Even from afar, friends watch Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and agonize for him. When touching base with his vast network of NBA confidants, Kerr has been largely unwilling to grumble over his private suffering, but those who know him well constantly ask the Warriors’ staff: How bad is it?
The discomfort has never truly left Kerr in the past two years, but the symptoms did become grudgingly tolerable – until now. Kerr will forever regret undergoing that failed back surgery in 2015, regret it for the toll the spinal fluid leakage has caused him with ongoing headaches and nausea.
Kerr missed the first 43 games of the 2015-16 season, and, now, Kerr fears he could miss the rest of these playoffs, too. Unless the agony dissipates, Kerr is prepared to let assistant coach Mike Brown coach game nights on the Warriors’ championship chase.
“I don’t know if he can do this very much longer,” one NBA associate close to Kerr told The Vertical on Sunday. “He hasn’t enjoyed this one bit. Even if we haven’t talked in a bit, I can see the pain on his face.”
Had Kerr coached somewhere besides these Warriors – without Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, without the most staggering array of talent assembled in decades – he might have walked away already. This job, this chapter of a most blessed basketball life, is worth the fight.
Kerr’s relationship with Golden State general manager Bob Myers has buoyed him, too. Few executives and coaches share the kind of friendship they’ve developed in two-plus years, and that partnership makes staying the course worthwhile.
For some coaches, they love getting into the bunker of the season. They crave a darkness of everything and everyone. Yet, Kerr doesn’t see the profession as a way to grind everyone down. He coaches to elevate everyone, and maybe that’s made easy with Curry and Durant and Thompson. Still, Kerr has always been true to his disposition: fiercely competitive, relentlessly self-deprecating and smart with everything he’s done in the game.
He’s truly a product of his coaching mentors: Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson and even Lute Olson. Mostly, Steve Kerr is the son of Malcolm Kerr, the American professor murdered in Beirut in a terrorist act in 1984. Kerr loves the game, but he’s always valued it within context of the people it allows him to reach, the voice it gives him for something bigger than the game.
He’s unafraid to use the platform of this Golden State monolith to rail against gun violence and Trump, against whatever worries him in the world.
From the start, Kerr makes it easy to root for him: an overachiever who knows he was fortunate to get connected with Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, who inherited Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire as Phoenix’s GM, and, of course, these Warriors. He was a great jump shooter, a great television analyst and developed into a true leader of men as Golden State’s coach.
Without Kerr, the Warriors ripped off the greatest start in NBA history a year ago; and with Brown, the Warriors could probably still win the title. They’re too talented, and Brown is a pro’s pro. Kerr believes he can be a part of practice and film sessions, regardless, but the deftness needed for the bench on game night won’t allow him to return unless he begins to feel better.
Beyond these playoffs, though, it is easy to wonder how much longer Kerr wants to balance the recurring back pain and headaches and nausea against the coaching life. The Warriors make it hard to walk away, though. Kerr won five championships as a player, won a title as a rookie coach, and winning is intoxicating. This is a once-in-a-lifetime coaching opportunity, and a vacancy with this roster could make Golden State the most unprecedented opening in the history of professional sports.
For now, Kerr wants to get to the end of the first-round series with Portland and see if the symptoms subside, see if there’s a way to be a basketball coach again. Whatever happens in the long run, Steve Kerr could live with walking away. His friends, his family, they worry about him. They want what he wants: the pain to go away, peace.
Steve Kerr is suffering and it’s hard to watch, much harder to live.
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