As the victims of the Orlando shooting were honored before Game 5 of the N.B.A. Finals, Steve Kerr was thinking about his father.
Last week, I spoke on the phone with Ann Kerr, the longtime manager of the Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program at U.C.L.A. and the mother of the Golden State Warriors’ coach, Steve Kerr. Ann and I had originally been scheduled to talk a few days earlier, but there was a shooting on the U.C.L.A. campus—a former Ph.D. student had killed an engineering professor and then himself—and we’d had to postpone.
“Events at U.C.L.A. have been unsettling for everyone,” Kerr wrote to me in an e-mail asking to reschedule. “But for me it brought back memories of January 18, 1984 on the A.U.B. campus.” On that day, Malcolm Kerr, Ann’s husband and Steve’s father, was assassinated by members of Islamic Jihad, a precursor of Hezbollah, outside his office at the American University of Beirut, where he was president.
Later, when we spoke, Ann Kerr revisited that day. She remembered getting word that Malcolm had been shot, and rushing to his office, where she saw him lying on the ground. It was a rainy day, and she remembers biting down on the handle of her umbrella on the way to the hospital.
“I looked at the historic clock tower and I thought, why is that clock still ticking?” she said. “Malcolm is killed; everything is going to come to a standstill.”
Before his death, Malcolm Kerr had been a rising star in the world of Middle Eastern history. He and Ann had met in Beirut, in 1954, and they had four children together—Steve was the third. After Malcolm was killed, Ann told me, everyone in the family mourned the loss in a different way. “Steve knew his father loved basketball,” she said.
Basketball was an important constant during Steve’s early years, as he grew up in Beirut, Cairo, California, and points in between. He and Malcolm played together often. “Malcolm was quite competitive by nature,” Ann said. “Steve gets it from his father.” As a freshman in high school, Steve attended Cairo American College, an outpost of liberal American education where expat kids mingled in a rarefied space of leafy tranquility within the sprawling metropolis. Steve played basketball there but yearned to return to California, to play at a higher level. His parents obliged him. “He was so eager to play that we decided we’ve got to let him go back home,” Ann told me. “He’s always been single-minded about basketball.”
Steve wasn’t exactly a standout player at Pacific Palisades High School, in Los Angeles, but he shot the ball well enough to earn a scholarship from the University of Arizona, where he played under the coach Lute Olson, who was then in his first year at the school.
Steve started college in the fall of 1983, a few months before his father’s assassination. After Malcolm’s death, basketball became even more of a sanctuary.
On YouTube, you can find grainy footage of an interview that Steve gave during his college days, just a few years after the assassination. “Playing basketball took my thoughts away from what was going on,” he says. “It helped me out. It gave me something to fall back into; it gave me some little time to relax.”
More than three decades later, Ann reflected on her son’s career and success, and the international popularity of N.B.A. basketball. “People wake up in the middle of the night in Beirut to tune into his games,” she said. “They are proud because he was born there.”
In the N.B.A. Finals, Kerr’s Warriors are currently up three games to two over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before the series began, Ann and her grandchildren made plans to attend Game 5 together, and she’d teased her son, urging him to let his team lose at least one game so that she could go to Oakland to see him. The Cavaliers wound up winning the third game of the series, and on Monday, a few hours before Game 5, Ann e-mailed me, “Hello from Oakland, where we hope the Warriors will win tonight.”
Before tipoff, Steve bowed his head during a moment of silence held in memory of the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting in Orlando. Ann and the rest of Steve’s family looked on from the stands.
On Wednesday, I spoke briefly with Steve. He had just finished practice. Game 6 loomed on Thursday. He told me how much he had cherished his time growing up in Cairo, and how Beirut called up much more painful memories. I asked about the moment of silence on Monday. “It was very emotional,” he told me. “I was thinking of my dad.” He spoke with empathy about the victims and survivors in Orlando.
“It’s very personal, because you’ve gone through it,” he said. “You understand how much they are suffering, just like how our family went through that suffering. When you think of it, all of these statistics have names and these names have faces. They are people who are now lost.”