The Profile Dossier: Steve Kerr, the Player-Turned-Coach Who Used Basketball to Cope With Tragedy
"We all have to deal with tragedy at some point in our lives, but when it happens early in your life, it gives you better awareness of how fragile everything is."
Steve Kerr was a freshman in his Arizona University dorm room when he received the phone call that would change his life.
A family friend was calling in the middle of the night to tell Kerr that his father had been killed. His dad, Malcolm Kerr, had been the president of the American University in Beirut when he became the victim of a terrorist attack. He was shot in the back of the head by two gunmen outside of his office.
"My phone rang at my door at 3 o'clock in the morning, so I knew something was up and [a family friend] just said 'Steve, I have terrible news,'" Kerr says. "Basketball was the one thing I could do to take my mind off what happened. So I went to practice the next day. I didn't know what else to do."
For Kerr, basketball served as an outlet and an escape from the unspeakable grief and sadness he was going through in his personal life. He was the only one of his siblings who did not fly to Beirut to attend the memorial service. Instead, he went to practice and played against Arizona State, in which he had a breakout game helping guide the team to victory.
"It sounds bad,” Kerr told The New York Times. “Obviously, the basketball wasn’t more important. But the logistics were really tricky. And it was cathartic for me to just play.”
Kerr went on to have an illustrious basketball career after 15 years in the NBA, playing alongside Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls and winning a total of five championships as a player. After retiring in 2003, Kerr became a TV analyst, then served as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, from 2007 until 2010.
Then, he embarked on a new chapter that would give him a voice and a national platform. He began his coaching career in 2014 when he became the head coach for the Golden State Warriors.
It was there that people began to see Kerr continuing the legacy that his father left behind. Although he rarely talks about his dad's death, he has used his platform to speak out on political issues such as gun violence, governmental shortcomings, and non-violent protests.
Reflecting on the impact of his father's legacy, Kerr says: “I feel his full impact on my whole life. It’s there every day.”
Kerr doesn't view basketball as entertainment — he sees it as the thing that helped him cope during the darkest period of his life. The way he runs his team and the values he instills in his players is a direct result of what he learned from his father at a young age.
Tragedy changed Kerr in a way that he doesn't take for granted.
"We all sort of have to deal with tragedy at some point in our lives, but when it happens early in your life — for me it was at 18 — it gives you better awareness of how fragile everything is," he says. "So when you get to a good thing, you want to hold on to it because you know nothing lasts."
Here's what we can learn about empathy, joy, and values-driven leadership from Kerr's brilliant coaching style.
On finding his voice: Kerr's life changed when his father was shot twice in the back of the head outside his university office in Beirut. It colored the way Kerr saw the world — a complex tangle of gray areas rather than a simplistic black and white reality. Kerr knows that sports are an active ingredient of American culture, but he also understands that players are complicated, molded by background, race, religion and circumstance. Here's how Kerr found his voice and used his job as a platform.
On developing his coaching style: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is in the NFL, but that didn't stop Kerr from seeking his advice about what makes a great team leader. "Everything that happens in practice, it has to be real, and the values that you impart as a coach have to come alive," Kerr says. "That's how culture is defined." Take a look at Carroll and Kerr's enduring friendship, and how they each developed their own unique coaching styles.
On the dominance of Michael Jordan: Kerr was Michael Jordan's teammate when he played for the Bulls, and he says Jordan had a dominance unlike any other player. He wasn't humble, but it worked for him. "It was a different form of leadership," Kerr says. "He drove us hard [in practice], but it's a perfect example that there's no right way of doing things." In this podcast, Kerr explains what he's learned about leadership from his various coaches as well as the one and only MJ.
On his road to success: Kerr has had a remarkable career — from player to commentator to coach. In this interview, he opens up about his time playing with Michael Jordan and the Bulls, how he got the Warriors coaching job, and navigating the team during the last five seasons.
On leading through crisis: In 2020, Kerr had to lead a high-performing team during extremely turbulent times on and off the court. Although he's well known for his enlightened coaching approach, Kerr's ideals were tested by the pandemic, an interrupted season, and mass social unrest all over the country. "The pandemic turned the world sideways," he says. "It was crucial to me that we maintained our dignity, our values, and our work ethic every single day."
On cultivating a culture of compassion: It's one thing to preach the value of compassion, but how do you actually implement it? In this interview, Kerr describes how he built a culture around joy, competitiveness, mindfulness, and compassion—and how he maintained it both on and off the court. Here's how he takes them from the theoretical to the practical.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Observe first, critique later: Kerr credits his dad for learning how to have a calm demeanor on the sideline as an NBA coach. When Kerr was little, he had an awful temper, which he felt helpless in learning how to control. A young Kerr would get angry and hot-headed after a screw-up on the court or on the field. "Baseball was the worst," he says. "If I was pitching and I walked somebody, I would throw my glove on the ground. I was such a brat." His dad would watch from the stands, but he never said anything until the family got home. Then, he would have a casual conversation with Kerr that felt more like a curious observation and less like a stern lecture. Kerr learned the following: Observe first, let your kids (or players or employees) learn and experience on their own, and then find the right time and space to talk to them when they're emotionally sober. Your words will be most effective when you explain rather than berate.
Use mentors to find your own style: Before Kerr got the head coach job with the Warriors, he decided to visit all the coaches he greatly admired. He met with legends including Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Lute Olson, Lenny Wilkens, and Pete Carroll. Kerr wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of what made them so great. He had a seemingly contradictory but profound breakthrough: He realized that he wasn't going to be great if he idolized his mentors. “The main theme that came across over and over again in these conversations was be yourself,” he says. “There’s no point in trying to be someone else. You can emulate somebody else, but you can’t be someone else. As soon as you start quoting Vince Lombardi, players are going to know it’s fake.” Idolizing forces you into blindly worshipping imperfect humans. Learning, on the other hand, allows you to observe, synthesize, and pave your own imperfect path. Learn, don't idolize.
Find your ‘critical four:’ One year, Kerr sat in on a training camp with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Carroll gave him a simple but profound exercise: Look at your own personality, and write down the 10 most important values in your life. Then, take those values and narrow them down to four by thinking about what would be most important to him as a coach. Kerr came away with his critical four values that he instills in the culture of his team to this day: joy, competitiveness, mindfulness, and compassion. “I wanted to be able to establish what we were looking to do as a team, our goals and where I saw each player fitting in before we even got on the practice floor," he says.
Own your mistakes: In 2018, Kerr slammed his team after a blowout loss to the Indiana Pacers. He said in a post-game interview that the team "didn't care." His comment frustrated the players, and it caused their performance to suffer. He later said it was a mistake, and that he "said he "chose my words poorly." As someone who prides himself in being extremely patient, he acknowledged his misstep and explained that he let his emotions get the best of him. He added that he's not perfect and that sometimes he makes mistakes, too. "I'm just all over the map: You guys are good. No, you stink! No, you're good! It's been that kind of year for all of us." If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, face it, learn from it, and let it transform you into a better human.
Allow your team to take ownership for the wins: Your job as a leader, Kerr says, is to chart the path forward, provide constructive guidance, and get your team to buy into a shared vision. Once they begin executing on the plan, you need to know when to step back and let go of the reigns. "Most games, I just sit back and the players play. It’s their team," Kerr says. "It’s our job to empower them and get them on the right track so they are equipped to take ownership.” Before each practice, Kerr has the Warriors team meet to watch and critique film for 10 minutes. Everyone gets input around what they are trying to accomplish and what techniques they can improve. The praise or the criticism, he says, happens in private. “Some people need a pat on the back, and others need a kick in the tail,” Kerr adds. “I ask my staff all the time what each player needs – a confidence boost or a sharp stick.” As a leader, you should invest a lot of time and money to understand your team players as individuals in order for your coaching to be most effective.
Find a higher calling: After the death of his father, Kerr understood that life is about much more than basketball and winning games. But it's basketball that gave him a platform to do good in the world. He donates all of the proceeds from his various speaking engagements to a scholarship through the East Bay College Fund, which he established in honor of his dad. Thanks to Kerr's donations — which total over $600,000 as of 2017 — 20 students were able to attend college. What is the ultimate purpose of what you're doing? What is your higher calling? For Kerr, the point of wealth, fame, and status is to pay it forward and continue the legacy that his father left behind.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"That's life. Nobody wins every time — and whatever happens, happens."
"We live in this complex world of gray areas. Life is so much easier if it could be black and white, good and evil.”
“Don't think, shoot. As soon as you start thinking, you miss.”
"If you look at the history of the world, the biggest problems come when people don't speak."
“The future is coming so fast, we can't possibly predict it; we can only learn to respond quickly.”