Feinstein: I'm Rooting For Kerr To Win NBA Finals

John Feinstein explains why he wants Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors to win another title

John Feinstein
June 11, 2019 - 11:16 am
Steve Kerr Warriors Raptors NBA Finals Game 5

USA Today Images


In July of 2009, Tom Watson almost pulled off one of the greatest feats in the history of sports. Two months shy of turning 60, Watson came to the 72nd hole of the British Open with a one-shot lead on Stewart Cink. If he could par Turnberry’s 18th hole, he would become the oldest major champion in history—by more than 10 years.
If you’re reading this, you probably know what happened. Watson hit a perfect drive and a perfect eight-iron into the green. Except the ball took a high, “links” hop—as in you never know how a ball is going to bounce on a links golf course—and went over the green, nestling against the rough behind it.
I was sitting alone in my house watching. I’d had heart bypass surgery nine days earlier, and friends had been coming by on a daily basis to keep me company. I wasn’t exactly a shut-in, but I wasn’t supposed to drive for three weeks—which was making me crazy.
That morning, though, I’d asked people to wait until the afternoon to visit. I needed to watch alone. I’d known Watson for 27 years, dating to a Washington Post Magazine piece I’d done on his quest to win the U.S. Open—which ran on the Sunday he won his only U.S. Open.
Beyond that, though, we’d become close through my friendship with Bruce Edwards, his longtime caddie and best friend, who had died of ALS in 2004. I’d written, “Caddy For Life,” during the last year of Bruce’s life and a year later Watson and I launched the “Bruce Edwards Celebrity Golf Classic”—aka “The Bruce”—to raise money for ALS research.
For me to say I wasn’t emotionally involved in the outcome that day at Turnberry would be ridiculous.
As soon as I saw Watson’s eight-iron take that high hop and bounce through the green, my heart sank. Watson had struggled for years with putts in the four-to-eight-foot range and it seemed likely he’d now need to make one of those in order to win.
Sure enough, he attempted to putt the ball as it rested against the high grass. It went seven feet past the hole. “One time,” I murmured. “Let him make one of these just one time.”
I wasn’t confident. Andy North, who may be Watson’s closest friend, was the walking commentator with Watson. Andy, who plays in “The Bruce” every year, was clearly trying to will his pal to make the putt.
“I think Tom’s going to make this putt and make history,” he said.
If only…
The putt never had a chance. It was woefully short and right of the hole, a classic “decel,” as in Watson decelerated through the stroke.
At that moment, Watson looked to me like Joe Hardy in the final moments of "Damn Yankees,” after the devil turned him back into an old man.
I was supposed to get out and walk several times a day as part of my rehab. As soon as Watson missed, I stood up to go walk. There was going to be a four-hole playoff with Cink. I couldn’t bear to watch. I knew what the outcome would be.
To be clear, I have nothing against Cink—I LIKE him, a lot. He’s a good man. But, as he noted afterwards, he would have been pulling for Watson too if he hadn’t been facing him for his one chance to win a major title.
“I think my wife, my kids, my agent and my caddie were probably the only ones rooting for me,” he said afterwards.
I repeat all this to explain why I’m still hoping the Golden State Warriors can miraculously overcome the absence of Kevin Durant and somehow pull out the NBA Finals and why I hope Rory McIlroy wins the U.S. Open this week at Pebble Beach.
 As with Watson, I’m absolutely biased—in the case of the Warriors because of their coach, Steve Kerr.
Again, my relationship with Kerr goes way back—to a December night in 1984 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was in town to cover a game on Saturday night between Georgetown—the defending national champions—and New Mexico.
For some reason, New Mexico had scheduled a game against Arizona for Friday night. I went, curious to see how Lute Olson was progressing in his second season at Arizona.
Butch Henry, Arizona’s SID, was a friend and he told me the Wildcats had a kid on their team who had dealt with real tragedy—not a missed-jump-shot-sort-of “tragedy,” but real tragedy.
Kerr’s father, Malcolm, had been president of the American University in Beirut. In January, he had been assassinated by the PLO. Steve was a freshman then, a late recruit by Olson in the summer prior to his first season in Tucson.
I wasn’t at the game that night in Albuquerque looking for a story, but when Butch offered to introduce me to Kerr, I said absolutely. Kerr wasn’t that eager to talk to anyone after Arizona lost a tight game. But he was too polite to say no. Five minutes in, I knew I’d met someone special: he was clearly bright, had an irresistible, self-deprecating sense of humor and talked about his dad with great emotion without ever saying, “Can we stop now?” for which I wouldn’t have blamed him a bit.
We stayed in touch. Steve was an important part of my second basketball book, “A Season Inside,” during his senior year at Arizona.
Thirty-five years later, I can’t name five people in sports I like or admire more than Kerr. He is an amazing story: More or less un-recruited coming out of high school until Olson spotted him in an LA Summer League game. He was there looking at rising seniors and noticed a kid with great shooting range who had already graduated and was apparently un-signed.
When he pointed the kid out to his wife, Bobbi, who was there with him, her reaction was, “Oh no, Lute, you have to be kidding.”
Kerr loves that story. “You see, I had deceptive speed,” he likes to say. “People thought I was a step slow. I was actually two steps slow.”
He was quick enough to become a star at Arizona, helping the Wildcats reach the Final Four as a senior—although he’s still unhappy about his 2-for-11 shooting performance in Kansas City against Oklahoma.
“I would trade three of my five rings to have that game back,” he said to me one night in New York.
He now has eight NBA championship rings—five as a player, three as a coach.
I still don’t think that’s going to become four as a coach this week in spite of the Warriors’ gritty win in Toronto on Monday to close the gap in The Finals to 3-2. Kevin Durant finally played again Monday and was remarkable for someone who hadn’t played in a month. But he got hurt again in the second quarter—apparently a torn Achilles—and the Warriors had to hang on for dear life to win.
But they did. They will still need to win two more games without Durant to pull this series out. My gut says Kawhi Leonard isn’t going to let that happen.
But I’ll stay up way past my bedtime to watch anyway because Kerr’s coaching one of the teams. I grew up a Knicks fan in New York and couldn’t stand the Celtics. Then I became a Celtics fan when I became close to Red Auerbach during the final years of his life. Now, I’m all in for the Warriors. If Kerr coaches the Russian Olympic team sometime in the future, I’ll learn the words to the Russian national anthem—which, for the record, is a beautiful song—politics aside.
Which brings me to McIlroy. Several years ago, when I was hosting a show on CBS Sports Radio, a caller said to me, “I’ve got the ultimate dilemma for you John: last singles match of the Ryder Cup, winner takes home the Cup and it’s Rory McIlroy against Tiger Woods. Who do you pull for?”
I burst out laughing. So did my partner, Andrew Bogusch, who knew what I was going to say.
“Let me put it this way,” I said. “If Rory needed me to caddy for him, I’d grab the bag in a heartbeat.”
The caller was stunned. “You mean you’d root against your country?” he gasped.
“Not against my country, FOR McIlroy,” I answered.
I’ve known McIroy since he first came here to play in 2009. At the Honda Classic that year, an Irish writer, who is a friend of mine said, “Do yourself a favor and go watch this kid play.”
I did. He was 19, could really hit it and, as David Feherty once said, had a bounce to his step that made you like him right away. I introduced myself after he finished, figuring at some point knowing him would be a good thing.
A little more than a year later, I needed to talk to him for a magazine piece on—you guessed it—Tom Watson. It was at Pebble Beach, the 2010 U.S. Open, Watson returning for the last time as a player to the scene of his greatest victory.
Watson was 60 and had been paired for the first two rounds with McIlroy—who was 21, and Ryo Ishikawa, a rising Japanese player, who was 18. COMBINED, McIroy and Ishikawa were 21 years younger than Watson. Classic, USGA pairing.
Ishikawa played well for 36 holes and was on the leaderboard. Watson played well Friday and made the cut. McIlroy missed it by a wide margin.
He did what he had to with the European media. When he finished, I approached gingerly, figuring he wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there and asked if he could handle a couple of questions about Watson.
“Of course,” he said with a smile. “What do you need?”
He then patiently and thoughtfully answered my questions, talking about catching Watson staring at the water on several holes and wondering if he was getting nostalgic in those moments. Watson later admitted that was exactly what he was doing.
Thanks, Rory.
I’ve been an unabashed fan since then and have gotten to know McIlroy well, I think.
So, if the Raptors win the NBA title, I will applaud Leonard and applaud Masai Ujiri for having the guts to make the deal to bring him to Toronto. If Phil Mickelson finally win a U.S. Open or if Tiger Woods returns to the scene of his greatest victory and wins or if Brooks Koepka makes it three in a row, I will give them every bit of credit they will be due. Each would be a terrific story.
But if McIlroy wins, I’ll be sitting in front of the computer with a huge grin on my face as I write.
I have no doubt about my ability to be fair to anyone—whether I like or dislike them. But don’t ask me to be unbiased. That ship sailed long ago.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, "The Prodigy," a novel about a 17-year-old trying to win the Masters while his father, equipment reps and agents try to turn him into a human ATM machine. His latest work of non-fiction is, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports.” John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com