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.