OAKLAND — This is a column that seemed destined never to happen.
Wouldn’t it be interesting, I wondered a year and a half ago, to gather together Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, his trusted assistant Bruce “Q” Fraser, longtime KNBR sports-radio personality Tom Tolbert and respected Santa Rosa Junior College men’s basketball coach Craig McMillan to recount their days in the desert?
All of them were teammates (though, through quirks of fate, all four never took the court simultaneously) at the University of Arizona in the mid-1980s. And now all four have reconvened in the Bay Area, each involved in the world of basketball in some capacity. Yes, this could be fun.
Then Kerr was hit with a second major wave of headaches during Golden State’s 2017 playoff run. And Tolbert — whose massive frame and legendary drinking prowess gave him an air of invulnerability — underwent emergency heart surgery on Aug. 29. And the house McMillan rented in the Coffey Park neighborhood burned to the ground in the Tubbs fire, along with nearly all of his possessions.
Clearly, nature and the aging process — we are all in our early 50s — were determined to kill this idea.
And yet here we were last Tuesday, sitting in tall chairs on the Warriors’ practice court in downtown Oakland, discussing Lute Olson, Sean Elliott, Arizona’s rise to the top tier of college basketball and the curious path that led four old Wildcats to the Bay Area. Here are some excerpts of our conversation.
KERR AS LEADER
Kerr arrived in Tucson first, in the fall of 1983 — in Olson’s first class at Arizona. He had been lightly recruited, but his exceptional leadership and shooting ability gradually emerged.
Tolbert: He was definitely our leader on the court. Never got yelled at by Coach (Olson). I mean, ever. He could throw the crappiest pass in the history of passes, and he could get beat like a drum on defense — which is another reason we went to the 20, I mean you and Sean.
Kerr: The 20 was our zone defense.
Tolbert: He’s super competitive. Super competitive. Way more competitive than I am.
Kerr: Honestly, I wasn’t that good. I got better as I went along. I wasn’t recruited very hard. So every day I’d go out to practice and I was like overmatched physically. So I had an edge and an insecurity about my place in the basketball world. So I would snap every once in a while. I mean, it definitely drove me to work really hard. But I had a temper, for sure.
Kerr and Tolbert would go on to NBA careers. But McMillan, who won two small-division state championships while playing for his dad at Cloverdale, was the McDonald’s high school All-American and prized recruit when he got to campus in the fall of 1984.
Fraser: He came in, first impression: He had long hair. It was kind of a shock. A basketball player with long hair?
McMillan: Coach Olson comes up to me and he says, ‘Are you about to get your hair cut?’ I said, “Coach, to be honest with you, I just did.”
Fraser: But I embraced his adventurous spirit. He would go to Mexico on weekends.