Kerr is de­fined by more than bas­ket­ball

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL DWYRE

Most who fol­low the NBA know about Steve Kerr, the coach of the des­tiny-driven Golden State War­riors, in the tra­di­tional jock-makes­good way.

The sur­face re­sume goes some­thing like this: Sharp­shoot­ing guard at Pal­isades High plays at Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona and is among the stars of Lute Olson’s golden years there as coach in the mid-1980s.

It con­tin­ues like this: He reaches the NBA, gets to the Chicago Bulls and is part of the Michael Jor­dan era. Re­mem­ber that game-win­ning jump shot in 1997 in Game 6 of the NBA Fi­nals against the Utah Jazz? Vin­tage Kerr. Cool, calm, col­lected and all net.

Then there is his for­tu­itous move to the San An­to­nio Spurs and more NBA ti­tles. When he is fin­ished with his pro ca­reer, he has played in nearly 1,000 games and started only 30 of them. Yet, he has been part of

five ti­tles and ev­ery­thing about him says, and still does say, he is a win­ner.

But there is so much more.

And for those who don’t know the rest, or have forgotten, it is time to retell. Some­thing as mon­u­men­tal as an NBA Fi­nals se­ries de­serves that con­text.

He was not born on a surf­board in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Nor was bas­ket­ball any sort of fam­ily pri­or­ity, as in suc­cess­ful jock fa­ther urges son to fol­low that path.

Kerr was born Sept. 27, 1965, in Beirut. His fa­ther, Mal­colm, was also born there. Mal­colm’s par­ents joined a re­lief group in Turkey in 1919 and even­tu­ally moved to Le­banon, where they be­came teach­ers at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity of Beirut. To Mal­colm, and his even­tual wife, Ann Zwicker Kerr, whom he met in Beirut while she was an Oc­ci­den­tal Col­lege ju­nior study­ing abroad, Beirut was home.

The sunny beaches of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia be­came their tem­po­rary home when Mal­colm, an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned au­thor and ex­pert on Arab af­fairs and pol­i­tics, be­came chair­man of the po­lit­i­cal science depart­ment at UCLA. That was from 1962 to 1982, but with nu­mer­ous fam­ily trips back to the Mid­dle East.

In 1982, Mal­colm was of­fered his dream job — pres­i­dent of Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity in Beirut. It was more than just a lofty job, sig­ni­fy­ing ul­ti­mate aca­demic suc­cess. It was danger­ous. Amer­i­cans were not wel­come in Beirut then. The Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion had been moved out, but other ex­trem­ist groups had moved in. In Oc­to­ber 1983, 299 Amer­i­can and French sol­diers died in a bomb­ing of bar­racks near the Beirut air­port. Also, Kerr’s pre­de­ces­sor at the uni­ver­sity had been kid­napped and held hostage.

At his daugh­ter Su­san’s South­ern Cal­i­for­nia wed­ding in the sum­mer of 1983, Mal­colm told her, with only limited tongue-in-cheek hu­mor, that he had a 50-50 chance of get­ting bumped off.

And so, when 18-year-old Steve, a fresh­man at Ari­zona, re­ceived a call in the mid­dle of the night Jan. 18, 1984, the shock had to be tem­pered by a lack of to­tal sur­prise.

His 52-year-old fa­ther had been shot in the head twice in the hall­way on his way to his of­fice. The gun­men used si­lencers. Soon, a pro-Ira­nian group call­ing it­self Is­lamic Holy War, called an in­ter­na­tional news agency and took credit for the killing.

It was an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent. Mal­colm had writ­ten pro­lif­i­cally, and with com­pas­sion, about the Arab view of the world. His loss was con­sid­ered dev­as­tat­ing in aca­demic and po­lit­i­cal are­nas be­cause he, un­like many whose job it was to keep the peace, un­der­stood bet­ter than al­most all of them the best ways to do that.

When he ar­rived to take his job, Mal­colm had been given a body­guard. Soon, he dis­missed him, say­ing it was some­what un­seemly for a col­lege pro­fes­sor to have one.

He ended up be­ing shot in the same build­ing where he had met his wife. He died in the same hos­pi­tal in which he was born.

His only sin was that he was an Amer­i­can.

Two nights af­ter get­ting the phone call, the skinny fresh­man, who wouldn’t have even been at Ari­zona had not his fa­ther writ­ten a let­ter to Olson that touted his lightly re­cruited son, played in a game against ri­val Ari­zona State. Olson said he was amazed, but also un­der­stood the ther­a­peu­tic na­ture of play­ing. Kerr’s first shot was from 25 feet. It went in.

In Kerr’s se­nior sea­son, in an ugly in­ci­dent that can only be ex­plained by al­co­hol or frat-boy men­tal­ity, a group of Ari­zona State stu­dents be­gan shout­ing at Kerr dur­ing warmups: “PLO, PLO” and telling him to join the Marines and “go back to Beirut.”

Kerr was so shaken he went to the bench and sat qui­etly, with tears in his eyes. Then the game started and he made six con­sec­u­tive three-point shots.

Eleven years ago, Kerr made a speech that per­fectly rep­re­sents who he is, and why he is what he is. That in­cludes the ev­er­p­re­sent wry hu­mor that was, ac­cord­ing to much writ­ten about him, a Mal­colm Kerr trade­mark.

In his speech, Kerr said, “My par­ents lit­er­ally showed me a whole world that ex­isted be­yond typ­i­cal Amer­i­can cul­ture. They gave me an ed­u­ca­tion in un­der­stand­ing peo­ple, in be­ing com­pas­sion­ate and re­spect­ful. They taught me that peo­ple may speak or dress dif­fer­ently, or have cus­toms or be­liefs for­eign to me. It was im­por­tant to not only un­der­stand those dif­fer­ences, but to em­brace them as well.” And then the hu­mor. “That came in handy years later,” Kerr said, “when Den­nis Rod­man be­came my team­mate with the Bulls.”

An NBA ti­tle for son Steve won’t bring Mal­colm back. Nor will it mat­ter one iota in U.S.-Arab re­la­tions.

Still there is an un­avoid­able sense that the val­ues of Mal­colm and Ann Kerr are get­ting a large and public plat­form in the per­son of their son, Steve.

Which is some­thing good to drib­ble around in our minds, as we watch.

Gre­gory Shamus Getty Images

L eBRON JAMES of Cleve­land, a four­time MVP, is av­er­ag­ing 27.6 points, 10.4 re­bounds and 8.3 as­sists in post­sea­son.

Ezra Shaw Getty Images

STEPHEN CURRY of Golden State, who just won MVP award, is av­er­ag­ing 29.2 points per game in the play­offs.

As­so­ci­ated Press

MAL­COLM KERR was as­sas­si­nated while a pro­fes­sor in Beirut.

Beth A. Keiser As­so­ci­ated Press

STEVE KERR cel­e­brates mak­ing the win­ning shot for the Chicago Bulls against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the NBA Fi­nals in 1997.

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