Steve Kerr

How Team USA's Yin and Yang coaches Kerr, Spoelstra balance each other

NBC Universal, Inc.

LAS VEGAS – If opposites truly attract, Team USA Men’s Basketball has the perfect pairing on its coaching staff in head coach Steve Kerr and assistant Erik Spoelstra

Kerr, 58, has won four NBA titles as the Warriors’ head coach behind a philosophy centered on his four core values of competitiveness, mindfulness, compassion and joy. The last of the four, joy, might be what he rates highest on his own personal pyramid.  

Spoelstra, 53, has won two championships as the Miami Heat’s head coach while building “Heat Culture” into what feels like its own religion. The Heat’s mantra that was painted this past season on their court during the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament is a pledge to be the "hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest team."

Joy isn’t part of the Heat’s equation. Their euphoria comes from the triumph of knowing they’re always one percent physically and mentally stronger than their opponent. 

“Being coached by Steve I’d say is a little more laid back,” Heat star big man Bam Adebayo, and member of Team USA, said to NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday after their final day of training camp at UNLV. “Especially compared to somebody like Spo. Spo’s just real intense. 

“That’s just his nature. He’s real intense. He’s a savant when it comes to studying basketball. So I’d just say the laid-backness of coach Kerr is definitely one thing that stands out.”

The two coaches have won a combined six NBA championships as head coaches and have reached the NBA Finals 12 times, making six trips each to basketball’s biggest stage. They’re two of only four current head coaches named as the league’s 15 greatest coaches of all time as part of the NBA celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2022. 

But neither Kerr nor Spoelstra was really ever supposed to be in this position to begin with. 

Kerr wasn’t a major recruit coming out of Palisades High School before he became a star at the University of Arizona. Spoelstra was selected to Sonny Vaccaro’s famed Nike All-Star camp after catching his attention excelling for Jesuit High School in Oregon, yet had to play for his hometown school at the University of Portland, where he was named the West Coast Conference’s Freshman of the Year in 1989. Both undersized point guards then took different paths in their professional playing careers. 

While Kerr’s career began slowly as a second-round draft pick that would go on to be a key member of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, winning five championships – three with the Bulls and two more as a member of the San Antonio Spurs – Spoelstra went undrafted and played two years professionally in Germany for TuS Herten. That opportunity also led to his first coaching experience, leading the club’s local youth team. 

No matter their differences in styles, the goal of being the last team standing and lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy is the same for Kerr and Spoelstra every single year. Kerr was crowned a champion his first crack at being an NBA head coach. Spoelstra grinded from the dark corners of the Heat’s video room to years as an assistant coach and now being revered as one of the best basketball minds to teach the game. 

The Yin and Yang of the two as coaches couldn’t be more clear. The same can be said of their friendship, which has sprouted thanks to invaluable time together as Team USA coaches off the court

“The biggest thing is that we’ve had a lot of time outside of practices and games to spend with each other, get to know each other, talk about our families, talk about other interests – all the stuff that really matters,” Spoelstra says. 

Joy vs. being the NBA’s meanest team. Compassion vs. always proving to your opponent who’s tougher.

Wearing his checkerboard slip-on Vans that date back to the late 1970s and enjoying the beaches of San Diego at any chance he gets makes Kerr come off as care-free to the outside. He also is the same person whose temper ran rampant as a child on the baseball field, basketball court and anywhere else. One can be a fierce competitor ready to break a clipboard at the sight of lazy defense, and also preach playing free and easy in the huddle to his players. 

Spoelstra sees someone who can balance both to perfection. In the eyes of players and coaches, that’s Kerr’s greatest gift. 

“Steve is our connector,” Spoelstra said. “And he just has an amazing superpower to make people feel valued, and also keep perspective that we’re going to be very serious and we take this responsibility of representing the United States very seriously. But we can also have a lot of fun on the side.

“I’ve really enjoyed that aspect.”

Smiles will be seen from Spoelstra this summer on Team USA’s sidelines. Stern reminders to the NBA’s elite will be given by Kerr. There will be laughs, there will be frustrations and the two will continuously bounce ideas off each other. Each can be misrepresented for how they go about their business.

Both will bring passion in ways only they know how, counterbalancing one another to proudly call themselves Olympic champions after years of doing so in the NBA.

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