What Steve Kerr Learned from Getting Punched in the Face by Michael Jordan
When Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr smashed a whiteboard during the NBA Finals, it revealed the "feisty" perfectionism beneath his genial exterior—the same trait that once led to a fight with Chicago Bulls teammate Michael Jordan.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Somewhere in the mountains of refuse and trash generated by the 2016 NBA Finals lies the remnants of the whiteboard Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr shattered in anger during Game 1.
You probably saw the moment on television, or one of its many replays online. It happened during a timeout in the third quarter, after Kerr's team had started the period in a low-energy funk, allowing the Cleveland Cavaliers to cut into a nine-point halftime lead.
Kerr's sudden fury left his assistants looking away, nervously. It probably seemed out of character to most viewers. Here was sweet, congenial, insightful Steve Kerr—son of career diplomat, popular around the league, a mild-mannered California dude known for always saying and doing the right thing—losing control, and his temper, too.
However, for those who know Kerr best, both as a coach and as a longtime NBA sharpshooter best remembered for hitting a three-pointer that clinched the 1997 title for the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls, the eruption came as no surprise.
"He doesn't look like it, but Steve is a feisty dude," said George Mumford, who was a psychologist for those Bulls teams that won three straight titles in the late 1990s.
The Finals aren't the first time Kerr has laid waste to a whiteboard this season. He smashed another one back in January, during a game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
At the time, the Warriors were 44-4, on pace to a NBA-record 73-9 regular season. They were the defending league champions, one of the most celebrated squads in recent NBA history. But they were also losing to the struggling Knicks after a dreadful first quarter, and that was all Kerr needed to see.
"You'd be surprised," Warriors forward Draymond Green (who himself is no stranger to passionate outbursts) said when reporters asked about Kerr after the January incident. "He expects perfection, and we're never there."
If that combination—of holding others to impossible standards and channeling the frustration that comes when they fall short—sounds familiar, well, it should. Hall of Fame coach Tex Winter, a longtime Bulls assistant, liked to say that, in one way or another, all of basketball's greatest achievers are perfectionists. That describes Winter, who was known for driving his players hard. And it certainly describes the hypercompetitive Jordan, who was known for driving himself and his teammates even harder.In fact, it's fair to say that a long-forgotten dustup involving Jordan helped shape Kerr into coach he is today: the coach who battled back from a pair of painful back surgeries to win the NBA Coach of the Year award; the one who seems to push all the right buttons with his players; the one who has the Warriors one victory away from back-to-back championships; and the one who is an occasional menace to inanimate, marker-ready plastic objects.
Today, of course, Kerr credits much of his style and success to a long and impressive list of coaching mentors, most of them Hall of Famers. There's Winter and Lenny Wilkens. Cotton Fitzsimmons and Lute Olson. Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson.
During the Finals, Kerr was asked specifically about Jackson, who coached him as a player with the Bulls and tried to hire him to coach the Knicks. (Jackson also coached Cleveland head coach Ty Lue as a player on the Los Angeles Lakers.)
"A huge impact," Kerr said. "I've been blessed to play for some of the great coaches in the history of the game, and I'm sure Ty would tell you the same thing. You learn from your mentors, from your coaches, and then you have to sort of take that and put it into your own personality, your own style, and go from there."
Go back to the fall of 1995, though, and it wasn't Jackson providing Kerr with a formative experience. It was Jordan. The Chicago superstar had returned to the NBA after nearly two full seasons attempting to play professional baseball, and now the Bulls were starting training camp.
Jordan, a guy that athletic shoe guru Sonny Vaccaro once described as "the great bastard of basketball," hardly seemed to notice Kerr. And he wasn't the sort of teammate you could approach to make small talk. "Michael didn't even seem human, he was so confident and so strong," Kerr says. "There just didn't seem to be any weakness there, and it made him incredibly strong and tough, but it also made him difficult to deal with sometimes."
Still, Kerr sensed some animosity. He was the NBA Players Union representative for the Bulls, and Jordan and his agent David Falk had lined up against the union in an off-season contract dispute that summer.
"They weren't happy at all with the union leadership, so there was kind of an undercurrent of that," Kerr told me in a long interview a few years ago.
Moreover, Jordan had come to camp in an ugly mood. The Bulls had lost in the playoffs to the Orlando Magic the previous spring, usurping Jordan just months into his comeback. That wouldn't stand.
"I got a glimpse of it, right away," Kerr said. "Camp was insane, how competitive and intense it was. Every drill, every practice, was so intense."
Scrimmages were wars, and Kerr often found himself pitted against Jordan—and Jordan's anger.Looking back on it today, Kerr can't remember who threw the first punch.
"This what I do remember," he said. "We had a scrimmage, and the starters were beating up on us. We were, you know, the red team and they were getting away with fouling and Michael was just being incredibly physical ... and Phil [Jackson] had left to go up to his office. He had to go tend to a phone call or something and, so, Phil's absence definitely led to sort of a situation where it was a little out of control. So, Michael was talking all kinds of shit."
"He just pretty much destroyed all of us, but I think it was calculated, for sure," Kerr said. "He tested every guy. You may not have known it at the time, but he was testing you and you had to stand up to him. He was talking all kinds of trash that day.... It really is kind of a blur as to what he was saying.
"But I got really fed up, you know, because I felt like they were fouling every time and Michael was fouling ... and the assistant coaches are reffing and they don't want to call a foul on Michael and he's talking."
So Kerr did something, well, unwise.
"I started talking back," he said. "I'm not sure anyone had done that before. Then I started fouling him. Not like I could make any impact on him physically, but ... I got the ball and he was guarding me and I think I used my off arm and threw an elbow or something, to get him off of me, and he kept talking. I'm yapping and the next play, I'm running through the lane and he gives me a forearm shiver in the middle of the lane and I give him one back.
"And he basically ... came after me."
Later, teammate Judd Buechler told Kerr that the scuffle reminded him of a familiar movie scene. "I was like the kid in Jurassic Park who got attacked by the velociraptor," Kerr said, laughing. "I had no chance. It was just mayhem. We were screaming at each other."
Teammates moved to break up the fight before too much damage was done—but not before Kerr ended up with a black eye. "Apparently, I got punched," he said. "I don't even remember getting hit."
Jordan stormed out of practice, furious. Hearing about the fight, Jackson came back down to the court.
"Phil came over to talk to me," Kerr said. "He said, 'You and Michael have to patch things up. You gotta talk to him and you gotta patch it up.' I got home and there was a message on my phone, on my answering machine from Michael and he apologized. And it was weird."
In the ensuing days, things were understandably a bit awkward. "But clearly he accepted me from that point on," Kerr said. "He never bothered me again, he never picked on me again. Getting into that fight, I think I proved that I was tough, that I would stand up to him and I think he respected that."
Perhaps more important, Kerr confirmed something that he long had suspected about himself.
"I'm very laid back on the surface, but you can get to me," he said. "I have a button that can be pushed, especially when I was playing."
"Usually I would push it myself," Kerr added. "I would beat myself up. But I could get so angry, like I did that day, that I could snap."
Kerr and Jordan, teammates for four years, never sat down for a one-on-one meal to patch things up or anything like that. (Jordan's fame made it difficult for him to go out to dinner with his teammates, even as a group.) Still, Kerr was left with tremendous respect for Jordan, and for what his drive for perfection required.
"What made him a badass was that he wasn't just a talent," Kerr said. "It was the understanding of ... the work ethic, the game itself, the strategy involved. He got it all; he understood all of it. He was absolutely one of the smartest players I've ever played with."
For the past two seasons, Golden State players have praised Kerr's people skills as much as his X's and O's—what Warriors backup point guard Shaun Livingston calls Kerr's "feel for the energy and temperature of the team." From managing former star David Lee when he unexpectedly lost his starting spot to Green last season to handling his own post-surgical absence at the start of the current one, Kerr has, as Livingston says, put his team in "places where we can excel."
Again, this is no accident. This is something Kerr was prepared to do.
Embracing the pressure of pursuing the all-time regular-season win total? Those 1995-96 Bulls set the previous record with 72. Dealing with a passionate player like Green, who was suspended for Game 5 of the Finals due to excessive, um, in-game opponent cup-checking? Kerr saw firsthand how Jackson and Jordan approached Dennis Rodman, a far freer and more unpredictable spirit.
"They hardly ever spoke," Kerr said of Rodman and Jordan. "There was just this respect, this underlying respect that you felt, it was really easy to feel it, 'cause Michael never picked on Dennis. Never.
"And Dennis was like subservient to Michael in an emotional way, not in a physical way. He never did anything for Michael that he didn't do for the rest of us, but he just ... there was just this understanding that Michael is the 'greatest' and I'm below him, and so I'm not going to mess with him and vice versa. It was really interesting."
As for Kerr's vaporized whiteboards? Even they have a precedent. While coaching the Bulls, Jackson picked up the nickname Zen Master in part because of his seeming sideline cool, something that supposedly has helped to shape Kerr's demeanor. Only Jackson had his own buttons. Once upon a time while coaching in the Continental Basketball Association, the story goes, he angrily threw two chairs across the floor. When you have the temerity to seek perfection in a game that never grants it, nothing should come as a surprise.
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