (.507). Cleveland’s star guard was Mark Price, who had made the All-NBA 3rd Team in 1988-89 when he shot better than .400 from three-point range, better than .500 from the field and better than .900 on his free throws. Only Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki have done that.

“I had to guard him every day in practice, which was impossible,” Kerr says of Price. “But that was the best thing that I could have done it made me a better defender. I played with him a lot, which was awesome because he was so quick and drew so much attention that he got me open for a lot of shots. I learned a lot from Mark and I loved playing with him and guarding him in practice every day was just a lesson.”

Price never won a championship and his career was shortened by a knee injury. But his quickness, shooting stroke and passing ability made him very difficult to cover.

“Mark really revolutionized the way that people attack the screen-and-roll,” Kerr notes. “To me, he was the first guy in the NBA who really split the screen-and-roll. A lot of teams started blitzing the pick-and-roll and jumping two guys at it to take the ball out of the hands of the point guard. He’d duck right between them and shoot that little runner in the lane. Nobody was doing that at that time. You watch an NBA game now and almost everybody does that. Mark was a pioneer in that regard. He gave people fits with that little split. I think that during his era he was one of the top few point guards in the NBA and if you look at the history of the league you have to include him among the upper echelon of all the point guards who have ever played.”

Kerr’s role on the Cavs diminished over the next few years and on December 12, 1992 he was traded to Orlando. He averaged just 2.6 ppg in 1992-93. Kerr signed with Chicago for the 1993-94 season.

“Playing for the Bulls completely made my career,” Kerr says. “I was on my way out of the league when I joined the Bulls.”

While it might seem that Kerr’s success in Chicago stemmed in part from Phil Jackson’s ability to “hide” Kerr on the defensive end while taking advantage of his shooting, Kerr says that is not exactly what happened.

“I was probably a better defender than people gave me credit for not that I was a very good one but I was at least capable of being in the right spot and playing hard,” he explains. “I don’t think that he had to hide me defensively. What I would say is that when I arrived in Chicago with the triangle offense, I fit in offensively in a way that I didn’t with other teams. I wasn’t really a true point guard and I wasn’t big enough to play two guard, but in the triangle you didn’t have to have a position. It was more about passing and cutting and being a good ballhandler and a good player without being pigeonholed into a position. When I got into the triangle, it changed my entire career because all of a sudden I could just be a player instead of being a point guard or a two guard. I think because of that offense I was able to make a name for myself in the NBA.”

Kerr averaged a career-high 8.6 ppg in 1993-94 and ranked fourth in the NBA in three-point shooting (.419). That was the season when Michael Jordan retired to play minor league baseball, but Scottie Pippen finished third in the MVP voting and led the Bulls to a 55-27 record.

In 1994-95, Kerr averaged 8.2 ppg and led the NBA in three-point shooting (.524). Jordan came back for the last 17 games of that season, which was not enough time for him to get used to his teammates and for them to get used to him. Over the summer, the Bulls added Dennis Rodman, Jordan worked himself back into basketball shape and in 1995-96 the Bulls posted the best regular season record in NBA history, 72-10. Kerr averaged 8.4 ppg and finished second in the NBA in three-point shooting (.515). The Bulls won the first of three straight NBA titles. Kerr’s shooting helped keep the floor spaced for Jordan and Pippen; on occasions when the defense left him open he delivered pressure shots, including the game winning jump shot in the decisive sixth game of the 1997 NBA Finals.

Steve Kerr insists that even on his best days he could not dunk a basketball, which is difficult to believe. Most guys who are 6-3 and have enough skills to play in the NBA can dunk, even if that is not something that is part of their in-game repertoire. Sometimes during TNT telecasts, Kerr will joke in a self-deprecating way about his lack of jumping ability but he insists, straight faced, “I am 6-3 and I couldn’t dunk. I just got by with what I had.”

That extra gear that Kerr lacked in terms of vertical and lateral explosiveness is something that he always had to compensate for, particularly on defense.

“It was the biggest challenge for me, trying to keep up with all of the players,” Kerr admits. “Everybody I played against was quicker and stronger than I was, pretty much. So I had to learn how to stay in front of guys because if I didn’t there was no way that I was going to stay on the floor. As long as you are putting the effort in and you are paying attention and you have energy then you are going to improve. My stamina, my quickness, my strength all got better and better and I was able to at least stay on the floor defensively.”

After the Bulls’ championship team was broken up, Kerr landed in San Antonio. He averaged over 22 mpg in Chicago, but that dropped to 16.7 mpg in his first year with the Spurs and less than 13 mpg each year after that. He won two more rings in San Antonio (1999, 2003) and, although his role with the Spurs was much smaller than his role with the Bulls, Kerr was still more than capable of making big shots. In Game 6 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals, he made four three-pointers as the Spurs eliminated the Dallas Mavericks.

“That is why I was able to stick around, because I did have that definable skill of making shots and doing it pretty consistently,” Kerr says. “I had to work at everything else in my game to be good enough, but that was one area in which I was better than most guys and that is what kept me around.”

Kerr retired after the 2003 season and since then he has worked as a color commentator for TNT.

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com