Long Shot

Two decades after Steve Kerr helped lead the Wildcats to their first Final Four, he hopes to manage the Phoenix Suns to their first NBA championship

Twenty years ago today--then, as now--Steve Kerr was doing just fine.

He and his Arizona Wildcats basketball teammates had just returned home after sweeping the Los Angeles schools, including an overtime win at UCLA. It was the fifth straight win in a streak that would grow to 15 and take the Cats into uncharted territory--the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.

That team was the toast of the town and remains the favorite of most fans, even over the group of underdogs that most improbably won the 1997 national championship. The 1987-'88 team had something for everyone, and only one of each. It had a legitimate superstar in homegrown Sean Elliott; an undersized space cadet in the post in Tom Tolbert; a rebounding machine in Anthony Cook; a role-player in Craig McMillan; a multi-sport whiz sixth man in Kenny Lofton (who's still playing pro baseball); and the Opie Taylor-looking point guard, undersized and destined never to be nicknamed The Flash, who pretty much created the folklore of the three-point dagger.

Dan Jenkins (Semi-Tough) once wrote a book about a year in the life of a big-time sportswriter. In it, he explained how sportswriters are somehow both fanatical and lazy, and sometimes fanatically lazy. They breeze into town for a big event and divvy up the good stories like kids choosing sides for a playground game.

Everybody knew Kerr's story; it was impossible not to. The details were so compelling, so full of highs and lows, that everyone knew the details. Here was a kid who was recruited as an afterthought by a coach brought in to take over a horrible program. The kid could shoot from long range, but so what? There was no three-point shot in college at the time, and the mantra of every coach in America was: "A 30-footer counts the same as a layup, so let's shoot layups."

Still, Lute Olson saw something in the skinny kid and brought him to Tucson. During his freshman year, Kerr got word that his father, Malcolm Kerr, had been assassinated in Lebanon, where he had been the president of the American University of Beirut. It was a brutal test of a young man's character, but he hung in and actually earned some playing time his freshman year.

By the next season, he was a full-time starter, averaging 10 points per game and shooting a stellar 57 percent from the floor. The next year was even more amazing: He led the team in assists and averaged 14 points a game. That summer, Olson tapped him to play for the U.S. team in the World Championships in Spain. (Back then, the U.S. sent amateurs to world championships and the Olympics. Since the 1970s, the rest of the world, using professional players, had been making steady progress against the Americans, who felt it wouldn't be sporting to send professionals. When the Olson-coached squad won it in 1986, it was one of only three times in 14 attempts that the Americans had triumphed. These days, our professionals can't even win the thing.)

In one of the later games, Kerr came down funny, and his knee exploded. It would, in an odd way, become one of the most fortuitous major knee injuries in local sports history.

One week ago today, Steve Kerr sat in a killer seat at McKale Center as the Arizona Wildcats tried to rebound from a galling loss to the much-hated (and usually inferior) Arizona State Sun Devils as they took on the California Golden Bears.

Some in attendance thought it was odd for Kerr to be away from his job as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, especially with the Suns taking on Western Conference rival Dallas in Phoenix at the same time, but there's not a whole lot a GM can do during a game besides root, root, root for the home team.

Besides, a lot of people think that Kerr has put in a year's worth of work already. After all, he recently pulled the trigger on one of the biggest trades in recent NBA history, one that brings an aging, but still physically awesome, Shaquille O'Neal to the Valley of the Sun in an attempt to get Phoenix over the hump and win the franchise's first-ever NBA title.

The trade has dominated talk radio and is topic No. 1 in every gym in the state. Shaq is too old. Shaq is just what the Suns need. He can't run the floor. He'll start the fast break and let others finish it. He'll take up a lot of space on the floor, which is good. He'll take up too much space on the floor, which is bad.

Whatever the case turns out to be, no one will ever accuse Steve Kerr of playing it safe. (Or of being a slave to fashion, for that matter; Kerr can often be seen wearing a plain white T underneath his dress shirt, unbuttoned at the top, with no tie.) Brought in out of the blue, with no prior training whatsoever, to be the GM by Suns managing partner Robert Sarver (whom Kerr knows from his UA days), Kerr has jumped in with both feet.

Despite the fact that the Suns have had the best record over the past three NBA regular seasons, they have failed to reach the NBA Finals, a fact that has grated on players, owners and fans. Twice, injuries to key players derailed the Suns, and then last year, the team fell after the suspension by NBA Commissioner David Stern of two Suns players for an infraction that the San Antonio Spurs' best player, Tim Duncan, appeared also to have been guilty of earlier in the game.

With the two Suns players out and Duncan allowed to play, San Antonio won a pivotal Game 5 of the best-of-seven and then went on to win the NBA crown. The arbitrary imposition of punishment and apparent favoritism toward the Texas team prompted some to refer to the champions as the San Antonio Sterns.

Nevertheless, three straight years of regular-season excellence followed by playoff flameouts can lead people to believe that a team is snakebitten, unlucky or simply not as good as they might think they are.

Enter Kerr, a man with five NBA-championship rings (three with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls and two with San Antonio). He knows that there are no excuses, only results. And that's why he speaks of the trade for O'Neal and the resulting loss of Marcus Banks and four-time All-Star Shawn Marion with a calmness and sense of purpose that's either genuine or puts him on an acting par with Daniel Day-Lewis.

"We decided to make this move based on our feeling that it gives us a better chance to succeed in the playoffs," Kerr said. "If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago if we were going to do anything, I would have said no, and I would have meant no. I really didn't see this (opportunity to get O'Neal) coming, but this is a strange business, and things change very rapidly.

"Obviously, we felt this was a great opportunity. We're excited about this."

It's pretty clear that Kerr wouldn't have made the trade if the Suns had won a championship or three during the Steve Nash era, which dates back to 2004. With Nash running the show from the point-guard position (and winning back-to-back league MVP awards in 2005 and 2006), the Suns have changed the face of NBA basketball. (Kerr muses, "How great would it have been to play with Steve Nash? Imagine the open shots I would have gotten with him handling the ball and running the show.")

The Suns run the floor, shoot lots of three-pointers and even practice moving the ball the length of the floor and getting a shot off within six seconds of gaining possession. While the hyper-speed approach has brought sellout crowds, rabid fans and lots of copycat teams in the NBA and college, it hasn't brought them the ultimate success.

"Everybody knows that the games slow down in the playoffs. They just do," Kerr explains. "They're more physical, and the refs let people get away with more stuff."

Basically, it's like the Suns have been practicing a ballet all season and then get thrown into a weightlifting contest.

Kerr sits at McKale with one of his old teammates, Matt Muehlebach (now a lawyer) and watches as the unnerving Cats jump out to a quick lead, then give it almost all back by halftime. Shortly before the half, a videographer spots Kerr and puts him on the big screen over the court. The crowd goes nuts, and maybe a couple thousand people rise to give him a standing ovation. He appears to be pleasantly surprised by the ovation, although he probably shouldn't be. He's a local hero.

It was during the season when he redshirted and rehabbed his knee that the hands on the basketball clock ticked forward and ushered in a new age.

Back in the 1970s, there had been a rival league to the NBA, a wild, free-wheeling league known as the American Basketball Association, complete with a red, white and blue basketball and a scoring gimmick known as the three-point shot. If the ball was successfully shot from beyond a certain distance, three points were awarded instead of two. This served the dual purpose of unclogging the area around the basket and allowing teams that were trailing to get back into the game quicker.

The NBA absorbed four teams (San Antonio Spurs, New Jersey Nets, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers) in 1976 in what was generously referred to as a merger. (The NBA-ABA rivalry is the subject of the film Semi-Pro, which opens next week in theaters, although the horribly unfunny Will Ferrell will almost certainly butcher it.)

Three years later, the NBA adopted the three-point shot, but the NCAA largely turned its collective nose up at it. It wasn't until 1986 that the shot was added throughout the college game. It might as well have been named for Steve Kerr.

"It goes without saying that I love the three-pointer. I wouldn't have had the end of my college career, and maybe no pro career, without it. I learned early on to shoot from long range, and I knew it was important to maintain my form at all times. A lot of people change their shot as they get farther away from the basket, but you shouldn't sacrifice form for distance."

The shot came into the college game as Kerr was getting his surgically repaired knee back into shape. Had Kerr been able to play in 1986-87, he might have done well, but sitting out that year allowed the other Wildcats pieces to fall into place, and Arizona exploded onto the national scene.

"That whole regular season and run-up to the Final Four was by far my favorite athletic memory," recalls Kerr. "We started out shocking a lot of people by winning the Great Alaska Shootout."

The Cats won their first 12 games, including a win over Duke in the Valley Bank Fiesta Bowl Classic championship game. A two-point loss at New Mexico (that probably still has Lute Olson fuming) broke the win streak, but then they reeled off eight more to sit at 20-1 and atop the national polls. A loss at Stanford dropped them out of the top spot and provided the only blemish on the conference record--and then came the 15-game win streak that got them to the Final Four.

"There's no way to describe that feeling," Kerr remembers. "When you're on a team like that, everybody does his job; somebody always makes the big play at the right time. You just feel like you can't lose."

Kerr had a lot to do with that, leading the team in assists and three-point shooting percentage. His .573 percentage is far and away the best in school history, which is especially amazing considering that it was only the second year of the shot's existence. With the shot having been around for 20 years, today's college players have been practicing it their entire lives. His having played only one season with the shot prevents him from being the official NCAA leader in the category, which requires at least 200 made threes; the career leader is Tony Bennett, the current coach at Washington State. The beauty of that 1987-'88 team is shown by Sean Elliott being the leading scorer, Anthony Cook leading in rebounding and field-goal percentage, and Tom Tolbert leading the team in free-throw percentage.

Elliott recalls his time with Kerr with great fondness. "He was such a funny guy, but real low-key. His humor would sneak up on you. I remember the first time I saw him drink a beer; it freaked me out. It seemed unreal." (Kerr says, "I remember that, but I was just a college student doing what college students do.")

The fans joined in the revelry as well. When Kerr would hit a long-range shot, the announcer would stretch out his name with a loud "St-e-e-e-e-v-e K-e-e-r-r-r-r!," after which the crowd would respond, as one, in kind. He also had an uncanny knack for hitting a three at the perfect time (in today's parlance, it's known as "the dagger"), stopping the other team's rally or hitting one to put a game out of reach.

Acting UA head coach Kevin O'Neill was an assistant coach with that team, and he remembers it well. "They were a great group of guys; they liked each other, and they enjoyed playing basketball with each other."

When asked whether he had any amusing anecdotes about Kerr from those days, O'Neill responds, "Not really. He was a fun kid, but what I remember was that he was a great player who worked harder than everybody else. He never had a bad practice."

Ah, but he had a bad game once.

A couple of days before the Final Four matchup with powerful Oklahoma, Kerr was asked what he wanted to do with his life. He thought about it and then said, "I guess I'd like to try the NBA, see if I can make it. I've thought about trying to write."

That writing would have to wait 15 years, as Kerr took his freak talent to the NBA--but he almost didn't make it. He was originally drafted by the Phoenix Suns as sort of a favorite-son nod. Three-plus years in Cleveland and a part-season in Orlando followed before he caught on with the Chicago Bulls. As the legend goes, he got his butt kicked by Michael Jordan in a heated scrimmage one day, though Jordan appreciated his combativeness. They would win three NBA titles together, including one over Utah in which Jordan passed up the last shot and dished to Kerr instead, who calmly sank the jumper for the title.

One night in Chicago, Jordan hit 55 points. Kerr joked that he would tell his grandkids about the time that he and Michael Jordan combined for 57 points.

In that 15-year career, Kerr played in 910 regular-season games, but only started 30. He was a specialist, but as good as they come. He is still the NBA career leader in three-point shooting percentage (45.4 percent) and has the best single season ever (52.35 percent in 1995).

Then came the writing: After he stopped playing, he wrote a column for four years for Yahoo! Sports and became one of the most respected color commentators for NBA telecasts. He had to leave that behind when he took the Suns' GM job.

Sitting in McKale (during what would become another UA victory, 83-73 over Cal) invariably brings the memories flooding back. His jersey has been retired and is prominently displayed in the arena. He remembers all the great games his team played there--but everything leads to that game against Oklahoma.

Everyone thought that Arizona and Oklahoma were far and away the best two teams in the country, and it was a shame that they would have to meet in the semifinals. Kerr would be matched up with Mookie Blaylock (which, oddly enough, was also, for a time, the name of the band that became Pearl Jam).

"It was the worst game of my life," Kerr recalls. "Just terrible. I couldn't hit anything. If I had just been bad that day, we would have won. Instead, I was terrible."

Most Wildcat fans have been able to forgive him for that one bad game, but he hasn't. "Terrible," he says.

Kerr is still willing to take the big shot, and he realizes that there is always the possibility that he might have another terrible day.

Shaquille O'Neal was slated to have made his Suns debut on Wednesday, Feb. 20, against his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant, the awesomely talented but generally despised superstar who ran O'Neal out of L.A. with an "either he goes or I do" ultimatum. No one knows how long it will take for O'Neal to adapt to the Suns' frenetic style, or whether he'll be able (or willing) to adapt at all. Kerr believes it will work, but with less than 30 games left before the playoffs, it will have to be an accelerated process.

Kerr is learning as he goes in his new job, but he has a lot of reference points in his career that help him learn. "You can learn from good examples and from bad examples as well. I know that the NBA is a business, and everybody has an agenda. Players have agendas; their agents have agendas (which don't always match those of the players); owners have agendas; and coaches have agendas. You can't take everything personally, but you're also dealing with human beings.

"It was tough for me to tell Marcus (Banks) and Shawn (Marion) that they had been traded. Especially Shawn, who has been a huge part of the success around here for several years. When I was a player, I heard stories of guys getting traded, and the GM never spoke to them once about it. Not to tell them, not to thank them for their service, not to say goodbye.

"I'm not going to be one of those guys."

Kevin O'Neill knows exactly what kind of guy Kerr is going to be: He'll be just fine.

"You know how some people, you just know they're going to be successful in whatever they do? You just know. Steve is one of those people. I knew it from the moment I met him, and nothing over the past 20 years has changed my mind about that."

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