When UCLA’s 88-game college basketball winning streak ended in 1974, 8-year-old Steve Kerr cried. The son of Dr. Malcolm Kerr, a longtime political science professor at the school, Steve grew up on power blue and gold.
When UCLA coach Gary Cunningham sent his teams out on the floor at Pauley Pavilion in 1978 and ’79, teenaged Steve Kerr rolled out the balls. He had an inside track on getting one of the prized ballboy jobs in the city.
When UCLA didn’t recruit him after his senior season at Palisades High, a realistic Steve Kerr understood. Turns out, he had a much better future spending five years in the Arizona desert, leading coach Lute Olson’s team to the 1988 Final Four.
When CBS merged with Turner Sports to expand coverage of the new 68-game men’s college basketball tournament, Steve Kerr, a recent returnee to the TV world as an NBA analyst, has a new opportunity. Joining Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg as the broadcast team for the Final Four and championship game kind of brings things full circle.
Just a year removed from a three-season stint at the Phoenix Suns’ general manager, the product of a successful 15-year NBA career (with four championships), the former long-range shooting Kerr says he’s “fired up” all over again with this assignment. It begins Tuesday with play-in games in Dayton, Ohio, then traveling to Tulsa, Okla., to work the second- and third-round contests with Marv Albert.
Living in north San Diego near Del Mar, with a son about to play next year at the University of San Diego, the 45-year-old Kerr reflects on a very different world from the one he experienced more than 20 years ago as a player and even more recently as an NBA exec:
Question: How different have you been watching the college game these days from when you did as an NBA general manager or even as an NBA broadcaster?
Kerr: The last three years, I was watching it far more for the players than for the teams. I’d go to the Big East Tournament and sit through four games a day for four straight days, then go to the ACC Tournament and do the same. It was awesome, but I was really watching just the individual play. Now I’m focusing on teams and trends and strategies, and it’s really been fun again. The NBA game has been second-nature to me since I’ve been watching them forever, so to focus back on the college game has been a new challenge.
Question: We saw you work on the UCLA-USC broadcast at the Galen Center a couple of months ago. What else has got you refocused on college ball again?
Kerr: I did Oklahoma-Arizona a month before that one, a San Diego State-BYU game in San Diego recently. I ended up doing three Pac-10 games, and I’ll be at two Big Ten Tournament games this weekend, so by the time the tournament starts, maybe seven or eight games, which is very helpful in feeling the rhythm and time-out situations, the subtle rule changes. It’s been good to get my feet wet again with all that.
Question: Seeing the college game with a fresh set of eyes, what are some of the issues facing the sport that are most troubling?
Kerr: Without a doubt, it’s one and done. You’re getting so many players who are very talented but leave before they even give themselves time to develop. You rarely get a team anymore with star players that has experience, like the North Carolina team of 2009. Occasionally, you get a situation like Kentucky had last year with all that freshman talent. But it’s a shame when the players leave and it affects the overall quality of play. The tournament is still great, with all the passion and emotion, but the level of play has definitely dropped off.
Question: So how do you fix it?
Kerr: It would be tough, but maybe with (the NBA’s) new collective bargaining agreement, you change some rules. But that’s a long shot. You can’t blame some of them for going pro with all the money out there.
One of the things I realized as a GM is when you see the list of those players who have declared to come out early, maybe 75 percent of them are players you’ve never heard of. That’s when it really gets bizarre. You wonder why kids would bypass their education and go after a dream that never gets fulfilled. Of the 25 percent you do know, some make it and will do fine, but even then some of them would be better if they’d stayed in college. And then there are guys that drop off like flies. They’re just kids and they don’t know the difference.
Did you see the comment that the Clippers’ Willie Warren (above, right) made the other day? (The Clippers’ 2010 second-round pick out of Oklahoma was recently sent to their Development League squad in Bakersfield for the second time this season). He tweeted something about he may just go back to school because he didn’t know if he could deal with all this. Here was a projected lottery pick as a freshman, stayed in school, had a lousy sophomore year, still came out, and just wasn’t ready. You wonder what would have happened if he did had some more coaches mentoring him.
To me, that’s such a big issue on so many levels, not just how much better a player will get, but how better of a person he’d be with a degree. Even if he did make the NBA, he’d still be much better off at that point, having developed more as a human being.
Question: Do you think of what kind of a team UCLA might have right now if some of those players hadn’t left after a season or two? But then, you look at the success they’ve had in the NBA. Is that a tough thing to convince a kid to stay when others have such quick success?
Kerr: It really is. Schools like UCLA, Kentucky and Duke especially get the big-time recruits and can’t keep them. A UCLA team right now with Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Jrue Holliday running the point. Are you kidding me? That would be incredible. But that’s the way it goes.
Question: You can compare that to the UCLA teams you saw as a kid growing up, how they stayed together. As a ballboy, what are some of your strongest memories of getting to be close to some of those players?
Kerr: I was just in awe of it. There was Kiki Vandeweghe, another Palisades High guy. Roy Hamilton, who ironically I worked for this season as an executive producer for Fox Sports. Marques Johnson . . . Brad Holland. The players were really respectful.
I had been a UCLA fan since I was old enough to understand what was going on. I remember coming out of Pauley Pavilion when UCLA beat Maryland, which was the No. 2 team in the country with John Lucas and Tom McMillen. I remember crying when the (88-game win) streak was broken in South Bend. It was already in my blood.
I still remember coming out of Pauley once and the fans were complaining that UCLA only won by four points – they’re all asking each other, ‘What’s wrong with our team?’ I asked my dad, ‘Didn’t we win?’ He said that everyone was used to winning games by 20 points.
Question: How did the UCLA ballboy job come about?
Kerr: I had a couple of ins. It helped that my dad was a professor there, but I also knew Herb Furth, who was the game-clock operator and was part of the ballboy interview process. I remember that our main job was wear blue corduroys and a white tennis shirt, we weren’t allowed to shoot at all – and that part was tough. They were pretty strict. We never went into the locker rooms. We sat under the hoop and rebounded for the players (during warmups) and then sat under the hoop and wiped the floor if there was sweat. But it was such a thrill.
And then there was Coach Wooden, who would still be there. I probably have the same story as everyone else — going to his camp, writing him a letter five years ago just to tell him what a big impact he had on my life and getting a letter back from his two days later.
Question: Were your dreams of going to UCLA crushed when you graduated from Palisades High and they didn’t make you an offer?
Kerr: It sounds funny now, but I was really a late bloomer. I wasn’t good enough then and I didn’t expect to go there. UCLA recruited players at a much higher level. But there was obvious interest when I got to Arizona, and developed and got pretty good. We clinched our first Pac-10 championship when I was a junior at Pauley Pavilion. We had a lot of great battles with UCLA.
Question: Consider how you weren’t recruited out of high school – you took a trip to Gonzaga, but couldn’t keep up with John Stockton during a scrimmage; you applied to Colorado and wanted to walk on there; suddenly, Arizona and Fullerton seemed to have a scholarship available, and you took the Fullerton offer because of a miscommunication with Lute Olson. Your father straightens it out, and you get to Arizona. After all that, do you ever wonder what would have happened if you went to Fullerton after all?
Kerr: (Laughing) I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
An aside: To start the Q-and-A, Kerr was asked to comment on all the recent changes taking place the Middle East. His father, Dr. Malcom Kerr (linked here and, in this bio written by Steve’s mother, Ann, linked here), who specialized in Middle East studies and once chaired UCLA’s Political Science department during his 20 years in Westwood, was assassinated in 1989 at age 52, then the president of the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, in an apparent act of anti-American terrorism.
Steve Kerr, who was born in Beirut, spent much of his childhood in Lebanon and other Arab states and attended Cairo American College in Egypt, said this about the recent world events:
“I’d be very interested to hear what my dad would say. I often talk to my mom about it – she’s still living in the Palisades and is very involved in that world.
“What happened in Egypt is actually very inspiring in how change all came about in a non-violent manner, the result of nothing that was religious but based on the freedom of speech and politics and economy and people who just want to live a better life. They’ve started this wave that really started in Tunisia, but the problem now is what’s going in in Libya.
“The intentions are great and the potential for change is great, but there’s also the potential for more depression and dictatorship. So who knows. But for sure, hearing my dad talk about these things today would be interesting, but so would going back to the Gulf War and everything else since then.”