Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Kerr-ific start for a first-time head coach

Steve Kerr / "I'm the luckiest coach in NBA history..."

Two months into the new pro basketball season, the Golden State Warriors have been the darlings of the National Basketball Association. Nightly, the "Splash Brothers" duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are providing a highly-entertaining -- and potent -- 1-2 scoring punch in the back court. The "Dubs" achieved a franchise best 16-game winning streak, going five weeks without losing a game.

One of the reasons for the Warriors' new-found success is simple: they have one of the brightest minds in the game in their new head coach, Steve Kerr. He's off to the hottest start of any first-year NBA head coach with a 23-3 record, the best record in the league. He's coached the Warriors to an impressive 10-1 record at home, including a 128-108 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Monday night, and they're 13-2 on the road.

"I'm the luckiest coach in NBA history because I inherited a team that was already this good," Kerr recently told the San Jose Mercury-News.

Before the start of the season, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Kerr far away from Oracle Arena, where the Warriors regularly sell out their home games. Our paths crossed following a couple of University of California, Berkeley women's volleyball matches, where his daughter Maddy excels as the team's libero. It was back in September during the first week of basketball practice, long before anyone could imagine Kerr's good fortune as a first-time coach.

My first impressions of Kerr were positive. Although our first chat was brief and mostly introductory, he was very gracious with his time and took a genuine interest in getting to know me and my wife. His role on this night was that of a college volleyball parent -- not an NBA head coach. He came dressed the part of a parent, too -- wearing chino slacks, a long-sleeved t-shirt and casual sneakers.

The second time we chatted occurred a few weeks after our first meeting. I wanted to ask Kerr, an avid reader and learner, about his reading interests and he eagerly shared with me that during the summer he read a 600-page biography about one of his basketball idols, legendary UCLA head coach John Wooden. I sensed from our brief conversation that Kerr, 49, wished he could have been old enough to play for Wooden. As someone who is a few years older, I remember the UCLA glory years as a kid growing up in southern California. I believe Kerr would have fit in well, both as a good team player and as an eager student of the game.

Even though Kerr wasn't old enough to play for Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, he was well schooled, learning valuable tools of basketball wisdom from Lute Olson during his collegiate days at Arizona. Then, as a pro, he was mentored by the two of the best: Phil Jackson in Chicago and Greg Popovich in San Antonio. Kerr is a five-time NBA champion, having won three titles with the the Bulls, alongside Michael Jordan, and two with the Spurs, where his teammates included Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. As a broadcaster following his 15-year playing career, Kerr teamed with one of basketball's best in Marv Albert, and he applied his skills learned as player towards becoming a knowledgable and good-humored analyst.

After reading Eleven Rings, in which Jackson chronicled the 11 NBA titles he won coaching the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, I was intrigued to find out what books Kerr was given to read by his coach during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls. Jackson was legendary for assigning books to his players to keep them engaged during road trips. Kerr said the most memorable one he received from the Zen Master was the novel All The Pretty Horses by American author Cormac McCarthy.

"I want to keep stimulating my mind and keep fresh things coming in," Kerr told the San Francisco Chronicle. It's one reason why his staff regularly brings him articles of a non-basketball nature for him to read, and Kerr enjoys doing things away from the basketball court like watching his daughter's volleyball matches.

Here's what I've learned from observing Kerr: He's a very affable, down-to-earth guy who blends in easily with other Cal volleyball parents and, while sitting high up in Haas Pavilion out of the spotlight -- he graciously takes time to greet fans who approach him and willingly poses for photos -- always smiling. He's humble while also being likable, and both on and off the court, he's a credible communicator.

After I introduced myself as a long-time fan of Cal volleyball and complemented him on behalf of Maddy's gutsy on-court performance in a Cal victory, I also offered him congratulations on becoming the Warriors head coach. Little did either of us realize in September the tremendous success Kerr would enjoy during the start of his inaugural season. It's a work in progress that's still being written, but has all the makings of a becoming a best-seller.

Photo: Courtesy of espn.com and Google images.

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