OAKLAND (AP) — As Steve Kerr tried to cope with the headaches, nausea, pain and other concerning symptoms, there were times he wondered whether he would even come back to coach the Golden State Warriors this season, whether he even should return to the bench if not 100 percent healthy.
Complications from two back surgeries had sidelined him for the defending champions’ record start, then Kerr found his way into the huddle again on Jan. 22 after a nearly four-month leave of absence. And on Tuesday, he earned NBA Coach of the Year honors for his Warriors’ record 73-win season that topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team he played for that went 72-10.
“There were moments I didn’t know if I would get back at all this season,” Kerr said as Golden State prepared for Wednesday’s playoff Game 5 against Houston. “I’m really thankful I improved to the point where I could coach. Coaching has actually helped considerably as I’ve continued to heal. I sort of had to just take a leap of faith. If I was going to wait until I felt great I would have been waiting all season.”
As Kerr’s news conference was about to begin, in walked his coach from Palisades High, Jerry Marvin, and then former Arizona coach Lute Olson. Kerr was stunned.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers broke down as he discussed Kerr’s triumph this season. The GM called daily to check on Kerr during his ordeal.
“I don’t think everybody quite knows what, Steve, you’ve had to go through this year,” Myers said, fighting back tears. “You deserve this award. You don’t deserve it for winning, in my opinion, 73 games. You deserve it for coming to work every day with how you had to feel. No one quite understands that except for the people you go to work with every day. I just admire your courage, I admire you as a person, and when we hired you, a lot of people, and they’re right, said, ‘You guys found a great coach,’ and we did. But I found a great friend. I love going to work with you every day. I hope you are here as long as you want to be here.”
Kerr received 64 first-place votes from the panel of 130 media members who regularly cover the league. Portland’s Terry Stotts was second. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich was third.
While Kerr missed the Warriors’ first 43 games this season as he recovered, top assistant Luke Walton led Golden State to a 24-0 start and 39-4 mark.
“It lasted longer than any of us thought or hoped,” said Walton, who recalled Kerr’s constant reminders of, “We have really good players out there, we’re going to be just fine.”
Kerr’s players saw their coach struggle through the physical challenges. He still spoke to the team before games even if he then went behind the scenes to watch.
“We saw it every day. The time that he’s been back, he’s had good days, bad days,” small forward Harrison Barnes said. “You can kind of tell where he’s still a little fatigued and having headaches. He’s been fighting through it and he’s been great for us.”
Kerr couldn’t wait to return, but he had to be patient and pick the right time so he was confident in finishing out the season.
“When I came back, I just said, ‘It’s just time, I have to do it,’ and fortunately it worked out,” Kerr said. “Coaching and the involvement every day helped the process, helped me get better and better as I went. I’m still not all the way there. I still have some pain, but I’m happy I’m with my guys.”
Voters took notice of Walton’s work as well, and he finished tied for eighth in the balloting.
“I think he should have been higher,” Golden State power forward Draymond Green said.
Myers mentioned all the credit Walton deserves, then joked to Kerr, “Can you give him like a shoe from the trophy?”
To which Kerr cracked, “One Van?”
For Kerr, his award goes to everyone involved and “is about is what we’ve built, what we’ve all built.”
“This was the hardest year of my life, not even close,” said the 50-year-old Kerr, joined by his wife, Margot, and two grown children, Nick and Maddy. “Incredibly lucky to have this amazing family and all these beautiful people around me.”