It was a tiny snippet during the first night of “The Last Dance” that Steve Kerr enjoyed more than any other — a moment that had nothing to do with a cocaine circus, Jerry Krause or a helpless Boston Celtics defence.
Nope, it was a 30-second scene of the ESPN documentary on the Chicago Bulls in which coach Phil Jackson expresses zero animosity at Scottie Pippen for delaying a foot surgery in a move designed to upset management.
“I thought that was vintage Phil,” Kerr said in a phone interview this week. “Vintage Phil.”
It makes perfect sense that Kerr would gravitate to this moment more than any other. After all, it might be the biggest lesson he took from his time as a player with Jackson and the Bulls to the Golden State Warriors’ sideline, where he’s trying to drive a team through its own dynasty.
“It was so much more about people than plays,” Kerr said. “It was so much more about understanding how humans interact than the X’s and O’s.
“When I got to Chicago, I had never seen anybody deal with a team like that. And have such a deep sense of awareness of what makes people tick, what makes a team tick.”
Kerr has carried that with him to the Warriors, where he coached the team to five straight NBA Finals appearances and three championships.
Sacramento coach Luke Walton played for Jackson for six years with the Lakers and coached with Kerr for two, making him as much of an expert on the similarities between the two as anyone.
“They’re both great leaders because they both understand people,” Walton said. “I think they go about their coaching way different than each other, but from coaching with Steve, there were definitely some influences from Phil — some strong, major influences.”
Kerr, Walton said, is more communicative than Jackson — always willing to talk through any internal turmoil. Jackson, though, would sometimes just stand back and watch to see how things would shake out without his intervention.
And both have had some strong personalities to navigate.
In the third episode of “The Last Dance,” which airs along with the fourth episode on Sunday, the full Dennis Rodman experience is shown, all the way up to a booze-fuelled in-season hiatus (that Jackson signed off on). The bond between Jackson and Rodman, two people who know something about rebellion, is examined. (Jackson was the child of two ministers before becoming a power forward for the New York Knicks who said he experimented with LSD.)
In the fourth episode, the two swear words Michael Jordan thought of when talking about his first impressions of the triangle offence are revealed — but Jackson handled that, too, because of his smarts and authenticity.
Kerr, who like Jackson took over for a successful coach on a ready-to-win team, remembered that when he was hired to coach the Warriors, making sure to put the things he believed in off the court into the ethos of the team on it.
“The idea is, if you can tie your offence to your philosophy, your sort of life philosophy, then it’s really powerful. And that’s what Phil did,” Kerr said. “Phil looked at us as a tribe. … He was very interested in native American spirituality and history. He often referred to us as a tribe. He would talk about us having different roles in the tribal community. Other times, he would refer to us as a band, like we’re a band playing music together. He would use these metaphors. … and he tied the triangle offence into that philosophy.
“It was cool how those things intertwined. And I 100 per cent made that connection and took that with me to Golden State when I installed our offence with our staff, talked about strength in numbers and yeah, it was a direct reflection of what I had learned from Phil.”
Walton saw it firsthand.
He remembered the practices when the Warriors were a little flat and Kerr would verbally challenge Draymond Green to pour gasoline onto the team’s fire. And then there was the time Kerr could sense Stephen Curry getting worn down, so he sent him out for 18 holes of golf with Andre Iguodala instead of having him at a practice.
Still, all of these runs have their endings. Kerr lived it with the Bulls and certainly saw a big chapter close in last season’s NBA Finals, when the Toronto Raptors beat the Warriors in six games.
“It was called ‘The Last Dance’ — Phil named it that before the season for a reason (that) wasn’t as simple as what people are making it out to be as they watch this. It was over. It wasn’t just Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf saying, ‘OK, this is it. We’re going to stop it.’ That’s what bothers me about this — a lot of people are just blaming Krause and Reinsdorf. No. This thing … the fuse was burning on both ends. It was running its course. Phil’s genius was that he recognized that and allowed the space for Scottie and Dennis to be able to have the energy to finish things out at the end.
“It was really hard. And it was really over. I’m hoping this is captured a little more as the series goes on, but these things really do have a lifespan. Otherwise, dynasties would just last forever. But they don’t happen that way. They die for a reason. Everyone could feel it. It was the end.”
Kerr and Jackson traded some emails last season while he tried to navigate the Warriors through their failed attempt for a three-peat.
“I drew on the experience quite a bit,” Kerr said. “I think I saw the impact of giving guys space near the end of a long run or as a run gets more difficult.”
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Kerr is waiting to watch each episode until the Sunday it airs, ignoring the links he has to future episodes on his computer.
But when the series delivers moments like Jackson talking about Pippen’s delayed surgery or, spoiler, Rodman’s trip away from the team, they’ll probably still be Kerr’s favourites.
“It captured the spirit of our team,” he said.