Kerr walks the walk of a champ

This is my Tuesday column on Steve Kerr. WARNING: This is a Warriors column. 49ers fans — feel free to skip this.

OAKLAND – After Steve Kerr’s introductory press conference as the new head coach of the Golden State Warriors, I walked over to Lute Olson – Kerr’s head coach at the University of Arizona – and I asked what made Kerr tough.

Olson raised his eyebrows, leaned forward and looked down. He was sitting in a folding chair facing the stage the Warriors set up in the middle of their practice facility for Kerr. When Olson spoke, he spoke quietly. “The first thing that comes to mind is after his father had been assassinated in Beirut,” he said.

“I told him, ‘Steve, you decide when you’re coming back.’ And he said, ‘The only time I don’t think about my father is during practice when I’m playing.’

“His first game back after that, I don’t know how many 3’s he hit but he hit a bunch. And then at ASU, some of the students were saying, ‘Where’s your dad?’ That kind of thing. He hit seven 3’s in that game. He’s the kind of guy that you give him a challenge, and he’s going to be up for it.”

No one ever vouched for Mark Jackson’s toughness. No one ever had to. It was implied. He’s from New York. He walks around with his chest puffed out and, although he’s 6-1, sometimes he seems much taller.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Kerr, who also is 6-1, sat on a stool with his shoulders hunched. He rested his feet on the top rung of the stool so his knees came up to his bellybutton. He looked like a little kid. He looked like the un-Mark-Jackson.

Tuesday afternoon’s press conference really was about the differences between Kerr and Jackson. You just had to look and listen closely.

Here is one of the first things Warriors general manager Bob Myers said about Kerr Tuesday afternoon. “When you strip it all away, what matters most is winning. And sitting to my left is somebody who has won at every level, and I don’t think that can be understated. When you’re around people that have won, it rubs off on you.”

Translation: Kerr is a champion. Jackson is not. Jackson could lead the Warriors to the playoffs, but that was his limit. He doesn’t know what it takes to win a championship because he never won one. Kerr knows what it takes because he won five as a player. He can teach Stephen Curry and the other young players how to become champions. Call it greatness by osmosis.

But Kerr never has coached a game in his life. Neither had Jackson when the Warriors hired him three years ago. Myers addressed this issue.

“The question that came up the most was how are you going to overcome your lack of coaching experience? Steve said, ‘I’m going to work hard and surround myself with people that can help me get better, and each and every day I’m going to become a little bit better than the day before as a coach in this league.’ For us, it was the right answer. It was confidence combined with humility, and we love that combination with Steve.”

Translation: Jackson was confidence combined with arrogance. He was a coaching novice who thought he knew everything about basketball. He chose sub-par assistant coaches and he never improved. He had the same weakness after Year 3 that he had when he first started – no offensive system. Kerr knows what he doesn’t know, and isn’t afraid to ask for help from the very best assistants. He wants his No.1 guy to have head-coaching experience.

“These guys are fantastic,” said Joe Lacob, referring to Myers and Kerr. “They’re incredibly secure.”

Jackson was not secure – that’s why he had poor assistants. He was afraid an assistant would steal all of the credit.

Jackson also did not get along with upper management, including Myers. Jackson had an us-against-them attitude. “Us” being him and the players, and “them” being everyone else.

“The most important thing I’ve learned in sports is owner, GM, coach – the relationship between those three is critical,” said Kerr.

Translation: Jackson didn’t understand the most important thing in sports.

“What was special about the Bulls and what is still special about San Antonio is the strength of the organization,” said Kerr, who should know. He played for Phil Jackson in Chicago and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. “Both coaches constantly preached to us that it’s not just the guys on the floor and the coaches, it’s the entire organization.”

Joe Lacob sat front-and-center nodding his head emphatically. Lacob liked what he heard. Kerr was saying all the right things.

Then the strangest thing happened. Kerr strayed.

A reporter asked if he feels pressure to win a championship considering Jackson was fired after winning 51 games last season and making the playoffs back-to-back years. Kerr shook his head.

“My view is not ‘next year we’ve got to win 52 games,’ or, ‘we’ve got to get to the second round.’ My view is, ‘what are we going to do the next decade?’”

Lacob stopped nodding. He scratched the back of his head. It wasn’t clear he liked what he was hearing. Does Kerr realize he’s under contract for five years, not a decade?

Kerr continued. “Having a swing at the plate year-in and year-out – that’s what we’re after here. Some years, that might mean we’re a one seed. Some years, that might mean we slip out of the playoffs altogether. But I think everybody on the management side is on the board with that vision.”

Lacob scratched the back of his head vigorously.

I highly doubt management is on board with that particular vision. Lacob just fired Jackson for not advancing far enough in the playoffs. Kerr can’t miss the playoffs and keep his job. Kerr eventually has to win a championship.

He admits he faces a learning curve. Here’s the first thing he needs to learn. Slipping out of the playoffs is a bad idea.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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  1. It will take some time for the guys to learn Kerr’s system. But I’m optimistic this move has a better chance to result in a championship run than Mark Jackson praying every other timeout. The other issue is that Bogut and Lee will never be quick enough defensively together. But I think we’re on the right track.

  2. Steve Kerr and I have a mutual friend. He has nothing but wonderful things to say about Kerr as both a human being and a basketball person. I heard the same things about Mark Jackson when he was hired. Jackson took the worst franchise in the NBA to two consecutive playoff appearances and would have gotten them into the 2nd or 3rd rd of the playoffs with a healthy Andrew Bogut [imho]. I wish Kerr the greatest of luck but warn him to always be looking over his shoulder and checking his back for knife wounds. Steve never forget you are working for the NBA’s answer to Jerry Jones. Someday you might just accidently insult crazy Joes 2nd cousin and you might find one of your assistants secretly taping you at practice. You might get 58 to 60 wins out of your team and a trip to the finals but crazy Joe might just get a wild hair because you did’nt use a play his spoiled little baby boy wrote up for you and fire you. Good luck Steve you deserve it but with Jerry Jones oops i mean crazy Joe Lacob as your boss you will need it.

  3. ““Having a swing at the plate year-in and year-out – that’s what we’re after here.”

    These are the words of a guy who gets it.

    To quote Bill Walsh: ” now had a base camp tar up the slope, within striking distance of the summit, … We were always in the playoffs and had our shot. … “

  4. I think it’s interesting that Kerr used his Bulls experience to describe a harmonious organization. Those Bulls teams, specifically Jordan and Pippen, despised their owner and GM. Jackson certainly wasn’t enthralled with GM Jerry Krauss, who ultimately broke up a 3-time champion to become the worst team in the league in 1999. I’d also point out that Jackson went on to have issues with Jerry West in LA during their 3-peat and, after leaving the Lakers for a few years and writing a book about how much of a jerk Kobe was, came back to the Lakers to win 2 more championships while infuriating Jimmy Buss (and dating Jeanie Buss). After Jackson retired, Jimmie Buss basically fired anyone within the organization that was perceived as having ties to Jackson. Really, Jackson is an example of non-harmonious organizations winning championships.

    Pop and the Spurs are an example of harmonious organizations winning, but it should be noted that Pop runs the Spurs. Pop hired GM R.C. Buford, not the other way around. Pop also has Tim Duncan, who is more responsible for the “harmony” in San Antonio than Peter Holt, R.C. Buford, or even Pop. Duncan’s unique combination of basketball excellence, willingness to be coached, and low-key personality has allowed Pop to run the Spurs the way he has. Fortunately for Kerr, Steph Curry has those same kinds of personality attributes, so he should at least have a chance to implement the kind of system he wants to (as long as it works).

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