OAKLAND, CALIF. – Steve Kerr ambled down the hallway inside the bowels of Oracle Arena, just past the Golden State Warriors locker room, lugging a suitcase and chatting with owner Joe Lacob. Kerr spotted General Manager Bob Myers, one of his closest friends, and strode toward him, a smile on his face. Myers slung his arm around Kerr.
“Are you coaching Game 3?” Myers said, unable to keep from laughing.
“I’m not sure,” Kerr deadpanned. “I may go out up 2-0.”
Kerr continued down toward the exit, toward a flight to Cleveland, toward the next day in his harrowing, improbable, inspiring, historic trip through the NBA playoffs. The Warriors had again trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers 132-113 for a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Nothing about the result, another Warriors rout, seemed out of the ordinary. For Kerr, it had been an extraordinary night.
Kerr returned to the sideline after missing 11 games, the product of unbearable back pain stemming from back surgery two years ago. In late April, when Kerr experienced sudden, unexplainable pain in his back and head, he and the Warriors had no idea if he would coach again this season. His entire coaching future appeared to be in the balance.
In the 47 days between the last game Kerr coached and Game 2, the Warriors did not know how to proceed. There was no template, no precedent for a team — an overwhelming colossus, at that — losing its coach for health reasons in the middle of the playoffs. Kerr continued to shape game plans and run practices when health allowed. By the conference finals, he could travel and address the team at halftime.
Myers attempted to distill the complex situation into a simple question. Every day, he would ask Kerr, “How do you feel?” Once he felt healthy to return, without compromising his health or the Warriors, he would. The Warriors, Myers said, considered bringing Kerr back for Game 1 of the Finals before holding off. By Friday, they believed Game 2 might be realistic. By Saturday, they figured they would give it a shot. When Kerr walked into Oracle on Sunday afternoon, they finalized the decision.
“Like anything in life, no decision is backed with 100 percent certainty,” Myers said. “But we felt good enough to give it a go.”
Meanwhile, assistant Mike Brown won all 11 games as an interim coach. The Warriors had to consider the possibility of disrupting the rhythm they had created playing for Brown, even if it remained Kerr’s team. They had to wonder if Kerr’s health would fail him. There were a hundred other factors.
“You always grapple,” Myers said Sunday night. “It’s all part of it. You throw all these pieces of information on a table, and you try to sort them out. You look at each other and you go, ‘What do you think?’ It’s been an interesting journey. It’s not one anybody would wish upon any organization or any person. But tonight was a good night for him.”
The month-plus away took a harsh toll on Kerr. He believes the pain resulted from spinal fluid leaking into his system, but the truth is he has no definitive reason for why pain struck when it did. He deeply regrets ever undergoing back surgery two years ago, and the complications from the past month affirmed his regret.
“People don’t see the stuff he has to deal with,” Golden State guard Shaun Livingston said. “He’s not 100 percent. He’s fighting through it.”
Kerr announced he would return by striding to the podium for the pregame coach’s news conference. “Hi, everybody,” he said into the microphone. “Any questions?” Word started circulating among players. Draymond Green saw a news alert on his phone after pregame shooting. An assistant coach told Livingston.
“I was so happy,” Livingston said. “Just joy. What he’s going through, to finally get back out here, to just be with the brotherhood he started, it’s a good feeling.”
When Kerr walked out of the tunnel before tip-off, the video scoreboard showed him standing on the sideline. The crowd erupted. Kerr raised his hand and mouthed, “Thank you.” A lump formed in his throat.
“It was just great to be on the sidelines again,” Kerr said. “That’s what makes it so much fun, to feel the energy of the Finals. And so it’s really nice to be back.”
Said Myers: “You learn more about people in adversity. His selflessness showed in the process of putting the team before and taking himself out when he felt like it might not be the best thing for the team. I already figured he had that quality, but it’s shown pretty bright.”
As Kerr left Oracle Arena, Myers looked forward to sitting next to Kerr on the flight to Ohio. He wanted to ask what the return meant to him, and how it felt to be doing what he loved. They have more work to do, but already they can reflect on a remarkable journey.