Kerr: Coach of the Social Justice Warriors

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USF ambassador, alumnus and three-time NBA Champ Bill Cartwright (second from left) presents Coach Kerr with a personalized USF basketball jersey. Cartwright and Kerr were teammates on the Chicago Bulls in 1993. VINCENT BALGEMINO/SLE

The Silk Speaker Series’ most recent guest, Steve Kerr, is a prime example of sports figures using their platform to positively affect change in the world.

Speaking to a sold out War Memorial Gymnasium crowd alongside moderators Jennifer Azzi and Dan Rascher, Kerr seamlessly transitioned between basketball talk and profound assessments of national politics. Azzi asked Kerr why he is willing to speak up in times like these. “First of all, the times call for them,” he said succinctly.

Kerr was born in Beirut, Lebanon to a family of academics. Growing up, he saw examples of athletes exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest and speak their opinions. He often lists Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, as well as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists during the Star Spangled Banner at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as inspirations and role models for athletes who exercise their freedom of speech in the face of adversity.

Growing up, he spent time in Egypt, Lebanon and later Los Angeles before playing basketball at the University of Arizona. In his freshman year, Kerr’s father, Malcolm, who was the president of the American University of Beirut, was assassinated by two members of the Islamic Jihad Organization, a predecessor to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Having grown up engaged in Middle Eastern affairs, and having experienced the effects of political terrorism first-hand, Kerr has alway had a strong standing on international politics, terrorism and gun violence.

He went on to discuss his memories growing up encountering student protests against the Vietnam War and the sociopolitical climate in the decades after. “Politics were relatively simple. They were not so divided. The country was not so divided. People had their issues that they voted for, but it wasn’t this death match that it feels like now.”

In an interview with the Foghorn before the event, Kerr pointed out that “college campuses tend to be the epicenter of social awareness and social movement. When I was a kid, the Vietnam War was basically ended by all the protests on campuses around the country. The young people will win. That’s the next generation. So when the young people get really interested, and they get to the polls, they get to shape the country to their view.” Kerr also encouraged the crowd to vote and to speak up if they feel so inclined, which was met with rapturous applause. It may have been the loudest ovation the democratic process has ever received in War Memorial Gymnasium.

Kerr has long been a fierce advocate for responsible gun safety and gun control. He shared with the crowd some of his experience meeting with the leaders of the March For Our Lives movement and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. He encouraged college students to find an issue they are passionate about and “go for it,” stand up and push for change.

The conversation did not just cover basketball and politics. When asked about parenting, Kerr joked that it has “gotten really easy” now that his three children are 25, 23 and 20. “We just drink wine together,” he said. On a more serious note, Kerr said, “Being a good coach is similar to being a good parent. When my wife and I were raising our kids, we always wanted to give our kids just enough freedom to get into trouble, but they were going to face the consequences.”

He drew comparisons to his coaching style. “I think the importance of allowing people to make mistakes in basketball is very similar. I never want our team to feel restricted and to feel like ‘oh my god, I can’t breathe.’ I want them out there firing away, and you can see it in the way we play. Very rarely do I ever say ‘That’s a bad shot.’ I might say, ‘Hey we can get a better shot, let’s move the ball around a little bit,’ but I don’t want them to feel restricted,” he said.

In one of the more memorable moments of the night, Kerr gave the crowd a direct example of how his team sometimes gets too carried away with their turnovers. “Sometimes we get a little too wild and crazy, and the ball starts flying out of bounds, and you see me on the sideline looking like this,” he said, covering his eyes and burying his face into this hands. “And then we usually show some film the next day and talk about it and try to get back on track. That’s what we’re constantly trying to do: find that balance between being loose and being disciplined. When we find that balance, that’s when we’re at our best.”

Azzi ended the night with the one question that Kerr seems to face more and more these days: When will he run for president? In the last few years, fans of all teams have been seen sporting shirts, hats or stickers saying “Popovich/Kerr 2020,” pairing Kerr on a presidential ticket with Greg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs who is just as active in advocating around social and political issues.

Dismissing a future career in politics, Kerr told the Foghorn, “It’s one thing to be socially active and outspoken. I’m a basketball coach, that’s what I know how to do. I can’t imagine being involved in politics, but as a citizen of our country I’m very comfortable commenting on the state of our country.”

In front of the crowd, Kerr had an even better idea. “I tend to read a lot about politics, and I just started reading about Beto [O’Rourke] in Texas,” he said before he was cut off by applause. “So I realize the sticker that I want is Beto/Popovich 2020. Beto is the man, that guy is amazing… Hopefully if he wins, he’s gonna be busy for the next six years, but that’s the guy who should be president. Or Pop,” he said.

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