OAKLAND, Calif. — Steve Kerr had butterflies Friday night for his long-awaited season debut coaching the defending NBA champions.
Sure, Golden State’s second-year coach knocked down a half-court shot in Cleveland earlier this week that pointed to him returning to full strength.
He came back to the Warriors’ bench Friday night following a long leave of absence dating to the first week of training camp in October as he recovered from complications following two back surgeries.
"I’ve been waiting for this for a long time … I really missed the routine," Kerr said. "It feels like the first game of the season, which it is for me. Fortunately our team’s in a pretty good groove and hopefully we can keep going. "
When introduced just before tipoff against the Pacers, an emotional Kerr waved and said, "Thank you," to a rousing ovation.
The defending champion Warriors made the announcement Friday morning that Kerr would coach Golden State against Indiana at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors will try to win their 38th straight regular-season home game to tie the 1985-86 Celtics for third place on the all-time list for such unbeaten streaks. The Warriors went 39-4 in Kerr’s absence. They are 19-0 at home this season and haven’t lost at Oracle since a 113-111 overtime defeat to Chicago last Jan. 27.
"It’s been rough. I’ve gotten a lot better. I feel really good, ready to roll. Can’t wait to be back out there," Kerr said after shootaround. "Just being on the road with the team it really felt like I turned a corner on this road trip. It’s hard to explain. I’ve known for the last few months that I wasn’t ready. After this past week or 10 days or so I’ve felt, ‘OK, this is finally turning in the right direction, now’s the time."’
The 50-year-old Kerr said in mid-December that he was optimistic he would be back in the coming weeks. Kerr had been dealing with headaches and other issues after the operations — the first procedure causing him to leak spinal fluid — that followed Golden State’s first championship in 40 years. He watched the Warriors’ record 24-0 start from behind the scenes.
During a shootaround in Cleveland on Monday before Golden State’s 132-98 blowout of the Cavaliers in an NBA Finals rematch, Kerr made an underhanded heave from half court that banked in. He raised his arms in triumph, kicked his right leg out and pumped his fist afterward. That video went out on social media, and had to alert many that he was close to healthy at last.
"I think making that half-court shot. Just kidding," he said of what told him he was ready. "I don’t think any one specific point. I think this past road trip getting through everything, feeling good, sleeping well, being engaged. To do that when you’re travelling all over the country, that’s a pretty good indication that things are better."
Kerr’s first surgery to repair a ruptured disc was in late July then he required a follow-up procedure in early September.
When he began the leave of absence Oct. 1, he initially had hoped to return by Jan. 1, but he did begin taking road trips in recent weeks to test his symptoms. He might still require a day off from time to time.
In his first season last year, Kerr guided Golden State to a franchise-record 67-win campaign and its first championship since 1975. Even during his absence, he addressed the team and offered input despite watching the games from an office in the arena or at home depending on how he felt. Being patient tested him, especially when he had to sit out the Oct. 27 opener against New Orleans after taking part in the pregame ceremony celebrating the championship season.
"He’s just trying to get his stamina and endurance and wherewithal back," reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry said. "He’s looked good for a while. It’s nice to know he’s making that commitment to get back."
Interim head coach Luke Walton, who admirably led Curry and the champs in Kerr’s absence, will return to his spot as top assistant and is sure to attract attention as a head coaching candidate immediately when openings emerge. Walton’s father, Bill, broadcast the Arizona-Stanford game on Thursday night for the Pac-12 Networks and offered this message to his son through The Associated Press.
"Tell Luke I love him," the proud Hall of Famer said.
Kerr plans to keep some new plays Walton introduced, saying, "Yeah, tough act to follow."
Kerr returns during a difficult stretch, with Golden State hosting the Spurs on Monday night, with San Antonio right behind the Warriors in the Western Conference.
"We’ve got the Spurs four times, we’ve got Oklahoma City. Luke’s jumping out at the right time," Kerr said. "He’s been awesome. He’s been amazing, the job he’s done. He’s a head coach waiting to happen any time and hopefully he’ll take his time and stick around here for a little while but I know people will be coming after him this summer, as they should."
Now, he wants to keep Golden State rolling.
"There’s half a season left and playoffs," he said. "I’ve got to get back in my own groove just like an injured athlete has to find his footing."