Steve Kerr

In his first season as an NBA head coach – heck, his first season as a coach, period – Steve Kerr produced a league-best 67-15 regular-season record, a league MVP and now his Golden State Warriors sit just three games shy of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in 40 years. How did he do it? The cliche answer is to say he out-worked the other 29 coaches in the NBA. That would also be the wrong answer.

In an illuminating profile for Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins explains how Kerr’s success leading the Warriors comes from how he treats his players as people, not from his expertise in watching film or drawing up plays in timeouts.

See anecdote 1: After games, even losses, he doesn’t dive immediately into video on the plane. He cracks open a book, or plays Scrabble on his computer, while slow-sipping a Modelo Especial. Only then does he queue up the video.

Or anecdote 2: In one of his first memorable acts as coach, he halted a mundane staff meeting at the team’s Oakland headquarters and ordered his lieutenants into assistant Luke Walton’s SUV. They drove 30 miles to Muir Beach, stripped down to their boxers and jumped into the bracing Pacific. “Do s‑‑‑ or go have fun,” player development coach Bruce Fraser cracked that day, a throwaway line that has become an organizational mantra.

Or anecdote 3: Down came the posters in the training facility dedicated to former Golden State All-Stars and up went pictures of current players yelling, hugging, high-fiving. Hip‑hop and classic rock provided the soundtrack at practice, and some sessions were canceled entirely, in favor of bowling tournaments and football games. Video sessions were interrupted with embarrassing old clips of coaches: Walton blowing a layup, Jarron Collins lumbering through a fast break, Kerr and Fraser performing a rap. “It’s a complete circus,” says forward Draymond Green. 

Kerr is the son of a leading American expert on the Middle East – his father Malcolm was murdered by Islamic terrorists in 1984 while he served as president of American University in Beirut – and a longtime UCLA administrator. He was born in Lebanon and spent time in Egypt and France as a child before landing in Los Angeles for his high school years. His three siblings all hold advanced degrees.

But Kerr threw his life into basketball, and received an education under the legendary Lute Olson (at Arizona), Phil Jackson (with the Chicago Bulls) and Gregg Popovich (with the San Antonio Spurs). Upon his 2003 retirement, TNT made him its lead color analyst despite the fact he had no television experience, then in 2007 the Phoenix Suns named him their general manager despite the fact he had no front office experience, and then last spring the Warriors named him their head coach despite the fact he no coaching experience.

“People gravitate to him,” said Gregg Popovich. “In our program, we try to be straightforward—no Knute Rockne speeches, no blown smoke, no manipulations. ‘This is what you do well, this is what you do poorly, here’s your role.’ And add humor. Always add humor. Steve has a great sense of humor—refined, honest and self-deprecating when it needs to be.”

He demoted David Lee, starter of 67 games a year ago, to deep reserve, and earned his respect in the process. “Of course, I’d love to play more, but I respect the way he’s handled it,” Lee said. “He’s been up front and honest, and that’s all you can ask.”

In the end, Jenkins writes, Kerr’s grounded philosophy comes from his time winning seven rings under Jackson and Popovich, that coaching is nine parts creating a culture and one part X’s and O’s. “The easy part,” he says.