When Steve Kerr was recruited to the University of Arizona, the school had failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the past six years and was clearly going nowhere. What's more, they had just hired a new head coach, Lute Olson, a relative unknown who had stepped into a quagmire of mediocrity brought on by a low-rated recruiting class. Over the next five years, Steve Kerr would grow as an athlete and as a man as he went through some unimaginable tragedy while watching his coach build one of the premier programs in all of college basketball.
Freshman Year: 1983
Arizona was dreadful when Steve Kerr arrive on campus in the Fall of 1983, having won just four games the previous year. Despite their woefulness, they already had a couple of quality players on their roster in juniors Eddie Smith and Pete Williams. Although initially overwhelmed by college life, Steve Kerr had prepared for this phase of his life. Born in Lebanon to a professor, he had spent much of his childhood traveling the Middle East before attending Palisades Charter High School in Los Angeles where he fell in love with basketball.
While he was a decent player, he didn't garner much attention in recruiting until new Wildcats coach Lute Olson coaxed him into joining his hastily gathered first recruiting class. His college experience began with a lot of losing and by January 18, 1984, the Arizona Wildcats were standing at just 2-11.
That morning, as Steve's father Malcolm made his way towards his office as president of the American University of Beirut, a sniper from an Islamic extremist group gunned him down. Upon hearing the news, Steve was crestfallen as his teammates and coaches scrambled together to support him in his time of need. Steve was at a loss and was rendered speechless. What was he to do now? His father had always valued education and placed athletics on the back burner. Should he quit basketball to honor his father's memory?
Steve Kerr needed to clear his head and went out for a jog. As his chest heaved in and out and as the endorphins rapidly swam through his brain, Steve came to a life-altering resolution. He couldn't drop basketball. It was his love and his escape. Plus, it provided him with a free education. Sure the basketball program wasn't stellar, but life is never perfect. Maybe one day this silly little game could lead to other avenues and opportunities.
Not knowing what else to do or where to go, Steve Kerr returned to practice the very next day. From that moment on, basketball would become his outlet. So much in his world had shattered and changed in an instant and the only constant in his life was the sport that he loved.
Two days after the shooting, the team came together to defeat archrival Arizona State 71-49, breaking a five-game skid. It was a complete team win and it felt like the team had turned a corner. Still, it took some time. It took the Wildcats nearly a month before they could put together their first win streak in the Lute Olson era, but when they did, they found it hard to stop. It was as if they had become addicted to winning.
Their era-defining win streak began on February 17, 1984 in Tempe, Arizona. In front of a rabid Sun Devil crowd, the Wildcats were resilient, winning 65-64. From there they were on a roll, beating Oregon (75-67), Oregon State (69-58), and USC (55-49). After defeating Stanford 87-76, it appeared that Arizona had found its mojo.
Sophomore Year: 1984-1985
Entering his second season under Lute Olson's tutelage, Steve Kerr figured to have a more prominent role in the Wildcats' offense. After all, he'd averaged 7.1 points per game as a true freshman and now after having lost his father to a vicious murder, he was more motivated than ever to invest himself in the sport that he loved.
The team was motivated too. Despite finishing the previous year with an 11-17 record, they had finished the season on a hot-streak. They began Kerr's sophomore campaign by winning their first six games. However, many of their fir opponents were relatively easy which did little to harden them against tougher competition later in the season. As a result, they lost their next three games to Minnesota, New Mexico and Missouri.
For the next several games, Arizona struggled to maintain a winning streak. By the 16th game of the season, they began to put together a season-saving winning streak, beating Oregon 73-54. While many of their wins were not blowouts, they were still wins and pushed them closer to the postseason. Just as they began the streak, Oregon would end it, beating the Wildcats 43-40.
But Arizona refused to let that deter their postseason dreams, beating Oregon State by 15 two nights later. Losses to Washington and UCLA weighed heavily on them as they entered the regular season finale against Arizona State. Determined to return to the NCAA Tournament, Arizona beat ASU by 20. Even though they lost to Alabama in the first round, they looked to the future with confidence.
Junior Year: 1985-1986
Entering the new season, Lute Olson signed two players with length: Sean Elliott (6'8") and Anthony Cook (6'9"). Along with Steve Kerr, the Wildcats now had three future NBA players on their roster. But despite the added talent, Arizona struggled in the early going, starting the year 4-4.
A spark was lit within the team after beating Princeton two days after Christmas. Now a team that struggled to win suddenly couldn't lose. From that day against the Tigers until the end of the regular season, the Wildcats went 17-4. However, they were upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament 73-63 by Auburn. Arizona knew they were good, they just couldn't figure out how to get past the first weekend of the playoffs.
Senior Year: 1987-1988
On the eve of his senior year, Steve Kerr was in Spain playing in the FIBA National Tournament for the U.S. national team when he blew out his knee. He was devastated that he would be forced to miss his entire senior year but knew that he could take a redshirt year, preserving his eligibility. Seeing this as an opportunity, he immediately began working on his rehab.
After spending more than a year rehabbing his injured knee and working on his jump shot, Steve Kerr entered his senior season with a team brimming with talent. In his absence, the Wildcats had welcomed forward Tom Tolbert and guard Jud Buechler into the mix. In total, Arizona boasted five future NBA players on its roster.
Rejuvenated with Kerr's return, the Arizona Wildcats embarked on their greatest season, winning their first 12 games, including a 91-85 victory over national power Duke. Late in the year, they traveled to Tempe to take on the Sun Devils. While warming up, Steve Kerr heard something coming from the crowd. At first, he couldn't understand what they were saying or if the comments were even directed toward him. As he worked on his jump shot, he couldn't shake the sensation that they were yelling at him.
"Where's your dad? Where's your dad?"
Kerr was never known to be outwardly emotional about the situation, but this night was the exception. When he heard those chants, he dropped the ball and sat down on the bench, overcome with emotion. Within seconds, several of his teammates came over to console him and even some of ASU's fans came down to apologize.
Motivated by the vitriol, Steve Kerr was electric that night, making all six of his shots from the three-point line. But the incident had yet to be resolved. Charles Harris, ASU's athletic director, wrote him a letter a couple of days later apologizing for the student's actions. It was a small consolation for a delicate matter.
Arizona breezed through their conference tournament, winning the Pac-10 handily. They drubbed their first three opponents in the NCAA Tournament, beating Cornell by 40, Seton Hall by 29 and Iowa by 20. In the Elite Eight, they stunned North Carolina 70-52 to reach their first-ever Final Four. At last, after all of those years of building, their patience and perseverance were about to pay off.
Going into the Final Four, the Wildcats had every reason to believe that they could succeed. Unfortunately, they ran into a terrific Oklahoma squad that featured a multitude of tremendous players including Stacey King, Harvey Grant, Mookie Blaylock and Ricky Grace. All four of those players made it to the NBA.
The college basketball season is a grind, where every game is a battle. After months of battles in practice and in games, players tend to wear down. That's what makes the Final Four one of the greatest tests of stamina, strength and character in all of sports. the Wildcats suffered the consequences of a poor start and despite outscoring the Sooners 51-47 in the second half, lost the national semifinal 86-78.
There is little question that his time as a Wildcat shaped Steve Kerr in a life-changing way. He entered college as a boy and graduated as a man. He carried the values embedded into his being while in college wherever he went, whether it was in Chicago, San Antonio, Phoenix or Oakland. His experiences as a college athlete molded him in a way that only life can.