If Steve Kerr were any more muted last Wednesday night, he would have been a chromatic gray on the color wheel.
His Golden State Warriors had just handed the host Phoenix Suns a 112-104 setback to maintain their edge over the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls in the season-long race for the grand prize of immortality. The reigning NBA champion Warriors had notched victory No. 48 in their 52nd game. Twenty years ago, the Bulls started 48-5 on their way to a record 72-win regular season.
The 1995-96 Bulls squad that Kerr graced as a bench player had an average winning margin of 13.2 points in those 48 wins. The 2015-16 Warriors team that Kerr is coaching has won by 14.7.
“Satisfying is not the word,” Kerr said. “It’s shocking really.” But he sounded subdued, not awed.
The team’s 48-4 start notwithstanding, it has been a difficult past few months for Kerr, 50, who continues to endure painful headaches from a spinal fluid leak caused by back surgery over the summer.
There have been no defeats but a few setbacks since he returned to the bench last month. On Tuesday night, Kerr experienced headaches during and after a home victory against Houston and cut short his news conference because he felt unwell.
At Talking Stick Resort Arena the next night, Kerr made it through the game and then delivered postgame comments while standing outside the visiting locker room.
Is it scary for the team to see Kerr fine one night and struggling another? Of course, said Luke Walton, the assistant coach who ably filled in while Kerr was out. “I’m sure it’s most scary for him because probably somewhere in your mind you wonder if you’re ever going to be all the way in the clear,” he said.
While Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson went on to Toronto for the All-Star Game festivities, Kerr planned to spend the rest of the week in San Diego with his family, tending to his health.
“I don’t want to go into detail on all this stuff, but there’s a lot to it in terms of my protocol that I’m going through,” Kerr said. “The All-Star break will give me a chance to get through some of that.”
Kerr’s physical struggles have served to remind him that good fortune’s roots are shallow and therefore vulnerable to being upended by cold winds or freakish storms.
As if he needed more proof, Kerr’s friend Jeff Hornacek, whose success as a rookie coach in 2013-14 provided Kerr with a paradigm when he took over the Warriors last season, was conspicuously absent from the Suns’ bench Wednesday. Hornacek was fired Feb. 1, after his Suns had plummeted to 14-35. He was replaced on an interim basis by an assistant, Earl Watson.
“Every coach is sort of a victim of circumstance, good or bad,” said Kerr, who has variously been a player, part owner and general manager of the Suns. “So much depends on the talent that you have and the support you have and the chemistry in your organization and your locker room, and unfortunately it’s a really, really hard thing to discover or to create.”
Kerr added, “I feel very lucky to have that here because I know that it doesn’t exist in most places.”
The chemistry of which Kerr spoke has not magically materialized on the Suns’ bench since Hornacek disappeared. During a timeout in the first quarter, two Suns starters, Markieff Morris and Archie Goodwin, got into an argument that quickly escalated into a shoving match. Both players remained in the game and combined for 39 points and 10 rebounds. Afterward, they dismissed the incident as a brotherly spat.
What would Kerr do if two of his players fought during a game? “I have no idea,” he said. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
It would take an avid imagination to picture any of the Warriors at war with one other. Golden State’s floor leader, Curry, exudes the vibes of a beatnik, not a brawler.
He interrupted his pregame shooting to clap for a soldier being recognized by the Suns, and he shimmied to the music that accompanied the introduction of the night’s honorary children’s team a few minutes later. He then went out and hung 26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds on the Suns in three quarters. (He sat out the fourth for the 15th time this season.)
The crowd, which included the Arizona Cardinals’ standout receiver Larry Fitzgerald, was entranced by Curry’s performance, showering him with applause and illuminating him with a light show made of hundreds of flashes from smartphone cameras. “It’s the greatest show right now in sports,” said Fitzgerald, who waited behind a rope line with other VIPs to say hello to Kerr and Curry after the game.
It was not lost on Fitzgerald that the Warriors’ four defeats after 52 games equals the number the Cardinals tallied in their 18-game season, which ended one victory shy of the Super Bowl. Fitzgerald, who grew up on a steady diet of the Bulls on WGN-TV, said watching the Warriors was like stumbling onto reruns of a favorite childhood show. “Sometimes you’re in the moment and you don’t realize how special this is, what they’re doing,” he said.
Led by Curry, the Warriors have publicly embraced the challenge of surpassing the Bulls’ record. In a recent interview with Fox Sports, Curry said defending the title was the team’s primary goal. “But if we have an opportunity to go for it, we’ll go for it,” he said, referring to the 72 wins. “Because how many chances are you going to get to be a team that passes that record?”
No wonder Kerr’s head hurts. “You just look at some of the games we’ve played this year, we could have lost a couple of times easily and had six losses instead of four and then somebody rolls an ankle and you go on a hard road trip and all of the sudden you lose a few and nobody’s talking about that anymore,” Kerr said. “It can go like that.”
Referring to the record, Kerr added: “I just know how fragile it is, and I know how quickly that whole thing can vanish. I’m not really concerned about the record, to be honest with you. Our goal is to win the championship and defend our title. However we get there doesn’t matter.”
These Warriors, Kerr said, give off a much different vibe than the 1995-96 Bulls led by Michael Jordan, who had turned the team’s semifinal playoff exit from the previous season into kindling for his internal fire.
“He was angry,” Kerr said. In addition to the 10 regular-season defeats that Bulls team absorbed, there were six or eight other games that they surely would have lost if Jordan had not “put us on his back,” he added. “Steph can do that, too,” Kerr said. “It just looks a little different.”
With his quick hands and lightning release, Curry can make an NBA game look like a pop-a-shot contest. He exudes joy, but make no mistake, Kerr said, he has the same competitive wiring as Jordan.
“What goes maybe a little disguised sometimes or unnoticed is that Steph is a killer,” Kerr said. “He is an unbelievable competitor and maybe people are fooled because of the way he looks or his demeanor.”
He added: “We’ve got a lot of those guys on the team. It just doesn’t show that much.”
Kerr acknowledged that he is probably the only player from the 1995-96 Bulls who is rooting for Golden State to eclipse their record. He understands. In 2008-09, the Boston Celtics, then the reigning champions, started 27-2. “I thought to myself ‘I hope they lose 11,’” said Kerr, who was working as a broadcaster. “It’s just natural. You want to hang on to that record.”
As the chatter about the record grows louder, the Warriors wish to make one thing perfectly clear. It’s just natural for a team to want to hang on to its championship. The Celtics team that started fast fizzled after Kevin Garnett was lost for the season with an injury. Ask Kerr and he’ll tell you. The NBA ecosystem is as fragile as a spider’s web.