12 Leadership Reasons Steve Kerr = Win

July 29, 2014

Russ Ewell

Rusty Simmons recently wrote a phenomenal article about new Warriors coach Steve Kerr. His storytelling was reminiscent of my early reading of Sports Illustrated during the 1970s.

I can still remember the March 17, 1975 issue with my favorite player Phil Ford on the cover. Rusty writes with the same penetrating insight, making Steve Kerr come alive, just the way SI made Phil Ford come alive so many years ago.


Why does any of this matter? I loved Mark Jackson as the coach of the Warriors and didn’t want to see him go. Yet when you look at the leadership qualities of Steve Kerr, the decision becomes more understandable if not obvious. Steve Kerr looks to be a once-in-a-lifetime coach. I am so impressed I made a list of 12 leadership qualities sure to make Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors winners. I mean NBA championship level winners within the next 5-7 years.

Note: Quotes are from the Rusty Simmons article, which you should read and can find here. His writing inspired me to develop these 12 leadership qualities of Coach Kerr.

It’s not about me

It should not be about my huddles.  It should be about the players.  As soon as the coach becomes the one in the spotlight, you know you’re headed for trouble

Rusty Simmons

When the leader puts himself in the spotlight trouble is coming!

He saw greatness

John Wooden guided UCLA to three undefeated seasons (1966-67, 1971-72, 1972-73) and 10 national titles in 12 years (1964-75) with Kerr paying close attention from the stands and then eventually as a ballboy.

Rusty Simmons

Watching great leaders shapes your expectation of yourself as a leader. Steve Kerr watched one of the greatest from childhood. Look out!

He understand sacrifice

Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was a Middle East scholar and a professor at UCLA from 1964 to 1976, ultimately being promoted to chairman of the political science department and dean of social sciences. He would frequently take his family with him on sabbaticals to the Middle East, and Kerr has memories of staying in a mountain cabin above Beirut.

Rusty Simmons

Coach Kerr talks about missing his friends in LA during these young years of his life. Whether you like the parental decision or not Steve Kerr learned sacrifice. He learned to sacrifice for his family and those close to him. He learned to be unselfish a priceless leadership quality.

The team comes first

If you were to ask me one thing I’d change about Steve Kerr, I haven’t found it yet,” former Arizona coach Lute Olson said. “For him, everything begins and ends with the team. It always has.

Rusty Simmons

Unselfishness is the glue that keeps teams together and helps them win. Steve Kerr learned this unselfishness in Beirut.

He understands real life

But life dramatically changed for Kerr after he received a 3 a.m. phone call his freshman year.  A family friend told him that his father, who had recently taken his dream job as the president of American University of Beirut, had been assassinated while walking out of an elevator.

Rusty Simmons

The best NBA coaches are like high school and college coaches. They are parents. They create family.  Their life experiences and losses help them mentor young men toward greatness.  Steve Kerr has this in abundance. 

He can teach resilience

But there was never a true escape when Kerr played games in the rival school’s gymnasium. Hours before a game in Tempe, Ariz., during his senior season, Kerr endured one of the ugliest incidents in college basketball history. Arizona State fans started chanting, “Where’s your dad?” and “P-L-O” (Palestine Liberation Organization).

Rusty Simmons

Anyone who can experience this and play one more game of basketball is resilient. Steve Kerr turned it into an NBA playing, management, and now coaching career. He is resilience personified  Look out NBA.

He turned a setback into a comeback

He was playing his usual way – diving on the court with reckless abandon and then immediately popping up as if he was on a trampoline – for the 1986 U.S. national team (the last group of amateurs to win a gold medal at a FIBA tournament) when he blew out his right knee.

Rusty Simmons

There are players who have recovered from physical injury but failed to make the mental comeback. Steve Kerr turned his setback into a comeback. Rather than letting up, he came back to lead a 35-3 Arizona hoop team to the Final Four.

He knows how to change

Kerr remade himself again to fit Phil Jackson’s triangle offense in Chicago and won three championships, and then he did it again to fit Popovich’s ball and player movement offense in San Antonio and win two more.

Rusty Simmons

When a leader knows how to change himself he can teach others to change. This is likely to be one of the most transformative factors in his coaching success with the Warriors. His ability to teach players to change.

He won’t back down

The guards were matched up against each other in a training camp practice, filled with trash-talking and physically punishing fouls. Jordan got so frustrated that he punched Kerr, leaving him with a black eye.

Rusty Simmons

Those of us who watched Michael Jordan play know how many men he backed down. Steve Kerr was not one of those men.

He’s cooler than the other side of the pillow

That scuffle may have set the tone for what would happen in the 1997 NBA Finals. In Game 6 with Chicago and Utah tied 86-86, Jordan, the game’s ultimate closer, had enough trust to pass the ball to Kerr, who confidently made a three-pointer that clinched the Bulls’ third straight championship.

Rusty Simmons

Steve Kerr doesn’t get rattled. Anyone who saw this game knows this. We thank Stewart Scott of ESPN for the point!

His gratitude shines through

Kerr, who played 10 of the Spurs’ 18 playoff games that season and averaged only 4.6 minutes per cameo, was called on when Dallas took a double-digit lead in the second half. He made four consecutive three-pointers to lead a comeback victory.  The flight home landed around at 2 o’clock the next morning, and Spurs signs and flags had been raised and posted all along Kerr’s block. There were still remnants of a party in Kerr’s front yard when he wearily arrived home with the game ball and content that he was on his way to retiring a champion.

Rusty Simmons

If you have ever heard Steve Kerr tell this story then you know he continues to be grateful for every NBA moment he experienced. This gratitude will be infectious when he leads the Warriors. It is the kind of gratitude that makes a player accept rather than argue about his role on the team.

He has a plan

For two years, Kerr jotted down every detail about his desire to hire an experienced staff of assistants with different specialties, and his plans for practices, travel and game execution. By the time the Warriors had a coaching vacancy in May and flew to interview Kerr in Oklahoma City, he had his notes neatly formatted into a PowerPoint presentation.

Rusty Simmons

Steve Kerr has been planning to coach for some time. He might not have coached an NBA team until now, but his plan born from experience promises to be a leadership virtuoso.

I for one am glad to be in the city where I can watch and learn from someone with the potential to become one of the greatest coaches we have ever seen.