Beware minefields on the hardwood

Jun 29, 2004 4:36 AM

Possibly because the silver-haired legend of Arizona basketball, Lute Olson, did not make the Final Four this year, there has been some surreptitious buzzing in Tucson, where Olson walks on what little water there is, that he might be thinking of packing it in.

This is nonsense. Although Olson is 69 now, he has a new bride and money rolling in from his coaching contract, endorsements, and lending his name to Tucson businesses. More important, he loves basketball and is one of its very best coaches, and I doubt if he has even considered leaving the game.

Rumors build on themselves, though, so it was not too unusual that the name of Steve Kerr arose as a possible successor to his former coach and close friend.

Kerr played at Arizona in the late 1980s and then went on to earn five NBA championship rings in 15 years of playing with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. More recently, he has invested, along with a wealthy Tucsonian named Robert Sarver and others, in a $300 million deal to buy the Phoenix Suns. The plan is to take over from present owner Jerry Colangelo in three years and Kerr, 38, plans to play an active role as an investor, to whatever extent he has invested.

More to the point, when asked if he was interested in succeeding his mentor, he told the Arizona Daily Star that he was more interested in coaching in the NBA than in the college ranks.

Kerr always was a smart player, and obviously now is a smart businessman. So why would a smart guy want to coach basketball, college or professional? Why would a sane guy risk his sanity dealing with overbearing kids at the college level, or with temperamental millionaires in the NBA?

One obvious answer is that there is money in it. Olson makes more than a million a year with all his various interests.

Another is love of the game, and intimate knowledge of it. Kerr’s 15 years as a player at the top level of the game did not leave him innocent of the perils of Pauline in the pros.

But to take on the trauma of dealing with giants with personalities and personal pride as big as their bodies is something like volunteering for building new roads in Iraq. There are minefields out there.

Ask Phil Jackson.

Here is a super smart coach who plays mind games with his players. He is an intellectual who imparts some of his depth to the men who play for him. He knows basketball as well as anyone alive. And he is blessed with talent that, on paper, looked like 1-to-10 to win the National Basketball Association in a walkover.

But even a Phil Jackson could not take a team of superstars and prevent them from getting run over by a team with far less glitter, but more cohesion and unity and determination. Not to mention superb coaching of its own.

When Karl Malone and Gary Payton signed on last year to join Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of the Lakers, it looked like Los Angeles would smother the league with impunity. But molding a group of individually brilliant players into an all-conquering unit is a very tough assignment.

Steve Kerr may be right when he says that "most of my friends, including Lute, tell me the NBA is a better coaching situation than college."

Maybe so. These guys get in less trouble, by and large — despite shootings of chauffeurs in New Jersey or couching of concierges in Colorado — than their college counterparts. They are wealthy, and they have contracts, and they don’t need to study or take exams. But they have egos to match their shoe sizes and, like Shaq, they may not think they get the ball often enough or, like Payton, may chafe at being compared unfavorably to younger and faster rivals or not like the type of offense their coach favors.

What Steve Kerr didn’t say is that someday he might like to coach the team he has invested in. Before he does that, he had better talk to a guy named Michael Jordan.