When Steve Kerr was 18, his father died by gun violence.
The devastation he felt as a teen bereft of a parent probably fuels a good part of the Golden State Warriors head coach’s commitment to speaking out on behalf of victims of gun violence and their families. It also explains his desire to hold elected officials fully accountable for their inaction on this issue.
“Do something.” These are the words the now-56-year-old Kerr addressed to Republican politicians holding up common-sense gun legislation in the United States Senate on May 24, 2022. It was the day of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which a teen gunman took the lives of 21 victims.
Kerr’s Father Was in Lebanon
In 1984, when Kerr was stateside as a student at the University of Arizona, his father was serving as president of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Lebanon was in the middle of a protracted, bloody civil war. No civilians—not even Americans with a degree of power and prestige—could be sure of residents’ safety.
After numerous threats from militant groups, it was especially unsafe for Americans. Two horrific bombings targeting Americans happened in 1983. One, at the United States Embassy in Beirut, killed 63 people. The other, at a barracks housing an international peace-keeping force, killed nearly 300.
About Malcolm Kerr
Steve Kerr’s father, Malcolm Kerr, had built a distinguished career as an expert on the history and politics of the Middle East. His own parents had also served at American University. The university and the world around it were intimately familiar to him from his birth, in 1931 in Beirut.
After spending three years as an AUB professor of political science, Malcolm Kerr did postdoctoral work under the renowned scholar Albert Hourani at Oxford University. He then went back to the US to serve for 20 years as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, taking whatever opportunities he could to spend sabbaticals in the Mideast.
While on a research grant to Cairo, he finished work on his most notable book, The Arab Cold War; Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958 – 1970. This work was notable for its author’s capacity to give agency to Arab leaders, rather than depicting them as simply driven by decisions made in the West.
In 1965, Malcolm Kerr, his wife Ann, and their children Susan and John, were living in Beirut. During this time, he was spending a year teaching once again at AUB. His wife gave birth to their third child, Stephen, on September 27. A fourth child, Andrew, followed after the family’s return to UCLA.
About Malcolm Kerr’s death
Malcolm Kerr’s “heart always belonged to Beirut,” Ann Kerr wrote after her husband’s death. Although the offer to take on the presidency of AUB amidst the tumult of civil war was obviously risky, it was the culmination of his life-long dream. He would be coming home. According to his family, he once said that the only thing he’d prefer to do over watching his son Steve play basketball was to “be president of AUB.”
It did seem to Ann and some other observers in 1984 that the furor of the civil war might be waning. For one thing, President Ronald Reagan’s personal representative to the Middle East, Philip Habib, had been gaining traction in reducing tensions in the region through shuttle diplomacy.
Malcolm Kerr took the opportunity. He assumed the presidency of AUB in 1982. He had been working in that position for 17 months when, on January 18, 1984, two gunmen shot and killed him right outside his office. The terrorist group Islamic Jihad claimed credit for his murder. Ironically, they had killed one of the Americans who knew and loved Arab civilization the most.
Reagan issued a statement mourning the loss of the distinguished scholar, condemning Islamic Jihad and vowing that the US would intensify its fight against terrorism.
A Father’s Legacy
In the 2020 documentary The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan and the winning Chicago Bulls dynasty, Steve Kerr appears on screen to describe what it was like for him to play on that team, with which he earned three NBA championship rings in the 1990s. In his interview for the documentary, and in a 2016 interview with The New York Times, he took the rare step of talking publicly about his father’s death.
Describing his father, Steve Kerr called him “an observer.” Malcolm Kerr gave his son the time and space to have his own experiences and to decide for himself how he would be in the world. That philosophy has informed Kerr’s approach to his position as Warriors head coach.
He said he tries to “give our guys a lot of space” and that he himself tries to only jump in to speak when he senses it’s the right time. It was also his father’s death, Kerr has said, that drove him to find his own form of therapy through sports, working out his traumas by giving his all on the court from his student-athlete days to the present.
Many of those who know his story believe it was his personal experience of sudden, senseless loss that helped Steve Kerr become the empathetic human being he is today. Clearly, he feels the losses of the families in Uvalde, Buffalo, New York, and Laguna Woods, California, as if they were his own.
We’re all richer and better for the gifts Malcolm Kerr gave his son: The capacity to reflect with thoughtfulness, the courage to issue passionate calls for justice, and the commitment to always put people first.