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Keeping up with the Kerrs: As Dad Coaches Warriors Champs, Kids Hit Courts for Cal

October 26, 2015
by Ron Kroichick
People in a car in a parade

In the spring of 2014, Maddy Kerr was the only member of her family living in the Bay Area. She was nearing the end of her freshman year at UC Berkeley, on the brink of walking into an Intro to Film final exam, when her phone buzzed with a text from her dad.

Steve Kerr spent much of May 2014 in the news as the leading candidate to become head coach of the New York Knicks. It all made perfect sense: Kerr’s longtime mentor and former coach, Phil Jackson, had become president of the Knicks. Kerr was growing restless in his job as a broadcaster, curious to see how he might fare as an NBA head coach.

Maddy, like even the most plugged-in basketball analysts, figured her dad would land in New York. Then she glanced at her phone on that spring day and discovered this message: “Hey Mad, just wanted to let you know I’m taking the Warriors’ job.”

“The balance between my family and work has always been of the utmost importance.”

That would be the Golden State Warriors, who play their home games down the road—not across the country—from Berkeley. The news, arriving as it did with virtually no warning, unnerved Maddy at first.

“I didn’t even know that was an option—I was out of the loop,” she says. “And I was heading into a final, so I’m like, ‘Dammit, Dad!’ I was excited, but I had to focus on the test. I was super annoyed.”

Soon Kerr would publicly acknowledge that the proximity to his kids was a significant factor in his decision. “The balance between my family and work has always been of the utmost importance,” he said at his introductory press conference in May 2014, “because for me to do a good job with my work, I’ve got to be happy with my personal side. All of that came together.” Later, he would be more blunt: “The two biggest factors were my daughter being at Berkeley and Steph Curry being on the team. And as I told my daughter, it was 90 percent Steph and 10 percent her.”

Coach yelling
Steve Kerr in coaching mode; photo by Noah Graham, NBA Photos/Getty

Maddy is now a junior on the Cal women’s volleyball team. Her older brother and roommate, Nick, arrived in Berkeley last summer to begin a two-year graduate program in the School of Public Health and join the Golden Bears’ basketball team as a backup guard. (Update: Maddy—who is double majoring in media studies and rhetoric—will enter her third year as volleyball team captain; Nick, who wants to coach, will be a graduate student assistant for his basketball team.) 

The two are in an office at Haas Pavillion, talking about the unusual, step-by-step migration of the Kerr clan to Berkeley—first Maddy, then Steve, now Nick. This parade also includes regular visits from Margot Kerr, Steve’s wife and mom to Maddy, Nick and Matthew, a high-school senior near the family home in San Diego.

Much has happened in those 19 months. Most notably, Steve Kerr guided the Warriors to their first NBA championship since 1975, energizing the Bay Area sports scene. This culminated with an electric June parade through the streets of Oakland, including a convertible in which Steve, Margot, Maddy and Nick rode together as an estimated million people rejoiced.

The Warriors begin their pursuit of another title tonight, when they open the 2015-16 season against New Orleans. Stephen Curry and his teammates will receive their championship rings in a pregame ceremony, but Steve Kerr is not scheduled to coach the team in the opener, as he recovers from two offseason back surgeries. Still, his influence in shaping the Warriors will be evident as the players adorn their glitzy jewelry. And his influence in shaping the Cal wing of the family is similarly clear: Nick and Maddy share their dad’s sharp wit, easygoing demeanor and biting sense of humor.

“It’s really nice to just get away from college and all the stress,” Maddy says. “It’s super quiet up there, so we go there to kind of relax.”

They both agree, affectionately and without hesitation, that Steve Kerr is a “total smart ass.” They soon display their own skill in this regard, when Maddy bemoans the way her dad often took friendly, on-the-air jabs at her while working as an analyst for TBS.

Nick turns toward his sister and quickly adds, “You’re an easy target.”

At the same time, it’s obvious the Kerr kids enjoy their dad’s proximity during basketball season. They share an apartment near campus and he lives in the Berkeley hills, away from the bustle. Maddy visited often last year, either to partake in dad’s barbeque or join him for dinner at a restaurant. Nick similarly stopped by frequently this fall, not only for food but also to help Steve with his recovery.

“It’s really nice to just get away from college and all the stress,” Maddy says. “It’s super quiet up there, so we go there to kind of relax.”

The Kerr family has a history in higher education: Steve and Margot Kerr each had parents who were professors. Steve’s dad, Malcolm, was a leading scholar on the Middle East and president of the American University in Beirut at the time of his assassination in January 1984. So it’s no surprise Nick, Maddy and Matthew are good students. Nick and Maddy also followed their father in developing a passion for sports at a young age, whether it was playing baseball with tennis balls in the backyard or engaging in ferocious ping-pong games.

Maddy explored those ping-pong duels in her meandering, entertaining blog on the Cal volleyball website. She called her brother “even more psychotic than me” and described him once throwing a paddle at her; she ducked out of the way thanks to her “extreme athleticism.”

She lost interest in basketball long ago, but Nick always has been passionate about the sport, taking after his dad. Steve Kerr spent 15 years in the NBA, owns the best 3-point shooting percentage in league history (45.4) and played on five championship teams with the Bulls and Spurs. Nick, who played at the University of San Diego before transferring to Cal, wants to become a basketball coach.

Maddy recalls her dad teaching her how to make layups. She played the game until sixth grade and then stopped, she claimed, because she didn’t like “touching anyone” in the way playing defense often required.

(Matthew, incidentally, isn’t really into sports. He has been writing full-length screenplays since age 12 and has received several awards for his work, according to his sister.)

At any rate, Maddy became an accomplished volleyball player at Torrey Pines High in San Diego. She was the first Kerr intrigued by Cal, in part because the women’s volleyball team reached the NCAA championship game in 2010.

The Kerr family posing with number 1 fingers up at a game
Margot, Steve, Matthew, Maddy and Nick Kerr; photo via Cal Athletics

The Bears made the postseason when Maddy was a freshman but have struggled since then, a source of deep frustration given her hyper-competitiveness. But her affection for Berkeley stretches deeper than volleyball.

“The Bay Area is so cool and so eccentric,” she says. “Cal was just different than any other school. I kind of fell in love with it. … I’m really glad I chose my school for the school and not only the sport, because some people do that and it doesn’t always work out.” Another reason Maddy embraced Berkeley: It’s only a one-hour flight from San Diego.

Of course the family’s travel dynamic abruptly changed when Steve Kerr spurned the Knicks and moved north to replace Mark Jackson as coach of the Warriors. He didn’t come cheaply, landing a five-year, $25 million contract. Kerr agonized about turning down Phil Jackson, but he knew the Warriors had a more talented roster than the Knicks, even if he didn’t fully expect to win a championship in his first season. And of course, there was the West Coast pull of family.

Steve and Margot had made many trips to the Bay Area in the fall of 2013, to watch Maddy’s volleyball games during her freshman season. They also made it to several games last year, although Steve’s availability obviously diminished once the NBA kicked into gear.

Now he has two kids who suit up for Cal. Nick is a 6-foot-3 guard who didn’t play much during his time at USD, though he did score 12 points once in a win at Pacific. He still understands his limited role this coming season on a Bears team widely expected to contend for the Pac-12 title.

“I’m sure my dad will come watch me warm up,” Nick says.

That’s a signature slice of dry Kerr humor, now part of the landscape in Berkeley.

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