In Tucson they love Arizona's senior point guard Steve Kerr. They love him because he's an underdog, a guy who went virtually unrecruited because he couldn't jump and was two steps slow. They love him because he has shown tremendous heart in the face of great adversity, including the murder of his father and a career-threatening knee injury. And now they love him because he has led the Wildcats to a 5-0 start and into the Top 10.
On Nov. 28, playing in his second game since his right knee was rebuilt, Kerr was once again in the underdog role, facing Michigan's Gary Grant in the second round of the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage. Grant is considered by many experts to be the best point guard in college basketball. Kerr is considered only the most unlikely. Grant's nickname is the General. Kerr's is Opie. When they met in Alaska, Opie hit five of six shots from the field and finished with 14 points. The General finished with seven points on 3-for-14 shooting. And Arizona whipped Michigan, then No. 9 in the AP Top 20, 79-64. Two nights later the Wildcats shocked then No. 3 Syracuse 80-69.
Last season, without Kerr, the Wildcats didn't beat any Top 20 teams. "Kerr is the glue," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "I can't imagine a team having more confidence in one player than our team has in Steve Kerr. If Steve said orange is green, he'd have everybody nodding, including the coaching staff." And the fans. When Kerr blew out his knee at the world championships in Madrid in 1986, both Tucson papers reported the injury on page 1. Hundreds of fans met the plane that brought Kerr back for surgery. The folks of Tucson sometimes seem to forget that his home is Pacific Palisades, Calif.; his father, Malcolm, was a faculty member at UCLA for 20 years and a noted Middle East scholar.
As a freshman, Kerr became the Wildcats' sixth man and an important part of a resurgent program. Then on Jan. 18, 1984, Kerr was awakened by an early-morning phone call from his minister. The news was that his father had been assassinated. Malcolm Kerr had left UCLA in '82 to become president of the American University in Beirut, where two gunmen reputedly from the Islamic Jihad shot him as he stepped off a campus elevator. Two days after his father's death, Steve played in Arizona's game with archrival Arizona State. "It would have been horrible not to," Kerr says. "It was my natural reaction to keep occupied. I didn't feel like it was some courageous decision."
It was on that night that the special relationship between Kerr and Tucson fans was forged. With little more than seven minutes gone, he came off the bench and immediately swished a 20-footer, as spine-tingling a shot as one can imagine. He ended the game with 12 points, and Arizona's 71-49 win ended a nine-game losing streak to the Sun Devils.
So it was not surprising that, just three games into this season, hundreds of fans showed up at the Tucson airport to welcome Kerr and the Wildcats back from Alaska. Kerr's job, it seems, is to make believers, and right now he has a lot of folks convinced that orange is green.