Barber: Wildcats Kerr, Tolbert, Fraser, McMillan reunited in Bay Area

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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 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.

Tolbert: Had?


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.

Tolbert: Well, he’s a hick. Mick loved to go fishing and loved to be outdoors. And that was cool. But it’s not cool when you share a restroom and you see fish that are like fileted in the bottom of your shower. It’s like, “Come on, bro. Let’s clean this up a little bit.” And he’s cooking like inside his dorm room. … You’re smelling bluegill or whatever the hell the catch of the day is.

Kerr: Didn’t you guys have air conditioning wars? … These guys were suitemates. They shared a bathroom with a thermostat in the bathroom.

Tolbert: He liked it around 80. And I liked it in the 60s. So you’d wake up in the middle of the night and just be gasping for air. It’s so hot and humid in there. It’s like there’s a fern growing out of your shoe. So we kept going back and forth. He’d turn it up, I’d turn it down, he’d turn it up, I’d turn it down. So one day, I’d had it. I went in there and turned it down, and just took a shoe to it. That was pretty much the end of it.

Kerr: Keep in mind that the 80-degree temperature was also mixed with the waft of the bluegill, which he had grilled the night before.


The same year that McMillan joined the Wildcats, Fraser transferred from Long Beach City College, where he had played for his father, who had earlier replaced Olson at the JC. It was like a big circle. By 1987-88, senior year for the other three, Fraser had become a graduate assistant under Olson.

At Arizona, Fraser became known as leader of the Gumbys, the name he bestowed upon the team’s bench players. He even tucked a rubber Gumby between his shoe and sock when he played. Now he has his own nickname; everyone on the Warriors knows Fraser simply as “Q.”

Kerr: His first week on campus, everything out of his mouth was a question. “What time do we have to be at practice? Where do we eat? Where’s the dorm? Where do we get our books? Where do we get our gear?” One question after another. So I started calling him The Question Man. He was like wide-eyed at the beginning. And Question Man became Q Man, which became Q Dog, which became Q or Dog or Doggie. And it stuck. You’re the first person to call him Bruce in five years.

Fraser: Lute called me into his office that first year (after Fraser graduated), and he was gonna hire me as an assistant. And he asked me, ‘Do you think you’re still too close to some of these guys?’ I should have said no. I should have lied to him, because he would have hired me. But he said, ‘Why don’t you take the next year and separate your friendships?’ That was hard to do.

Kerr: Here we are, 30 years later.


Tolbert was the late arrival here. He played at UC Irvine for two years, then transferred to Cerritos College to play football, only to blow out his hip before he ever took the field. He turned back to hoops and committed to UNLV and Jerry Tarkanian, then backed out for an opportunity to play for Olson. Tolbert showed up for the 1986-87 season, the school year Kerr spent rehabbing a major knee injury. He quickly emerged as Olson’s greatest annoyance.

Kerr: We did preseason conditioning every year. And one of the things we did was, we’d run laps around the mall in the middle of campus. Grass mall, really beautiful. So we’d go from one end of the campus to the other. We had to do it three times, it was a little over three miles. There was a fountain right in front of Old Main, which was the main building, the original building on campus. So we were running the three miles, and Tolbert after the first mile gets into the fountain, hides in the fountain. When we come around for the third lap, he gets out of the fountain and finishes sopping wet when he gets to the finish line. Coaches are all impressed: “Oh, look at how hard Tom’s working. He sweating.”

Tolbert: (Olson) didn’t find out, literally, until 20 years later. They wrote a book about him, and I told that story and he read it. And he said, “Is that true?” And I was almost like, “No! They lied!” And I told him and he laughed a little bit. But I could still tell there was a little bit of, like, disapproving father in there.

Kerr: What I remember with Lute and Tom is that Lute never swore. Never would curse. So he had these interesting ways of expressing his displeasure. “Judas Priest” was one of his favorites. … He had the Midwest accent, too. And so for whatever reason, he referred to Tom as “Tom Tallbert.” Not Tolbert. T-A-L-L. And he did this thing with his hand (chopping the air with three fingers) that we would always impersonate. And he would get mad at Tom and, “Judas Priest, Tom Tallbert.” And everybody would just get such a kick out of the way he said that, the way he would get angry with you.

Tolbert: I don’t know if I went out (partying) any more than anybody else.

McMillan: Tom just had a bigger tolerance. … I went into his room once. It was like a Friday afternoon. And he’s got a 15-pack of Stroh’s. He’s got ’em on ice in the sink. So I go to grab one. He’s, “No, no, no, don’t drink that.” “Why not?” “Get a Coors out of the fridge. I’m gonna drink exactly 15 Stroh’s and see if I can stay even with everyone when we go out.”

Kerr: One of the things we always loved about Tom was that he always had buddies in town, and his buddies were all kind of nuts. So we had a Christmas tournament, it was called the Fiesta Bowl Classic. And we had back-to-back games, Florida and Duke. And Tom did not have, like, this phenomenal tournament. And after the (championship) game, they announce, like, “And the all-tournament team! First member is Tom Tolbert!” We’re all kind of looking around like, “Tom made the all-tournament team?” It turns out that the media members from the other teams that weren’t involved in the championship game, they all left, and Tom’s buddies all come and sit in media row. And at the end of the game, the sports information guy hands out the ballots, and they’re all like “We’re voting for Tom!”

Tolbert: I told ’em, don’t give me the MVP.


The year before Olson and Kerr got to Arizona, the Wildcats finished 4-24 and were dead last in the Pac-10 Conference. In Kerr’s freshman year, they improved to 11-17. And as Olson overhauled the roster, the program continued to ascend.

Arizona made the NCAA tournament in 1985, turned another corner when Elliott arrived the following year, and by 1988 was playing in the Final Four. It’s an arc that has never really declined. Olson retired in 2008 with one NCAA championship and a conference-record 327 Pac-10 victories. Now 83, he is revered by his former players.

Kerr: The first time I met (Olson) was at a banquet in Los Angeles, my senior year (of high school). He spoke at the banquet. And my mom took me to the banquet and sat there, and she fell in love with him. He’s up there with his good looks and perfect manner and saying all the right things, talking about education and college experience. He wasn’t recruiting me at the time. But my mom said to me after his speech, “That’s the kind of coach I want you to play for.” And it just so happened that a few months later, he did recruit me.

McMillan: I think the end of my freshman year they started selling out every game. And they haven’t sold a (walk-up) ticket to a game, I think, since my freshman year.

Kerr: Sean, in my mind, took us over the top and took a good program to a great one. And then the recruits really started coming in.

Tolbert: We were a good team — a really good team. But Sean was a superstar. Sean was the guy you’d give the ball to and say, “Get us something. Just get us something.” And he could do that. He was so skilled. I mean, 6-8, could handle the ball, he could shoot the 3, really smart, made good decisions.

Kerr: (In 1987-88) we beat, I think, three top-5 or top-10 teams in the first month of the season. And we went up to No. 1. Man, that was crazy. Going back to town and everyone is wearing “U of A No. 1” T-shirts. That was fun. We were destroying people, too. … If I remember correctly, I think as a team, we shot 55 percent for the season. (It was 54.5 percent.) Which is unheard of. Doesn’t happen.

Tolbert: It was a little bit like your team here. I mean, we’re not, obviously, on that level. But the puzzle pieces fit. I mean, we weren’t the greatest talent, though we had more talent than people thought we did. Everything fit together. You can have great talent and everything might not fit. We fit.

Kerr: Yeah. We had Kenny Lofton coming off the bench. Seventeen years in Major League Baseball. Jud Buechler, who was phenomenal, was a sophomore, and took on a lesser role for the good of the team. Sean Rooks was a redshirt that year. We were loaded.


None of this foursome’s current roles qualify as a surprise to those who know them well. But it would have been impossible to predict that all of them would end up here. Kerr was close to filling the New York Knicks’ coaching vacancy before Joe Lacob attracted him to Oakland, and Fraser said he would have followed him there. Like them, Tolbert was a Southern California kid. But it was KNBR that gave him his first big break after his NBA career (which included three years with the Warriors) was over, and he never left.

Even McMillan, the Cloverdale “hick,” coached at Marquette and Tennessee and for professional teams in the Middle East before the SRJC job opened up. The serendipity is lost on none of them.

Tolbert: I’ve lived here in the Bay Area for 20 years, been doing this forever. All of a sudden, through this confluence of factors, Steve decides to get into coaching at this time. And the Warriors job opens up, and then all of a sudden he’s here. And I’m here doing the radio show, and we’re doing a show together. And Mick … It’s amazing the way things work out. It really is. And it’s super cool, too. And I’m so glad that they’re doing as well as they are so I don’t have to rip him.

Kerr: That’s coming.

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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