Fred and Ethel Mertz had nothing on the Kerrs. Margot and Steve met on a blind date during their sophomore year at Arizona and married five years later. Full of spunk and sometimes serpent-tongued, Margot is fiercely supportive of her husband, unless he happens to be in the same room with her. In high school Steve was so shy around girls that his only dates came when he was asked out. That guy wouldn't have lasted five minutes with Margot.
Anyone familiar with Kerr's story knows what caused him, in his words, "to grow up in a hurry—pardon the cliché." Shortly before 3 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1984, during his freshman year at Arizona, Steve was awakened in his dorm room by a telephone call. Vake Simonian, a Presbyterian minister and a family friend, delivered the bad news: Steve's father, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, a noted Middle East scholar and the president of the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, had been assassinated. A group of unknown assailants gunned down Dr. Kerr, 52, as he stepped from a university elevator, an apparent act of anti-American terrorism. "I was an 18-year-old kid who had just left home, and it scared the hell out of me," Kerr says. "It's a lot different reading in the newspaper about someone dying than actually having it happen to you. It's an instant dose of perspective. It makes every day more precious when you realize it could all be gone in an instant."
Nevertheless he scored 15 points in a game two nights later. The tragedy steeled him for the challenges to come. During his sophomore and junior years Kerr developed into a solid starter. Then, as a member of the college all-star team representing the U.S. in the 1986 world championships in Madrid, he suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee, an injury that was initially diagnosed as career-ending. He sat out a year and returned in 1987-88, helping Arizona to the first Final Four appearance in school history. The Suns made him a second-round pick in the draft.
His father's death also made Kerr more introspective. For the past several years he has been keeping a journal, writing down anecdotes and his thoughts about life in the NBA. Once Margot found one of his notebooks and wrote a fictitious one-page entry detailing an affair she was supposedly having. When Steve found the passage a couple of weeks later while sitting in a hotel room, he cracked up.
Kerr didn't always take things in stride. Until he reached high school, he was one of the world's worst losers, the type of kid who'd go 3 for 3 in a Little League game, fly out to centerfield his fourth time up and throw his bat against the backstop. At the Kerrs' home in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest on the Sunday evening after the Hawks game, it's quickly apparent that Steve has passed his competitiveness on to Nick, who falls behind in a floor-hockey game, tells his opponent to switch sides and then transposes the score.
Sports are a constant topic of conversation in the Kerr home, yet come Monday morning there is no sports section to be found in the house. "Steve doesn't want the paper here," Margot says, "because he's so sensitive to criticism." Can it be that Kerr, notorious for ribbing people who take themselves too seriously, is so serious about his own endeavors that he can't face the reproach of others?
This touchiness can be traced to a time when no one else believed in his athletic potential. A good player on a good high school team and a B student, Kerr was seriously recruited by just one college—Gonzaga, in Spokane—but when he went there for an official visit he was embarrassed in a pickup game by a lightning-quick Gonzaga point guard named John Stockton. After the workout (which was a violation of NCAA regulations), a Gonzaga coach pulled Kerr aside and said, "I like you, but you're just not quick enough to play at this level."
Kerr applied to Colorado and planned to walk on there. But when he played well in a Los Angeles summer league, he drew the attention of Arizona and Cal State-Fullerton, two schools that had a scholarship available. Fullerton offered him a full ride first, but Kerr was more intrigued by Arizona, where coach Lute Olson had been hired five months earlier to revitalize the program. It was mid-August and school was about to start, but for three days Kerr was unable to reach Olson to determine whether a scholarship offer was forthcoming. So Kerr verbally accepted the scholarship from Fullerton, but when he told his father, who was about to return to his job in Beirut, Malcolm hit the roof.
"He asked me where I really wanted to go," Steve recalls, "and I said Arizona. So my dad got on the phone and tracked down Lute. Lute told him, 'It was a miscommunication; we had a scholarship open for him all along.' Yeah, right.".
In late October, Malcolm flew back to the U.S. and spent several days with Steve in Tucson, bunking with him in his dorm room. "The last time I ever saw my father," he says.