Two of his dinner companions have ordered draft beers served in yard-tall glasses, and Steve Kerr, the Chicago Bulls' boyish-looking, 31-year-old sharpshooting guard, seems nauseated by the notion. Sitting in a crowded Philadelphia brew pub during a road trip in mid-March, Ken-flashes his ail-American smile and tells the waiter, "I'll have a Sprite."
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 all—except 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-level restaurant and walked right into Bulls coach Phil Jackson and his assistants. Jackson asked Kerr how late he had been out, but before Kerr could tell "my bold-faced lie," Jackson said, "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 he 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 other 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. It is a look I know well—not so much from my previous adventures with Rodman but from my earliest drinking experiences. Back at Palisades High in L.A. in the early '80s, Kerr and I shared a lot of laughs and dreams. For the school newspaper, The Tideline, we cowrote a sports column called The Riptide, sort of a Liz Smith meets Lizzie Borden spoof of various schoolmates.
The closest I ever got to a meaningful basketball confrontation came when Kerr and I played two other friends in a full-court, games-to-100, best-of-seven series on a playground with 9 l/2-foot baskets. Pride and a case of beer were on the line, and the series dragged on for two weeks. Shortly before Game 7, I told Kerr, "I appreciate the way you're getting me the ball, but this is serious now. Shoot the ball and let's win." He did, and we did. Fifteen years later he's being fed by Michael Jordan.
With his frail-looking (6'3", 181-pound) frame, freckled face and milky skin, Kerr can walk onto any playground in the country with no chance of being picked 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 career percentage from behind the three-point line, .475 through Sunday, is the best in league history. (For punctuation, this year he won the Long Distance Shootout during All-Star weekend.) His signature shooting style—quick jump, arm and fingers fully extended, hair flying—is one born of a million practice shots. The Houston Rockets' Charles Barkley recently 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."