Jon Teitel recently got to chat with 5-time NBA champion Steve Kerr, who is serving as an ambassador for the Allstate National Association of Basketball Coaches Good Works Team. Kerr first gained notoriety for his play at the University of Arizona, where he was an All-American and helped lead the Wildcats to the 1988 Final Four. After turning pro he won three straight titles with the Chicago Bulls and two more after joining the San Antonio Spurs.
You did not get to play for team USA in its two-point win over the USSR in the 1986 FIBA World Championship gold medal game (Arvydas Sabonis scored 16 points) after severely injuring your knee earlier in the tournament. How unhappy was USA coach Lute Olson after learning that you would miss the following season for his Arizona Wildcats?
That was a tough injury in the semifinals, but in the end it was a blessing for me. While I red-shirted the rest of the UofA team got much better, and by the following season guys like Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert had dramatically improved.
In 1988 you were named All-American after setting a NCAA record for three point percentage in a season (57.3%). What did it mean to you to receive such an outstanding individual honor?
I never pictured myself as an All-American. I was barely recruited out of high school. When I arrived on campus I just wanted to be part of a division one program, get my degree, and have a positive basketball experience. It is still shocking to me that I made it to the Final 4 and was part of a big-time team.
In the 1988 NCAA tourney you scored six-point in an eight-point loss to eventual national runner-up Oklahoma. Where does Mookie Blaylock (who set an NCAA record that night by recording his 143rd steal of the season) rank among the best defensive players you have ever seen?
He gave me a lot of problems both in that game and later in the NBA. He is so quick and strong. I missed three shots on good looks early in the game that went in-and-out, and I kind of lost my stroke and confidence in that pressure-filled situation. I still cannot bring myself to watch tape of that game, but I recall them playing a little zone defense as well.
As a member of the Bulls in 1996 you set an NBA record by winning 72 regular season games after Michael Jordan’s return from playing baseball and beat Seattle in six games to win the title. Do you consider that team to be one of the best in NBA history?
There is no question that we are in the conversation, but it is hard to compare different eras. I grew up as a Lakers fan, and those 1980s Lakers/Celtics teams were great. Jordan is the best-ever in my mind, and we had great versatility with guys like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
Take me through the 1997 Finals against Utah.
In Game five (The Flu Game) Jordan scored 38 points in 44 minutes and collapsed into Pippen’s arms at the end of a two-lint win. How sick was he, and how was he able to play so well despite his illness?
He had an IV in his arm before the game. I am unsure if it was due to food poisoning or altitude sickness or something else. He did not come to shoot-around that day. I believe that Michael is one of the greatest athletes in the history of the world. When players get sick it actually helps calm them down and allow them to focus.
You took a pass from Jordan and hit the series-winning 17-footer with five seconds left in game six to clinch a four-point win. Where does that shot rank among the highlights of your career?
My highlights are primarily team-related (such as winning five NBA titles and making the Final 4), but in terms of individual accomplishments that ranks right up there. The big goal for any player is to win a title, and if you can really make a contribution to that effort then you feel really good about it.
In Game 6 of the 1998 Finals Jordan made a 20-footer with 5.2 seconds left (his final shot with the Bulls) in a one-point win over Utah. Do you think that he pushed off Bryon Russell even though the refs did not call a foul?
He definitely pushed him with his left hand, but it was such an unorthodox move that I had never seen before, so it did not even dawn on me at the time. I do not think they would call that against anyone down the stretch in a close game. The refs want the players to decide the game.
In the 2003 Finals with the Spurs you beat New Jersey to win your 5th title in eight years and then retired as the NBA’s all-time leader in three-point percentage in both a season (52.4% in 1995) and career (45.4%): what is your secret for being a great 3-PT shooter?
I was blessed with good hand-eye coordination, so I could shoot the ball well even as a kid. I received some good coaching and worked hard on my shot. The reason my percentages were so high is because I played on good teams, so I had good looks night in and night out.
In 2011 you became a broadcast analyst for CBS at the Final 4 alongside Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg. Which of the 6 games that you have worked so far did you enjoy the most? The 1st year in Houston featured a trio of games that were not well played due to some atrocious shooting. The 2012 semifinal between Ohio State and Kansas stands out for me because the Buckeyes dominated throughout before the Jayhawks overcame them at the end. I love the college game and the spectacle surrounding the tourney.
You have teamed with Allstate and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) as an ambassador for the Allstate NABC Good Works Team (an inaugural award which will honor men’s college basketball players who stand out for their charitable achievements and community involvement). Why is it important to recognize the good things that the players do off the court?
We always focus on players’ on-court performances and a few of them who make poor off-court decisions, but there is not enough emphasis on the all the good things that student athletes do off the court. We are going to honor five Division 1 and five lower-division players this year. It is important to remember that they are not just basketball players: they are young men who are learning about the value of community service and being something bigger than themselves. It is a part of college basketball that deserves a larger recognition.