Don't be fooled by the boy-next-door look. Three-point
specialist Steve Kerr can deliver a fearless knockout
by Michael Silver
by Michael Silver
So this is how it's going to be? The Bulls don't play again until the next night in New Jersey, but Kerr won't allow himself even one small step on the wild side? "I quit drinking," he deadpans, and then he and teammate Jud Buechler burst into laughter.
"Yeah," Buechler says, "you haven't had a beer since ... 9:15 this morning." The two have hangovers the size of the Liberty Bell, courtesy of an all-night romp with Bulls forward Dennis Rodman on a rented tour bus. Following the Bulls' 108-104 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers the previous night, Kerr and Buechler accompanied Rodman and his entourage, which predictably included several voluptuous women, on a jaunt to an Atlantic City casino. Beers were chugged, chips were lost, and a good time was had by allexcept by one woman in the group who was carted off by casino security after she was caught by surveillance cameras stealing a $1,000 chip from Rodman.
The bus didn't get back to the team's hotel until 9:30 a.m., at which time Kerr and Buechler went straight to the lobby restaurant and walked right into Bulls coach Phil Jackson and his assistants. Jackson asked Kerr how late he had been out. Before Kerr could tell "my bold-faced lie," Jackson said to him, "I saw the bus pull in." Other than making Kerr and Buechler endure a late-morning practice, Jackson did not punish his players.
"That's how cool Phil is," Kerr says. "Dennis had sort of been away from us, in a spiritual sense, and Phil felt that we needed to bring him back in, which in Dennis's case means going out and getting hammered. Not only did Phil encourage me and Jud to go, he was telling [second-year forward] Jason Caffey, 'You ought to go on the bus. It will be a good experience.' How many NBA coaches would tell one of their young players to go out and get s-faced with Dennis Rodman?" Caffey, however, thought better of the idea and skipped the trip to Atlantic City.
Jackson's welcome-back gesture to Rodman gave new meaning to the expression "take one for the team," and it is clear by the glazed-over look on Kerr's face that he followed his coach's orders to the letter.
With his frail-looking (6'3", 181-pound) frame, freckled face and milky skin, Kerr can walk onto any playground in the country and feel confident that nobody will pick him first. Yet two nights after his escapade with Rodman, he's at the Continental Airlines Arena defending New Jersey Nets rookie guard Kerry Kittles in crunch time. All over America, whenever quicker, stronger gym rats see Kerr in action, they must wonder, How can that guy be out there instead of me?
That's a question even Kerr concedes is valid. It is why, he says, "I don't have any fans my age. Almost all of my fans are either grandmothers who think I look like their grandsons or eight-year-old boys who can relate to me."
Even so, Kerr has carved out a niche as one of the NBA's best long-range shooters; his .477 career percentage from behind the three-point line is the league's best. (For punctuation, he won the Long Distance Shootout during this year's All-Star weekend.) His signature shooting stylequick jump, arm and fingers fully extendedis one born of a million practice shots. The Houston Rockets' Charles Barkley has said that if he had to pick one player to sink a game-winning shot, it would be Kerr. And Kerr's reaction? "I thought he was joking."
But Kerr couldn't have lasted nine years in the NBAand become a key (though, at $750,000 for '96-97, relatively low-paid) role player on the league's best teamwithout displaying other attributes. He rarely turns the ball over, and, says Jackson, "he's a real conscious person. His awareness level is high, and he doesn't get easily rattled." At both ends of the floor Kerr is as active as a mouse in a maze. Though he lacks quickness and would figure to be a defensive liability, he makes bigger, stronger, quicker players at least work for their points.
There were times in Kerr's career when he was in awe of his surroundings, and none more so than during the latter part of the '94-95 season, his second with the Bulls. After finding lukewarm success in stints with the Phoenix Suns, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic, Kerr had become an important member of the Bulls immediately following Jordan's retirement in October 1993. But according to Jackson, when Jordan returned to the team in March '95, "it was tough on Steve because our players had used our offensive system to get their shots, and now everything had changed. All of a sudden players were putting on the brakes and saying, 'Oh, well, we'd better watch Michael go one-on-one.' There was tension, and it boiled over the next season in training camp."
The Kerr-Jordan relationship was further strained when the two players took opposing sides in the NBA players' union split during labor talks with league owners. The bitterness came to a head during a practice in which Kerr and Jordan were repeatedly pushing off while defending each other.
Talk about gall. Kerr, who hadn't been in a fight since elementary school, took a hard shove from His Airness and suddenly started swinging. "I knew I had two choices," Kerr says. "Either let it go and be obedient to Michael forever, or fight and probably get my ass kicked. I picked a real winner for my adult fighting debut." He wound up with a black eye.
When Kerr arrived home, he found an apology from Jordan waiting on his answering machine, and the relationship quickly changed for the better. Jordan had previously ridden Kerr for everything from a missed shot to a lack of aggressiveness. That stopped after their fight, and Kerr has since become a Jordan favorite.