Leading a team to a NBA title, the first in 40 years, is a thrilling and exhausting accomplishment. Post-parade the downtime goes something like this: a summer of golf, family, basking in the glow of your amazing year and obsessing about how to keep it going.
But make plans and God laughs.
Steve Kerr had a miserable summer of disc surgery, pain, recovery, another surgery and now more recovery.
It was apparent after the first few days of training camp that the physicality required to coach was impossible considering his various back procedures. Kerr’s mind was telling him one thing, his body was telling him something else. The NBA grind, the practices, the early morning meetings, the late night meetings, the plane rides, the hotel mattresses, all of it puts stress on a body. Just like a player has to recognize when his body is in revolt, telling him to stop, so it is true of coaches. Kerr is stepping down temporarily, taking a leave of absence, and Luke Walton– who has never been a head coach- and who has been an assistant head coach for one year will take over.
“After the first two days of training camp, I realized I need to take a step back and focus on my rehabilitation in order to be ready for the grind of another season. As I noted last week, my summer was difficult and no fun due to the multiple surgeries. At this point, I simply want to get healthy and back to my normal daily routine on and off the court.”
A ruptured disc (it happened in Game 5 of the NBA Finals) is painful- nerves are involved- and the treatment and recovery follow no specific guidelines. It is different for each patient. But anyone who has ever had back pain over time understands what Kerr means when he says he wants to get back to his life, the simple parts like getting out of bed and making coffee, and the complicated parts like pacing up and down the sidelines and standing for hours on end as a NBA coach.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, Alvin Gentry who was a career head coach, having stints with the Clippers and Suns, is no longer the lead Warriors assistant. He took the Pelicans job and is coaching Anthony Davis. That leads us to neophyte Luke Walton, who also experienced back pain in his own career so he of all people understands what Kerr is going through.
Luke Walton, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton, was named after Maurice Lucas, the great power forward of the Portland Trailblazers who was a close friend and teammate of the elder Walton. (Lucas died in 2010 from cancer). Luke Walton played at Arizona for Lute Olsen and was drafted by the Lakers in the second round of the 2003 draft. Trusted by Phil Jackson, Walton’s role with the Lakers was to keep the ball moving, make open shots and get out of Kobe Bryant’s way. It was enough of a strategy to earn Walton two NBA titles. Walton was plagued with back injuries towards the end of his playing career and he ended his NBA life in Cleveland.
Walton took a coaching gig in Memphis for the college basketball Tigers when the NBA was going through their lockout mess. He then took a job as a player development coach for the D-League Los Angeles Defenders. The next year he wound up in the Bay sitting next to Steve Kerr and adding one more championship ring to his collection. When Alvin Gentry left, Walton was promoted to lead assistant.
There is a certain irony here. The Warriors were the healthiest team in the NBA last year. Virtually no key player suffered an injury. Now they can’t even make it through training camp. Kerr’s recovery could have him back in a couple of weeks or, worst case scenario, a couple of months and sitting in a custom made throne chair like his mentor, Phil Jackson, sits in. Back injuries are traumatic.
Conventional wisdom is that Walton will be able to keep the Warriors championship hopes train on the tracks.
“We’ll keep this ship moving in the right direction until our captain can return.” (Luke Walton)
The Warriors have the talent to sustain Kerr’s loss in the short term. But Walton is a rookie coach and all rookie coach’s have their ups and downs. There is no Alvin Gentry to lean on when the waters get a little rough. It’s sink or swim without Steve Kerr, no middle ground.
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