Steve Kerr informs and educates audience at Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma
The Warriors are already into their preseason schedule. The NBA regular season begins in two weeks. And yet Golden State head coach Steve Kerr found time Monday night to charm, educate and entertain a packed auditorium at Hanna Boys Center, as a guest of the Sonoma Speaker Series.
“I had one scholarship offer out of high school,” Kerr said during the question-and-answer portion of the evening. “I was not super confident. That’s one reason I’m grateful basketball has been my path. … The game itself has given me the opportunity and the ability to blossom, to become the greatest version of myself. It’s a real gift to be born with a passion for something.”
It sometimes seems as though Kerr is the best version of all of us. He is best known in the Bay Area as the innovative coach of the Warriors, the team that has claimed three of the past four NBA titles. Success followed him to Oakland from many previous stops, from the University of Arizona, the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs (all as a player), to the Phoenix Suns front office and the TNT broadcast table.
All told, Kerr has eight NBA championship rings.
He turned 53 on Thursday, and attendees serenaded him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” as he took the stage Monday. Kerr sat at the front of the auditorium and engaged in a conversation with Garry St. Jean, another basketball lifer who coached the Warriors and the Sacramento Kings, and also served as Golden State’s general manager. St. Jean is now an in-studio analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area. The two men sat in comfy chairs, framed by potted plants, with a projector screen behind them and a bottle of wine on the table.
Kerr spoke much of his NBA upbringing. His coaches included some of the legends of the game - Cotton Fitzsimmons, Lenny Wilkens, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich.
Kerr recalled his playing for Fitzsimmons, who dryly needled his players with a Missouri drawl. During Kerr’s rookie 1988-89 season with Phoenix, the Suns were running a defensive drill. Afraid he’d be too aggressive and make a mistake, Kerr hung back rather than trying for a steal. Fitzsimmons blew his whistle and said, “Hold on. Kerr, I’ll bet your parents voted for Goldwater.”
The rookie was perplexed. “You’re so damn conservative,” Fitzsimmons said. “Take a chance once in a while.”
Kerr has taken plenty of chances since. Joining the Warriors with no prior coaching experience was one such occasion. Since taking over for Mark Jackson in 2014, he has rarely done things by the book. Along with Stephen Curry and a talented cast of other players and coaches, Kerr has helped to reinvent NBA strategy, with a 3-point-heavy offense and switching defense that other teams are now emulating.
Someone asked Kerr on Monday which leadership traits he thought were most important.
“The best leaders I played for were Pop and Phil,” he said. “They reminded me of my dad. They were clearly in charge, they were very funny, I knew they cared about me, I knew they loved me - and I was a tiny bit afraid of them.”
The coach also enumerated the four core values he has tried to instill in his Warriors.
The first is joy, exemplified by the music that constantly plays at team practices and the funny video edits that Kerr plugs into game tape. The second is competitiveness. The Warriors always keep score, even at practice, even “in silly stuff that has nothing to do with basketball.” The third core value is compassion, a gift that Kerr tries to bestow on all of his players, coaches and staffers. The fourth is mindfulness.
“In big moments, how mindful can you be?” Kerr said. “Phil Jackson used to lead us in meditation. That was him. It doesn’t come as natural for me. But I try to bring in people to demonstrate it in various ways.”
The modern fan has become quite sophisticated, and the Warriors are among the most scrutinized teams in all of sports. So the guests came armed with pointed questions. They asked Kerr about the challenge of coaching the volatile Draymond Green and newcomer DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins, who arrived with a reputation for moodiness. They asked him what the Warriors are doing to keep their free agents-to-be, most notably Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. They asked who he’d take among NBA legends Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Kerr said in reply to that last one. “Michael.”
People also asked Kerr about his health. He missed the first 43 games of the 2015-16 season, and later 11 games during the 2016-17 playoffs, due to the searing headaches that have afflicted him in the wake of a spinal fluid leak that occurred during back surgery.
“I’m doing better. Thank you for asking,” Kerr said. “I played golf a few weeks ago for the first time in a while.”
Audience members mostly stuck to sports, though Kerr has made news by speaking out on a range of social issues. Specifically, he is a staunch advocate of gun reform. Kerr’s strong views are informed by his life experience. When he was 18, his father Malcolm, president of American University in Beirut, was assassinated by religious extremists.
Finally, though, someone in attendance asked Kerr when he was going to run for the U.S. Senate, a query that drew a huge round of applause.
“I’ve been playing and coaching basketball for 30 years,” Kerr said. “I’m not sure how all of a sudden I’d get involved in politics.” He paused.
“Although the bar has been lowered some,” Kerr continued. “We are all candidates for the next presidential race.”
The Sonoma Speaker Series, now 2 years old, is a nonprofit organization founded to foster “civic engagement and community education by providing a platform for interesting people to talk about interesting topics that inspire us, challenge us and concern us,” according to the organization’s website. Past speakers include Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, longtime NPR host Scott Simon and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Series co-founder Kathy Witkowicki said it is not uncommon for the events to fill to capacity, but that Kerr proved to be an especially strong draw. Tickets to his appearance sold out in 58 minutes.