Three years after joining the team, Kevin Durant broke up with the Golden State Warriors forcing Steve Kerr to go through a series of major line-up adjustments. But Kerr was energized by the challenge that came complete with the symbolism of the Warriors starting another new life with the move into shiny Chase Center. Plus, there was the enthusiasm of finally getting on the court with Team USA in August 2019, nine months after the announcement that he had been chosen as Gregg Popovich’s assistant and 33 years after playing for his country in his star-crossed world championships in Spain. The American squad met in Las Vegas for the same mini-camp USA Basketball often held to prepare for international competitions, only now with the head coach and a high-profile assistant jousting with the White House and heading into the delicate diplomatic waters of China for the tournament.
Officials said nothing to Kerr, however, before Las Vegas or once players and staff gathered. “Not to him specifically,” former USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “I did it in a different manner. To the group I said, ‘We want to go about our business. We’re here to represent the United States, we’re here to play the games, we’re here to do all of that. This is not about politics. This is not the platform for that.’ I wanted a separation.”
Popovich delivered a similar message when he hosted players and coaches for a meeting. “We can’t fix the divisiveness in our country. But what we can do is be a great example of how people can come together for a common goal and achieve it. It’s our responsibility to not only become the best team we can be, but it’s the way we conduct ourselves with USA on our shirts. We’re representing a lot of people.”
It was left to others to remind Popovich that he had previously labeled Donald Trump “a soulless coward” who was “unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically” to be president.
Kerr in recent weeks had used Twitter to share videos and articles critical of Trump and to push for stricter gun control in the wake of shootings in Texas and Ohio. He referenced “gutless leadership” in Washington and shortly after arriving for the minicamp said, “Somebody could walk in the door in the gym right now and start spraying us with an AR-15. They could. It might happen because we’re all vulnerable, whether we go to a concert, a church, the mall or go to the movie theater or a school.” As part of Team USA, though, “I’m proud to represent my country and do it with this group in a positive, classy way. We have a chance to do something that’s very unifying.”
Not even the US team’s eventual disappointing seventh place at the world championships could deter Popovich and Kerr from boasting of the summer as a positive experience. For Kerr, the chance to work closely with one of his mentors was a highlight of his coaching career, with the additional excitement that the staff was projected to remain in place for the Tokyo Games.
Of far greater concern in the moment, Kerr would be going back to his full-time job with easily the briefest rest of his Golden State tenure and would have only weeks to lock into the challenge of the Warriors minus Durant and, for at least several months, without Klay Thompson.
“Well, I’m excited about it,” Kerr said the day before the team took the court for the first time. “It’s different. It’s a very different season. Every year is a challenge, and the circumstances are unique.” He was 54 years old with three titles in his current job alone, yet still describing himself as a young coach with much to learn. But of all the problems ahead, handling adversity would not be one of them.
It was no different when the critique veered all the way to the highest reaches of politics. Kerr ducking the chance to support human rights protesters in China as the NBA collectively avoided criticizing the country where it had billions invested renewed the verbal war with Trump. This time the White House was on the offense after Kerr offered “no comment” on the fallout from the controversy that threatened the league’s relationship with the most populous country in the world: “It’s a really bizarre international story. A lot of us don’t know what to make of it. It’s something I’m reading about like everyone else is, but I’m not gonna comment further.”
Trump pounced. “I watched this guy, Steve Kerr, and he was like a little boy who was so scared to be even answering the question,” Trump said of one of his vocal adversaries who likewise knew how to leverage the media. “He couldn’t answer the question. He was shaking. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.’ He didn’t know how to answer the question. And yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly. I watched Popovich. Sort of the same thing, but he didn’t look quite as scared actually. But they talk badly about the United States, but when it talks about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad actually. It’ll be very interesting.”
Kerr and Air Force Academy graduate Popovich, he added, were pandering to China. “And yet to our own country, they don’t – it’s like they don’t respect it. I said, ‘What a difference.’ Isn’t it sad?” Moving to revoke future invitations that had not been issued and almost certainly would not have been accepted, Trump reaffirmed he did not want Kerr at the White House.
Trump seemed unconcerned by the fact that Kerr had never spoken ill of the country, only some elected officials and policies, or that Kerr was not shaking. The credible attack point the White House had but chose not to use was Kerr hiding behind the claim of lacking knowledge when in fact he was always well read on most major news topics and brother-in-law Hans van de Ven was a professor of modern Chinese history at Cambridge. Leaning on “It’s a really bizarre international story” and “A lot of us don’t know what to make of it,” was a botched attempt to protect NBA financial interests more than Kerr being scared, as he would acknowledge the next summer. “Obviously,” he conceded within days, “there are tremendous financial forces at play here too. So how you reconcile all that, I don’t know.”
Either way, it was an issue as Golden State’s vice president of communications, Raymond Ridder, texted Kerr with the alert that developments had reached a national scale, just before many others called and typed at him. Kerr had traded punches with the White House before, but as part of a group in 2015 while considering the traditional champion’s visit. There had also been the imaging of one of Trump’s least favorite public figures, Kerr, joining the Warriors in visiting another of Trump’s least favorite public figures, Barack Obama, in Washington instead of stopping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the off day built into the Golden State schedule to celebrate the 2018 crown. This, though, was directly Kerr vs. Trump for the first time and the administration spin machine flexing at a basketball coach whose biggest transgression was what some viewed as a weak answer.
Kerr reported for the mandatory media availability ahead of the 10 October preseason game against Minnesota, the night after Trump’s inaccurate criticism, and responded with a mix of somber tones and humor. “Raymond and I were just talking about it and if we were thinking about it earlier I was going to ride in on a tricycle with one of those beanies with a propeller it in because he called me a little boy,” he said. “Just ride in and see if you guys got the joke, but we didn’t think of it early enough. It was really surprising, mainly just because it was me. Then you stop and think that this is just every day, this is just another day. I was the shiny object yesterday, there was another one today, and there will be a new one tomorrow, and the circus will go on. It was just strange, but it happened.”
He went on to talk about living a privileged life that included meeting five previous presidents, starting with Reagan in the Oval Office visit with his mother Ann in 1984 to thank the family for his father Malcolm’s service. He spoke of what he saw as the dramatic change from the dignity and respect Kerr knew from leaders of both parties. Also, he wondered, “Does anyone want to talk about pick-and-roll coverage tonight?”
Mostly, he said later in the session, “It’s hard for me to make a comment about something that impacts so many people, different countries, different governments. Not really feeling comfortable being in the midst of it, I think it makes more sense to lay low and be a scared little boy.” The media sitting before him broke up. The exchange ended after several lengthy responses on the controversy at hand, Kerr interjecting thoughts on gun control, and even a closing query that poked at his baseball team being eliminated from the playoffs the day before. “Wow,” he said. “That sounded like a shot. Tough day for me. The president goes at me and my Dodgers lose.”
Jousting with the White House passed, as Kerr predicted, in enough time before the regular season for him to focus entirely on his actual problem of a roster in mid-crumble, and the perspective of where Golden State’s woes fit among the real issues was never more necessary than when the calendar turned and 2019–2020 developed into the worst season in pro basketball history. Retired Commissioner David Stern, the driving force in turning the league into an international conglomerate, died on New Year’s Day. Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash 25 days later. The coronavirus pandemic halted business in March and protests against racism and police brutality later in the spring were felt in every big city.
There were also questions for the first time in the Kerr era about the sustainability of a roster whose best player, Stephen Curry, would turn 33 the next season. Steve Kerr once again found himself with something to prove.