Q+A: Steve Kerr
The five-time NBA champion talks about his career and NBA TV’s Open Court.
SLAM: I guess in that sense the NBA isn’t a whole lot different now than when you played in that if you’re not a star player, it benefits you more to figure out as quickly as possible what your role is.
SK: I think it’s a problem for a lot of young guys not just these days but historically in the NBA. Most guys come in and they were stars in college, and if they’re not starting, if they’re not playing a big role, it’s tough for them to accept a lesser role or forge a new one. So, for me it wasn’t too difficult. I didn’t think I’d play in the NBA, anyway. When I made it, I was just so happy to find any role I could.
SK: Yeah, there were some sort of unwritten rules that exist. The traveling stuff bothers me. I think the officials have become conditioned to call certain variations of traveling and then other variations they let go. I don’t really understand that. Traveling seems to be a uniform rule in every other league in global basketball but in the NBA it seems like it’s difficult for the officials to figure out what’s a travel and what’s not. That bothers me. I think they can do a better job of that.
SLAM: Was there a rule that referees ever had a tough time interpreting or explaining to you if you asked for an explanation for it?
SK: [Pauses] Not really. The officials are really well prepared. They’re knowledgeable and can explain pretty much anything to you. But you may not like it but there’s always a justification for it. That’s why I mentioned the travel because it’s sort of one of those things that is a little bit open to interpretation in the NBA and I don’t quite understand why.
SLAM: Do you recall the first practice or the first time you met Phil Jackson when you first came to Chicago?
SLAM: What was that like, your first interaction with him?
SK: The first time I met him I was intimidated, as a lot of people are. He has a great presence about him, and he’s a very imposing figure. He has that deep voice. I was going into my fifth year, I think, in the NBA, or maybe my sixth, and I was only trying out with the team. I had a non-guaranteed contract and I was just trying to make the squad. I got in probably a couple weeks before [training] camp started and worked out and met Phil then. I was so excited to play for him because I loved the way the Bulls played. I loved the Triangle offense and I knew it was going to be a good fit for me.
SLAM: Did any of his books ever help you?
SK: Yeah, yeah. I read Sacred Hoops, which he wrote and which was very revealing about his personal philosophy on the game. It helped me understand him quickly. Then he gave me some other books, more just novels that had nothing to do with basketball but helped us forge a relationship.
SLAM: The difference between him and [Gregg] Popovich is interesting because it seems like they have very different personalities but they both have an ability to keep their teams on an even emotional keel throughout a season.
SK: Yeah, I think they couldn’t be more different in some ways. But they’re very similar in that they command respect from their players, from the media and from their owners. They’re very unique in their ability to communicate with people. They just go about doing it in a different way. But they are both incredible human beings, incredible coaches. They both have very interesting backgrounds, too. You know, that go way beyond the game. And I think maybe that was part of why they were such good coaches. They were world travelers and they had seen an awful lot. Both were very well-educated, very well-read and both had a lot of different interests. Phil was always reading something different that had nothing to do with basketball. Pop would always have CNN on in his office instead of SportsCenter. [Laughs] They’re very unique people in their profession.
SLAM: And you played for Cotton Fitzsimmons for a year, and Lenny Wilkens for a few. It seems like, more than a lot of other ex-players, you were fortunate in that you played for three or four coaches who were really successful. What kind of impact did they have on your career?
SK: Yeah, I had probably as blessed a career as anyone in the history of the game in terms of who I played with and who I played for. On the coaching front, Lute Olson [at the University of Arizona], Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, Lenny Wilkens. That’s four Hall of Famers right there. Cotton Fitzsimmons very well could be a Hall of Famer someday. He was a great coach and a huge character—big personality. So, I was really blessed to have played for some of the greats. They were all different but they all had the ability to reach you somehow in their own way. And they all had to do it according to their personalities. That’s one of the things I learned quickly, both in broadcasting and as a general manager. You can’t fake anything. You have to be who you are and so there are a lot of different ways to impact people and to motivate them. I learned a lot of different ways from all those guys.
SLAM: You came into the League a good shooter. Did your fundamentals ever change throughout your career?
SK: I think they evolved, they definitely evolved. I think I worked really hard on my shot. I hired a shooting coach for many years during the middle of my career—Chip England, who now works for the Spurs. I made adjustments to my shot. I adjusted the ball position on my hand. I eventually shot with more rotation that I started with. I got better every year, I thought. Most players, if they work at it, they do get better. It’s like anything else in life. If you practice something over and over again, you’re going to improve. And I worked really hard at it.
SLAM: You had some of your best years [shooting] when the NBA moved in the [three-point] line [from 1994-97]. It affected you positively but what adjustments did you have to make?
SK: I didn’t have to make any adjustments at all. It was just that all of a sudden I was taking 3′s that I didn’t realize were 3′s. The game didn’t change one bit. I could probably count the number of layups I had in my career on one hand. I couldn’t get to the paint, I couldn’t get to the rim. So, I was a spot-up jump shooter and when they moved the line in I said ‘Thank you very much’ and just kept doing what I was doing.