As a wide-eyed graduate assistant basketball coach at the University of Arizona in 1985, I felt as if I had arrived. Laboring as a high school coach for five years offered good experience but could never have prepared me for the next 24 months. Knowing Coach Lute Olson from my undergraduate days at the University of Iowa helped me land this once in a lifetime opportunity. My wife and I had just been married a year earlier and took this adventure on with open arms. We both worked full time and hardly saw each other long enough to catch up. We both had agreed that embracing the profession of college coaching would take every ounce of energy and creativity we had. We were poised to make the most of this two year position on the Wildcat staff.
The 1985-86 season was just the third of many years that Hall of Fame Coach Lute Olson would roam the sidelines at Arizona. The rebuilding process began two years earlier and mapped out a great future path for the program. Among those who Olson signed late in the spring of 1983 was Steve Kerr, an “Opie” Taylor look alike from Southern California. He had caught the eye of Olson during a late summer league game with his ability to shoot from all over the floor. Minus a step of quickness and a load of athleticism, Kerr jumped at the opportunity and enrolled at Arizona that fall.
Not long after hitting campus it was evident that Kerr had the makings of a special player. He had the knowledge and moxy of a veteran NBA guard to go along with his long range shooting ability. He assimilated into the Wildcat program with ease and became a leader immediately on and off the floor. Kerr was beginning his third season at college the fall we joined the Arizona staff.
Immediately after arriving in Tucson I charged full speed into my new position. A self proclaimed organization freak, I got set up in my new office. Actually it was a film room with a narrow table propped up against the wall. I would have worked in the dugout of the Jerry Kindall baseball field if I had to. Taking on every task imaginable filled my days as I settled in. My running mate, Tom Billeter, was also a graduate assistant and we became inseparable for the next two years. Recruiting, practice, weights, conditioning, study table, and game preparation were all part of the job and we embraced it 24 hours a day.
A month into our first season I began to get comfortable with the staff and team. Six freshmen dotted the roster including high school All-American Sean Elliott of nearby Cholla HS. It was evident early on that Kerr was as nasty and competitive as they come. Nasty in the sense that nothing he was associated with would be defeated, a trait that coaches covet. When a mother duck feels threatened she will do anything to protect her little ones. The same held true for Kerr. As an Arizona Wildcat basketball player, you had mother goose on your side. Kerr was the mother goose who proudly and fiercely protected and represented his flock.
As the season progressed it was evident that his Wildcat team had the ability to be very special. Midway through the conference season, whispers of a championship were heard all around the Pac-10. Finally, the stage was set in balmy LA for a match with the legendary UCLA Bruins. Having to win at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion was the only obstacle that stood between the Wildcats and a championship. The Bruins had Reggie Miller and just for luck, retired Hall of Famer John Wooden sat opposite our bench in his favorite spot. We had a future Hall of Famer in Lute Olson and a team led by Kerr that would not be denied. In winning the game in Los Angeles that night, Kerr proved himself as King of the Cats. No one expected this youth-laden team to make noise this year. Maybe down the road, but not this season, fans thought. We flew home that night with the Pac-10 championship trophy and a taste for champaign.
Adjectives are often tossed toward players who reek of this rare leadership ability. The coach on the floor, the general, or the glue are terms television announcers use. Steve Kerr was all of these wrapped up into one neat package. On top of that, his public image was an A+ as was his ability to speak like a Senator. Too good to be true? The icing on the cake was his ability to orchestrate his team to victory and of course, his jump shot. I have fond memories of Kerr the perfectionist, shooting threes around the perimeter in quiet McKale Center late at night. Each night’s shooting success depended on meeting his self inflicted percentage goals. He forced himself to shoot when tired and would continue at his task until the goal was met. Never say die was his motto and he lived it every night in the shadows of his home court. Steve made us all proud when he ended his 13 year NBA career as the leading all-time three point percentage shooter. His most famous shot came off a nifty Michael Jordan pass in game 6 of the 1997 Championship series. This buzzer beater sealed one of the Chicago Bulls historic six World Titles. Never have I been around nor had the chance to coach a player who possessed all of these qualities. Very few coaches ever do.