The coach of the NBA’s most powerful team will not stick to sports. Steve Kerr, whose Golden State Warriors are set to win their third NBA title in four years, has transformed from a master of unselfish offenses to an essential voice of reason in a world in which reason dies on cable news.
“I think he’s got a fire burning,” the Warriors general manager, Bob Myers, told the Guardian in the run-up to Friday night’s Game 4 of the NBA finals. “It smolders in there. It lives in there. It’s there right now. I don’t know what he’s thinking right now but he’s thinking about something that he’s either read or heard that he didn’t like that he wants to speak on if asked about it.”
Chances are, Kerr will be asked. Chances are, Kerr will answer. No topic seems off limits. No question is too dangerous.
On the behavior of Donald Trump: “You want for there to be respect and dignity and there hasn’t been any.”
On gun control: “We have to look at this as having nothing to do with partisanship, political parties. It’s got to be a public safety issue.”
On the NFL’s new policy punishing players who silently protest against racial inequality during the national anthem: “It’s just typical of the NFL. They’re just playing to the fanbase. Basically just trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people. It’s idiotic.”
“Steve would, honestly, be an incredible president for our country,” Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser, a friend of Kerr’s since they played together at the University of Arizona, said on Thursday. “He would be better at that than as a coach and he’s a great coach.”
Kerr stands out in a world where most sports coaches stay silent, either terrified of upsetting sponsors or fearful of upsetting team owners whose politics do not align with social change. His nearest NFL equivalent, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (who has five championships), grunts rejections of political questions, tipping his ideological hand in laudatory letters to Trump.
The limb on to which Kerr regularly steps is not a solid one for most coaches. The only leader who has spoken with as much power is his mentor, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. Make no mistake, what Kerr is doing is unusual for a top American sports coach.
Kerr has always been thoughtful. The coach angry about injustice in his early 50s was the same as a player in his 20s. Fraser sees little change in Kerr’s interests now compared to then. Kerr was raised in Beirut and Los Angeles, the son of a college president, and his family were accustomed to passionate discussions about important topics. “International issues and societal issues and political views were discussed at the dinner table,” Fraser said.
Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was assassinated in 1984 at the college he ran, the American University in Beirut. Steve, who was in college at the time, became a natural advocate for gun control, allowing him to form the firm stances he takes on the issue today. In 2017, he spoke about his father’s death when criticizing Trump’s proposed ban on refugees and travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries. “I would just say that as someone whose family member was a victim of terrorism, having lost my father, if we’re trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, by really going against the principles of what our country is about and creating fear, it’s the wrong way of going about it,” said Kerr at the time.
Some of Kerr’s most important playing years were spent on the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan, a man who famously avoided wading into politics lest he damage his merchandising brand. Fraser has often wondered what the Kerr of those days would have been like had he felt free to speak. As Kerr himself said at a press conference this week: “There was a lot less going on that was exposed, for sure [in the 1980s and 1990s]. It’s a different era in terms of social media.”
When Kerr finally did begin to talk, after taking over as Golden State’s coach in 2014, his words came naturally, unscripted and without clearance from anyone above him. There was always an understanding between Kerr and Myers that the culture they were trying to create around the Warriors emphasized freedom and self-expression. The last thing they wanted to do was put restrictions on speech.
“There is no hidden truth to Steve,” Myers said. “There’s no hidden agenda to Steve, it’s ‘I will say what I feel and speak my mind and I’m going to try and live in that manner and try to back it up.’ If you are authentic about it and it’s coming from the right place we would never hold anybody back from speaking on what they believe in.”
Myers paused. He was sitting in a luxury box just off the floor at the Quicken Loans Arena. On the court, the Warriors players were warming up for an off-day practice between Games 3 and 4 of the finals. He watched them for a moment and then nodded toward the floor.
“Look, my views and Steve’s views and the players views they don’t all have to align,” he continued. “That’s America. That’s OK. But be respectful. You can be critical while also being respectful. I think that’s the balance that Steve walks and we all try to walk but we all come from different places.
“I can’t relate to what it’s like to grow up like Kevin Durant. How can I sit here and say what’s going through his head? As much as he can mine. Who am I to say ‘don’t say that?’ Well why not? Why shouldn’t he say what he thinks?”
Today’s NBA has a fearlessness about social justice that petrifies the NFL. While football owners are bullied by Trump, anguished about the potential of upsetting their fans or frightening away advertisers, basketball players don’t seem shackled. This is especially true of Kerr and the Warriors. Fraser suspects some of this is a matter of happenstance. After all, Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest originated in the San Francisco Bay area, close to the Warriors’ Oakland home.
As Kaepernick’s protest grew, Kerr’s voice on social issues strengthened. Suddenly more people were asking questions and he was happy to give replies. At first, Fraser wasn’t surprised that Kerr was speaking out. What impressed him the most was how well-formed Kerr’s views were. There was substance. Nothing that came out was reactionary or empty.
“He’s got a great view of the world,” Fraser said. “People are important to him, issues are important to him.”
On Friday, Kerr could win his third championship with the Warriors. With a team loaded with four elite players there is no reason he can’t win a fourth or fifth or sixth. That would make him the most successful coach of his era.
He may already have the strongest voice.