Steve Kerr told Phil Jackson, his former coach with the championship Bulls and the new head of basketball operations in New York, he would coach the Knicks. Basically accepted the job. The contract had to be worked out, obviously no small matter, but Kerr was set for Madison Square Garden.
And then he wasn’t.
The TNT commentator who went to high school near Los Angeles, college at Arizona, previously worked in Phoenix and now lives in San Diego ultimately could not convince himself to be a continent away from his wife and kids. And to hear Kerr tell it, he didn’t have to convince an understanding Jackson. Either way, it became the only opening the Warriors needed.
Golden State grabbed Kerr as its coach. It had a replacement for the fired Mark Jackson and Kerr had an ideal situation of landing his first sideline job with an established, winning team on the West Coast. He had added another twist to his strange road — from unfulfilling years as Suns general manager to enjoying TV work in California, not New York, and the career path he expected after leaving college, before an unexpected playing career and all those championships kept getting in the way.
NBA.com: Did you always know you wanted to be a coach one day or had the plan been to get back into the front office?
Kerr: When I left Phoenix, I never had any desire to get back in the front office.
NBA.com: Why is that?
Kerr: I like being on the court. I enjoyed the job, but you’re never on the court as a GM. You’re always upstairs and talking to agents. It’s a more-corporate position. I’d rather dress like this (T-shirt, shorts) every day to practice, to be honest with you. I like working with players and I like the game itself.
NBA.com: Did you find yourself not liking the GM job in Phoenix?
Kerr: I liked it when we won. We had a great year the last year.
NBA.com: But in general, because that’s going to be the same with almost any job, that you’re going to enjoy it more when you’re winning. But did you find yourself thinking, “This isn’t for me”?
Kerr: I knew when I left after my contract ran out and I decided to go back to TV, I thought that it was a great experience for me but I had no desire to go back and do it. Coaching was much more intriguing to me.
NBA.com: Was that one of the reasons you left, because it just wasn’t fun?
Kerr: Yeah. That was one of the reasons. And a big part of it was family. My kids, all three were high school or below in San Diego. The opportunity to go back to TV and live the good life was there. That meant a lot to me at the time because of the ages of my kids. Now, two of them are in college, one is not too far off from college, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on my home life. It’s just a much better time of my life to pursue this and commit fully.
NBA.com: You had other opportunities before this. Why did this feel right and the other ones didn’t?
Kerr: I had plenty of opportunities. I had probably four or five teams over the last few years (to be a head coach), not necessarily offer me the job but contact me about the possibility. It was very intriguing.
NBA.com: Any that you were offered?
Kerr: No. Without an interview, nobody said, “We’ll give you the job.”
NBA.com: Why not (interview with), “Let’s see where it goes.”
Kerr: Because I knew I wasn’t ready, family-wise mainly. I wanted to be at home for my daughter’s last year of high school, for example. Once she graduated high school, which was a year and a half ago, then I really started to focus on it. But I still had a year on my TV contract, I loved working at TNT, my son and my daughter were both playing college sports, I wanted to be able to go to their games. I was just really enjoying myself. So I figured I’d just wait until the timing was right and not only the timing but the circumstances. So to be here, in Golden State with a team that won 51 games, in a great city, I’m from California, raised in California, with an ownership group that I was familiar with, (Warriors president) Rick Welts a great friend from Phoenix, and a good young roster and my daughter lives two miles away and goes to Berkeley. It’s like ideal.
NBA.com: Did you have to make a Knicks-or-Warriors decision?
NBA.com: What did that come down to?
Kerr: Everything I just referenced. New York was very intriguing, especially my relationship with Phil and the opportunity he was presenting me, and the Knicks, the franchise itself and the history. But it would have been a really, really difficult situation in terms of the family and being all the way across the country. I just felt better suited to work with these guys here, this younger roster with a more established core. It just felt more comfortable.
NBA.com: How much of it was the Knicks are not in as good a position as the Warriors in terms of being able to win now?
Kerr: The fact that they were in the East and were a year away from cap room was really intriguing. I think the Knicks are a playoff team right now and I think they’re going to get better and I think a year from now they’ll have a chance to make a real splash in free agency. The basketball situation, particularly being aligned with Phil, was very intriguing actually. It much more came down to lifestyle and family and the established roster here. On the flip side, we’re in the West. (He laughs) That was a negative. But can’t do much about that.
NBA.com: How close did you come to taking the Knicks job?
Kerr: I came close. It was very difficult to turn down. Agonizing. I actually at one point told Phil I was going to come, without knowing anything about contracts and without really talking in detail about certain circumstances. At one point I told him, “I’m coming,” but the caveat that we need to hash the rest of this out. And that’s when the Golden State job opened up and that’s when they were able to contact me and I was able to explore it. The timing was weird.
NBA.com: Was it a matter of you were not comfortable with the terms that the Knicks were putting out, the contract itself? Or the time it took to put the contract together, that’s when the Warriors opened and the Warriors slid in?
Kerr: They did. The Warriors did slide in.
NBA.com: Was there any problem with what the Knicks were talking money wise and years wise?
Kerr: No. I had no problem with the money. That was just normal negotiation. A lot of it was figuring out logistics and, like I said, there were some family considerations. And all the while I’m working every other night for TNT, so I never had a chance to actually go to New York and sit down with management. I had dinner with Phil in the city when I was working a Nets game for TNT, but I never had the chance to visit the facility. It was just awkward with the whole process.
NBA.com: Do you second-guess yourself? Do you regret the way you handled it — saying yes, committing to it before things had really been worked out?
Kerr: A little bit. It’s a human thing. Phil couldn’t have been better when I told him I was going to go Golden State.
NBA.com: He didn’t feel burned?
Kerr: Not at all. Because he understood. In fact, he said, “If you had come here and regretted it, it would have been the worst thing for both of us.” That’s why Phil’s Phil. He understands people. In hindsight, it probably would have been best not committing, not saying anything, just saying, “Look, I need to talk to Golden State.” But the timing was an issue on both ends. It was very tricky. Anyway, it all worked out. I think the Knicks ended up with a great coach and Derek (Fisher) and Phil will do well together and I’m happy to be here with (general manager) Bob (Myers) and the team.
NBA.com: Because you two have such a history, was it difficult to tell Phil you were not taking the job?
Kerr: It was agonizing. But his reaction made it a lot easier.
NBA.com: He didn’t try to change your mind by inviting you to do some yoga and meditate over it?
Kerr: I was already doing yoga and meditating over it.
NBA.com: What is the biggest impact you can bring with this team?
Kerr: I think empowering the guys with the real sense of how we can get to our goal.
NBA.com: In terms of the mental? When you talk about empowering, you mean….?
Kerr: First of all, I feel good about my ability to connect with guys and to lead. They’re already a good team. I feel like it’s relatively easy to identify what we have to do to get better and I have a staff in place that is going to give the team every opportunity to do so, especially with (assistant coaches) Ron (Adams) and Alvin (Gentry) and their long-time expertise in this league. I think we have a good plan. Last year’s team won 51 games. As I said, it’s a talented group. I just feel like from here to take the next step they need direction, they need the idea of how we’re going to do this, and that’s what we try to provide.