But Kerr couldn't have lasted nine years in the NBA—and become a key (though, at $750,000 this season, relatively low-paid) role player on the league's best team—without 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.
Against the Nets on this Friday night Kerr scores 13 points, the last three of which come when he swishes a long jumper with 1:45 remaining to cut the Nets' lead to 95-93. With the score tied at 95, and 22 seconds to go, Jordan cuts into the lane and kicks it back to Kerr, whose open three-point shot goes in and out. The Nets go on to win 99-98.
The next night, in Chicago, in the second quarter of the Bulls' 99-79 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Kerr awkwardly launches a shot that looks like a knuckleball and dies well short of the rim. On his team's next possession, Kerr squares up and attempts another trey. The shot just misses, but the fact that he came back firing right after a bad miss counts for something. "He might not have been confident enough to shoot it a couple of years ago," Kerr's wife, Margot, says from her seat in the Bulls wives' section at the United Center.
There were times in Kerr's career when he was in awe of his surroundings, and none more so than 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 a significant 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 year in training camp."
The Kerr-Jordan relationship was further strained in the off-season 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, takes a hard shove from His Airness and suddenly starts 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. Previously Jordan rode Kerr for everything from a missed shot to a lack of aggressiveness. That stopped after their fight, and Kerr has become a Jordan favorite.
The two players have a lot in common, including the fact that their fathers were murdered, a subject they've never discussed with each other. The obvious trait they share is the seriousness with which they take their jobs. Kerr has been known to cry following an emotional playoff defeat and has trouble sleeping after a rough game. A big difference between the two is that Kerr is a master of self-deprecating humor, but according to teammates, Jordan can't laugh at himself.
"If you beat Michael in a game of H-O-R-S-E, could you tease him about it?" I ask. "No way," Kerr answers quickly. What if Kerr's four-year-old son, Nicholas, beat one of Jordan's kids in a game of one-on-one? Kerr shakes his head no.
"I know what this story is going to be about," Margot says while sitting in a Chicago restaurant an hour after that Saturday-night game against the Hawks. "Father died; blew out his knee; so much to overcome." She moves her hands as if playing a violin. "Aren't people sick of it by now?"