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‘Steve Kerr: A Life’ adapted from Steve Kerr by Scott Howard-Cooper. Copyright 2021 by Scott Howard-Cooper. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
“JORDAN AWAITED LIKE A KING,” blared the headline in the country’s major sports daily, L’Equipe. “Michael Jordan is in Paris,” the paper France-Soir fawned. “That’s better than the Pope. It’s God in person.” “The young Parisians lucky enough to get into [the arena] must have dreamed beautiful dreams, for their hero had been everything they could have hoped for,” another writer passed along. That Jordan was seen wearing a beret meant “We shall be able to call him Michel.”
The thirteen-year-old North Korean known as Pak Un, said to be the son of an official at the embassy in Bern, Switzerland, was driven 375 miles from the Swiss capital to see his beloved Bulls. In time, friends he made in the West would talk of seeing photos of the shy student posing with Kukoc and Kobe Bryant, on separate occasions and in unknown locations, and a room filled with basketball memorabilia in his apartment at 10 Kirchstrasse in the town of Liebefeld. Pak had a collection of Nikes and drew pencil sketches of Jordan. Although it was unclear whether he watched the October 17 win over French club Paris PSG Racing or Chicago beating Greek squad Olympiacos the next day for the championship as Kerr scored ten points or both, his presence inside Palais Omnisports de Paris- Bercy would be noted decades later, once it became known that the teenager studying in Switzerland was future North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
Returning to the United States and coming together again once Rodman re-signed in time for the start of the regular season brought the realization that 1997–1998 would be the last season together for the original core with five titles (Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson) and the second wave that had been part of two titles (Kerr, Harper, Rodman, Wennington, and Buechler). “The finality of it gave the season a certain resonance that bonded the team closely together,” Jackson wrote. “It felt as if we were on a sacred mission, driven by a force that went beyond fame, glory, and all the other spoils of victory. We were doing this one for the pure joy of playing together one more time. It felt magical.”
(JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
It was the most difficult of the three full seasons on the court since Jordan returned anyway, with an inability to win close games and an early 8-6 mark for the strange sight of the Bulls in eighth place. Additionally, Pippen got drunk on the flight from Sacramento to Seattle and launched into a tirade against Krause during the bus ride to the hotel. As Christmas approached and Jackson pondered his tradition of giving books, he considered Any Idiot Can Manage for Krause. “But in the end,” Jackson said, “I didn’t buy him anything because I couldn’t find it in myself to give him something of value.” Kerr’s contribution to the gloom was a cracked femur that cost him ten games in November and December. He was back about a month when Derrick Coleman of the 76ers landed on Kerr after a block attempt, resulting in a broken left clavicle and twenty-nine games lost. Worse, Kerr had the added frustration of believing Coleman could have avoided the hard contact. After playing eighty-two regular-season contests the previous four seasons, he would make it into only fifty in 1997–1998, the fewest since 1991–1992 as a Cavalier, joined by the disappointment of dropping to 45.4 percent overall and 43.8 percent on threes.
He could at least be encouraged that he was returning with enough time—the final quarter of the schedule—to reclaim rhythm and conditioning before the playoffs. Starting the comeback on March 8 against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, with a Manhattan energy that made it one of Kerr’s favorite stops, was a bonus. He shot the first time he touched the ball, after entering late in the first quarter, such a change from his usual approach of gently sliding into the flow of a game that reporters brought it up after the easy Bulls win. Kerr said he felt like Wennington, referencing his fellow Moth who was typically so eager to launch that Jordan had tagged him “trampoline hands.” Kerr made the inaugural attempt and three in all in five tries while Jackson ran him back into shape with twenty-six minutes in the first game action he’d seen in seven weeks.
“That’s one of the things about injuries, you have a lot of time to think,” Kerr said. “I really thought about my situation here and my future, and I realized that early in the season I was probably pressing a little bit because of the uncertainty over next year, me being a free agent and nobody knowing what was happening with the team. I realized that I was gonna have probably 20 games left and then the playoffs. And then, who knows? That might be it. So I better enjoy it and be aggressive and try to have as much fun as I can when I do come back.”
His coach had a similar mindset. Wanting to appreciate what little time the group appeared to have left, Jackson scheduled a meeting before the playoffs and asked players and staff members in advance to write a paragraph on the impact of the season and the team on their lives, anything from their own words to lyrics from a song to a spiritual verse. Choosing to gather in the video room in the training facility signaled a special level of importance as the spot Jackson had informally renamed the “tribal room,” in tribute to the Native American beliefs he admired. He even added the decorating touches of a bear-claw necklace, an owl feather, and photos of a newborn white buffalo, among other items, and he would bang a drum to alert players to gather.
Half the participants followed the instructions and arrived with written sentiments, including Jordan in the form of, in Jackson’s words, a “very moving” poem that praised the team’s dedication and expressed hope that the bond would last forever. Kerr was shocked at the gentle words from a velociraptor. His contribution— unwritten—was to share the thrill of becoming a father to Madeleine while with the Bulls and bringing four-year-old basketball fan Nick to meet Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman in the locker room. The pieces of paper were crumpled and dropped in a coffee can after each reading, the lights were flicked off and Jackson ultimately lit the wads on fire. Kerr was one of many brought to tears. “I’ll never forget that moment,” Jackson later wrote. “The quiet aura in the room. The fire burning in the darkness. The intense intimacy we felt sitting silently together and watching the flames die down. I don’t think the bond among us had ever been stronger.”
(ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The vibes carried over to the court as the Bulls opened the playoffs by eliminating the Nets 3–0 and the Hornets 4–1 before beating the Pacers in the first two games of the East finals. When Indiana pushed back by evening the series, Chicago responded to its first postseason test by winning two of the last three to advance to a rematch with the Jazz in the championship series, this time with Utah on ten days’ rest and with home-court advantage. The noise in the return to the Delta Center, Jackson said, was “astonishing” and “beyond the realm of tolerance. Last year, I’d go back to my room and my ears would ring for hours. They toned down the motorcycle sounds some, but the introduction is the worst—the bombs, the flares, the balloons bursting in sequence.” Worried about permanent ear damage, he wore earplugs.
Invisible in the 1997 Finals until the last ticks, Kerr was everywhere a year later. In Game 1, Jackson left him in to defend Stockton and paid for the gamble when Stockton got Kerr in the lane and made a nine-footer with nine seconds remaining for the winning points, a portion of Stockton’s seven points in overtime that turned into a Gonzaga recruiting visit. Two days later, down a point with forty-eight seconds remaining, Kerr missed a twenty-five-footer in front of the Jazz bench, only to move in to collect the long rebound between six-nine Malone and six-seven Russell. “That’s true desire,” Jordan said. Kerr then quickly spotted Jordan open under the basket and delivered the pass that gave the Bulls an 87–86 edge and a key moment in the 93–88 Chicago victory that evened the series.
Just like the year before, Kerr was on the court for the final Bulls possession, except this time Jordan finished off the Jazz by himself with an iconic seventeen-footer over Russell with five seconds remaining. Kerr didn’t have to bail him out again.
“My story is not quite as exciting this year, but I’ll share it with you anyway,” Kerr said at the latest Grant Park party, looking out over the sea of people. “When we called timeout, we were down three with forty-five seconds left. I kinda thought to myself, this would be a great chance at a three-pointer to tie the game. And I mentioned that to Phil. And Phil looked at me with this disgusted look and he said, ‘Steve, let’s face it. Last year was a fluke. Get the ball to Michael and get the hell out of his way.’ So that’s what I did. You know what happened. You know the rest. And for what it’s worth, I thought I did a fantastic job of getting out of his way.” With that, Kerr turned and went back to his seat on the stage.
The improbable last contribution, an offensive rebound-turned-assist, was a fitting ending after an unlikely five seasons in Chicago that almost didn’t happen and then turned into three titles. Joining the Bulls changed the history of the unwanted reserve trying to claw out one more contract, from the long-term implications of connecting with Jackson to hitting the shot to clinch the ’97 title that Kerr was certain put his life on a new course. As the search for the next opportunity began amid the looming breakup of a championship roster, it was hard to avoid the strange reality that for all the eventual Hall of Famers in the organization, it was possible that no one gained more from the second Jordan run than Steve Kerr.