Two of his dinner companions have ordered draft beers served in
yard-tall glasses, and Steve Kerr, the Chicago Bulls'
boyish-looking, 31-year-old sharpshooting guard, seems nauseated
by the notion. Sitting in a crowded Philadelphia brew pub during
a road trip in mid-March, Kerr flashes his all-American smile
and tells the waiter, "I'll have a Sprite."
So this is how it's going to be? The Bulls don't play again
until the next night in New Jersey, but Kerr won't allow himself
even one small step on the wild side? "I quit drinking," he
deadpans, and then he and teammate Jud Buechler burst into
"Yeah," Buechler says, "you haven't had a beer since...9:15 this
morning." The two have hangovers the size of the Liberty Bell,
courtesy of an all-night romp with Bulls forward Dennis Rodman
on a rented tour bus. Following the Bulls' 108-104 victory over
the Philadelphia 76ers the previous night, Kerr and Buechler
accompanied Rodman and his entourage, which predictably included
several voluptuous women, on a jaunt to an Atlantic City casino.
Beers were chugged, chips were lost, and a good time was had by
all--except one woman in the group who was carted off by casino
security after she was caught by surveillance cameras stealing a
$1,000 chip from Rodman.
The bus didn't get back to the team's hotel until 9:30 a.m., at
which time Kerr and Buechler went straight to the lobby-level
restaurant and walked right into Bulls coach Phil Jackson and
his assistants. Jackson asked Kerr how late he had been out, but
before Kerr could tell "my bold-faced lie," Jackson said, "I saw
the bus pull in." Other than making Kerr and Buechler endure a
late-morning practice, Jackson did not punish his players.
"That's how cool Phil is," Kerr says. "Dennis had sort of been
away from us, in a spiritual sense, and Phil felt that we needed
to bring him back in, which in Dennis's case means going out and
getting hammered. Not only did he encourage me and Jud to go, he
was telling [second-year forward] Jason Caffey, 'You ought to go
on the bus. It will be a good experience.' How many other NBA
coaches would tell one of their young players to go out and get
s---faced with Dennis Rodman?" Caffey, however, thought better
of the idea and skipped the trip to Atlantic City.
Jackson's welcome-back gesture to Rodman gave new meaning to the
expression "take one for the team," and it is clear by the
glazed-over look on Kerr's face that he followed his coach's
orders to the letter. It is a look I know well--not so much from
my previous adventures with Rodman but from my earliest drinking
experiences. Back at Palisades High in L.A. in the early '80s,
Kerr and I shared a lot of laughs and dreams. For the school
newspaper, The Tideline, we cowrote a sports column called The
Riptide, sort of a Liz Smith meets Lizzie Borden spoof of
The closest I ever got to a meaningful basketball confrontation
came when Kerr and I played two other friends in a full-court,
games-to-100, best-of-seven series on a playground with 9
1/2-foot baskets. Pride and a case of beer were on the line, and
the series dragged on for two weeks. Shortly before Game 7, I
told Kerr, "I appreciate the way you're getting me the ball, but
this is serious now. Shoot the ball and let's win." He did, and
we did. Fifteen years later he's being fed by Michael Jordan.
With his frail-looking (6'3", 181-pound) frame, freckled face
and milky skin, Kerr can walk onto any playground in the country
with no chance of being picked first. Yet two nights after his
escapade with Rodman, he's at the Continental Airlines Arena
defending New Jersey Nets rookie guard Kerry Kittles in crunch
time. All over America, whenever quicker, stronger gym rats see
Kerr in action, they must wonder, How can that guy be out there
instead of me?
That's a question even Kerr concedes is valid. It is why, he
says, "I don't have any fans my age. Almost all of my fans are
either grandmothers who think I look like their grandsons or
eight-year-old boys, who can relate to me."
Even so, Kerr has carved out a niche as one of the NBA's best
long-range shooters; his career percentage from behind the
three-point line, .475 through Sunday, is the best in league
history. (For punctuation, this year he won the Long Distance
Shootout during All-Star weekend.) His signature shooting
style--quick jump, arm and fingers fully extended, hair
flying--is one born of a million practice shots. The Houston
Rockets' Charles Barkley recently said that if he had to pick
one player to sink a game-winning shot, it would be Kerr. And
Kerr's reaction? "I thought he was joking."
But Kerr couldn't have lasted nine years in the NBA--and become
a key (though, at $750,000 this season, relatively low-paid)
role player on the league's best team--without displaying other
attributes. He rarely turns the ball over, and, says Jackson,
"he's a real conscious person. His awareness level is high, and
he doesn't get easily rattled." At both ends of the floor Kerr
is as active as a mouse in a maze. Though he lacks quickness and
would figure to be a defensive liability, he makes bigger,
stronger, quicker players at least work for their points.
Against the Nets on this Friday night Kerr scores 13 points, the
last three of which come when he swishes a long jumper with 1:45
remaining to cut the Nets' lead to 95-93. With the score tied at
95, and 22 seconds to go, Jordan cuts into the lane and kicks it
back to Kerr, whose open three-point shot goes in and out. The
Nets go on to win 99-98.
The next night, in Chicago, in the second quarter of the Bulls'
99-79 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Kerr awkwardly launches a
shot that looks like a knuckleball and dies well short of the
rim. On his team's next possession, Kerr squares up and attempts
another trey. The shot just misses, but the fact that he came
back firing right after a bad miss counts for something. "He
might not have been confident enough to shoot it a couple of
years ago," Kerr's wife, Margot, says from her seat in the Bulls
wives' section at the United Center.
There were times in Kerr's career when he was in awe of his
surroundings, and none more so than the latter part of the
'94-95 season, his second with the Bulls. After finding lukewarm
success in stints with the Phoenix Suns, the Cleveland Cavaliers
and the Orlando Magic, Kerr had become a significant member of
the Bulls immediately following Jordan's retirement in October
1993. But according to Jackson, when Jordan returned to the team
in March '95, "it was tough on Steve because our players had
used our offensive system to get their shots, and now everything
had changed. All of a sudden players were putting on the brakes
and saying, 'Oh, well, we'd better watch Michael go one-on-one.'
There was tension, and it boiled over the next year in training
The Kerr-Jordan relationship was further strained in the
off-season when the two players took opposing sides in the NBA
players' union split during labor talks with league owners. The
bitterness came to a head during a practice in which Kerr and
Jordan were repeatedly pushing off while defending each other.
Talk about gall. Kerr, who hadn't been in a fight since
elementary school, takes a hard shove from His Airness and
suddenly starts swinging. "I knew I had two choices," Kerr says.
"Either let it go and be obedient to Michael forever, or fight
and probably get my ass kicked. I picked a real winner for my
adult fighting debut." He wound up with a black eye.
When Kerr arrived home, he found an apology from Jordan waiting
on his answering machine, and the relationship quickly changed
for the better. Previously Jordan rode Kerr for everything from
a missed shot to a lack of aggressiveness. That stopped after
their fight, and Kerr has become a Jordan favorite.
The two players have a lot in common, including the fact that
their fathers were murdered, a subject they've never discussed
with each other. The obvious trait they share is the seriousness
with which they take their jobs. Kerr has been known to cry
following an emotional playoff defeat and has trouble sleeping
after a rough game. A big difference between the two is that
Kerr is a master of self-deprecating humor, but according to
teammates, Jordan can't laugh at himself.
"If you beat Michael in a game of H-O-R-S-E, could you tease him
about it?" I ask. "No way," Kerr answers quickly. What if Kerr's
four-year-old son, Nicholas, beat one of Jordan's kids in a game
of one-on-one? Kerr shakes his head no.
"I know what this story is going to be about," Margot says while
sitting in a Chicago restaurant an hour after that
Saturday-night game against the Hawks. "Father died; blew out
his knee; so much to overcome." She moves her hands as if
playing a violin. "Aren't people sick of it by now?"
Fred and Ethel Mertz had nothing on the Kerrs. Margot and Steve
met on a blind date during their sophomore year at Arizona and
married five years later. Full of spunk and sometimes
serpent-tongued, Margot is fiercely supportive of her husband,
unless he happens to be in the same room with her. In high
school Steve was so shy around girls that his only dates came
when he was asked out. That guy wouldn't have lasted five
minutes with Margot.
Anyone familiar with Kerr's story knows what caused him, in his
words, "to grow up in a hurry--pardon the cliche." Shortly
before 3 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1984, during his freshman year at
Arizona, Steve was awakened in his dorm room by a telephone
call. Vake Simonian, a Presbyterian minister and a family
friend, delivered the bad news: Steve's father, Dr. Malcolm
Kerr, a noted Middle East scholar and the president of the
American University in Beirut, Lebanon, had been assassinated. A
group of unknown assailants gunned down Dr. Kerr, 52, as he
stepped from a university elevator, an apparent act of
anti-American terrorism. "I was an 18-year-old kid who had just
left home, and it scared the hell out of me," Kerr says. "It's a
lot different reading in the newspaper about someone dying than
actually having it happen to you. It's an instant dose of
perspective. It makes every day more precious when you realize
it could all be gone in an instant."
Nevertheless he scored 15 points in a game two nights later. The
tragedy steeled him for the challenges to come. During his
sophomore and junior years Kerr developed into a solid starter.
Then, as a member of the college all-star team representing the
U.S. in the 1986 world championships in Madrid, he suffered torn
anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right
knee, an injury that was initially diagnosed as career-ending.
He sat out a year and returned in 1987-88, helping Arizona to
the first Final Four appearance in school history. The Suns made
him a second-round pick in the draft.
His father's death also made Kerr more introspective. For the
past several years he has been keeping a journal, writing down
anecdotes and his thoughts about life in the NBA. Once Margot
found one of his notebooks and wrote a fictitious one-page entry
detailing an affair she was supposedly having. When Steve found
the passage a couple of weeks later while sitting in a hotel
room, he cracked up.
Kerr didn't always take things in stride. Until he reached high
school, he was one of the world's worst losers, the type of kid
who'd go 3 for 3 in a Little League game, fly out to centerfield
his fourth time up and throw his bat against the backstop. At
the Kerrs' home in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest on the
Sunday evening after the Hawks game, it's quickly apparent that
Steve has passed his competitiveness on to Nick, who falls
behind in a floor-hockey game, tells his opponent to switch
sides and then transposes the score.
Sports are a constant topic of conversation in the Kerr home,
yet come Monday morning there is no sports section to be found
in the house. "Steve doesn't want the paper here," Margot says,
"because he's so sensitive to criticism." Can it be that Kerr,
notorious for ribbing people who take themselves too seriously,
is so serious about his own endeavors that he can't face the
reproach of others?
This touchiness can be traced to a time when no one else
believed in his athletic potential. A good player on a good high
school team and a B student, Kerr was seriously recruited by
just one college--Gonzaga, in Spokane--but when he went there
for an official visit he was embarrassed in a pickup game by a
lightning-quick Gonzaga point guard named John Stockton. After
the workout (which was a violation of NCAA regulations), a
Gonzaga coach pulled Kerr aside and said, "I like you, but
you're just not quick enough to play at this level."
Kerr applied to Colorado and planned to walk on there. But when
he played well in a Los Angeles summer league, he drew the
attention of Arizona and Cal State-Fullerton, two schools that
had a scholarship available. Fullerton offered him a full ride
first, but Kerr was more intrigued by Arizona, where coach Lute
Olson had been hired five months earlier to revitalize the
program. It was mid-August and school was about to start, but
for three days Kerr was unable to reach Olson to determine
whether a scholarship offer was forthcoming. So Kerr verbally
accepted the scholarship from Fullerton, but when he told his
father, who was about to return to his job in Beirut, Malcolm
hit the roof.
"He asked me where I really wanted to go," Steve recalls, "and I
said Arizona. So my dad got on the phone and tracked down Lute.
Lute told him, 'It was a miscommunication; we had a scholarship
open for him all along.' Yeah, right."
In late October, Malcolm flew back to the U.S. and spent several
days with Steve in Tucson, bunking with him in his dorm room.
"The last time I ever saw my father," he says.
Practice ends Tuesday at the Berto Center, the Bulls' workout
facility, and Kerr is the last one to leave the court, shooting
his customary 100 free throws. Ninety-nine go in. Given Kerr's
work ethic and heady play, many basketball people assume he is
destined to coach. But everyone he knows in that profession has
advised him against it. Now Kerr's setting his sights on a
broadcasting job after he retires. (He has one year left on his
Stashed somewhere in the Pacific Palisades home where Ann Kerr
still lives is a cassette tape that could ruin her son's
broadcasting career before it gets started. It's a greatest hits
compilation of the on-air prank calls made by Steve and some
friends when they were teenagers. On one call he engaged a radio
psychologist for 45 minutes, posing as a kid who suspected he
was adopted, before letting loose and mimicking the radio
If Steve ever had any doubts that Margot was the perfect woman
for him, they were dispelled after her own radio call-in debut a
few years ago. Kerr was playing for Cleveland at the time, and
after Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens told the team that
little-used reserve swingman Jimmy Oliver would start that
night, Margot called a sports-talk station without revealing her
identity and suggested it would be a good move if the Cavs
started Oliver. "What a horrible idea," the unsuspecting host
bellowed. "We'll see," Margot replied.
Last year a Chicago sports-talk host, former Chicago Bears
tackle Dan Jiggetts, was ripping Bulls center Luc Longley for
being overweight. Margot called in from her car, this time
identifying herself as Kerr's wife, and sprang to Longley's
defense. She told Jiggetts, "From what I've seen, Dan, you're
not so svelte yourself." Jiggetts cracked up, and a radio star
was born. Now Margot is a frequent caller on Chicago talk shows.
On Tuesday night the United Center is rocking for a rematch of
last year's NBA Finals pitting the Bulls against the Seattle
SuperSonics. Jordan, Rodman and Scottie Pippen of the Bulls and
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp of the Sonics have their moments, but
the game doesn't pick up until the fourth quarter. With 9:57 to
go Kerr nails a three-pointer to tie the game at 62, then makes
two steals (one of which leads to a hoop) in 33 seconds. The
game goes into overtime, and the Sonics take an 80-78 lead. With
2:59 remaining, Longley delivers a bounce pass into the paint to
Kerr, who goes right to the basket fearlessly. He gets nailed by
6'5" Nate McMillan, but the ball goes through the hoop. The free
throw, of course, is good. His totals: 13 points on 5-of-6
shooting, with two assists and three steals. With three seconds
to go, Jordan hits a pair of free throws, and the Bulls win
89-87. As the buzzer sounds, Kerr and Jordan slap hands and
revel in the moment.
It's one of those images those who grew up with Kerr would like
to freeze and preserve for their own children, if only to show
that dreams can come true. But Kerr is embarrassed by the
corniness of his story. For him it's easier to file it away as a
comedy than as a drama. "I don't think a day goes by where I
don't think, How the hell did this ever happen?" he says. "It's
like Walter Mitty, only it's the real thing. Or maybe Forrest
Gump is more appropriate. He kept showing up in places out of
nowhere, and it was like, How the hell did he get here?"