Tragedy Made Steve Kerr See the World Beyond the Court
The trick was leaving. Ann Kerr went with Steve to the airport in August.
“There was some question about whether flights would be going out because of everything that was happening,” Kerr said. “We were in the terminal, and all of a sudden there was a blast. It wasn’t in the terminal but on the runways. The whole place just froze. Everybody just froze. People started gathering, saying, ‘We’ve got to get the hell out of here.’ My mom grabbed me, and I remember running out of the terminal and through the parking lot. It was really scary. I remember thinking, ‘This is real.’”
The Kerrs pondered options for getting Steve out. They learned that a private plane of diplomats was going to the United States Marine base and there might be an available seat on the flight back out. Steve spent hours waiting, talking to Marines. In the end, there were no seats. The Kerrs eventually made arrangements for a university driver to take Steve over the mountains, through Syria to Jordan. (The driver, a longtime friend of the family, was killed by a sniper in Beirut in 1985.)
On an early morning in October 1983, a truck bomb destroyed the four-story Marine barracks. Among the dead were 220 Marines and 21 other service members.
“I remember looking at all the photos afterward,” Kerr said. He started to cry. “I see all these, the nicest people, who I met and they were showing us around the base and just trying to do their jobs and keep the peace. And a truck bomb?”
Kerr said he recognized some of the faces of the dead.
“There is a chaplain who had come over and kind of taken us under his wing,” he said. “The nicest guy. And I saw his face. …”
Kerr wiped his eyes and took a deep breath. “What has it been, 30 years? And it still brings me to tears.”
In December, John visited his parents in Beirut. They had a videotape of Steve’s first game for Arizona a couple of weeks before. The picture was fuzzy, shot without sound from a camera high in the gym, and they could not always tell which player was Steve. It did not matter.
“I think he scored three baskets, and we must have watched each of them 10 times, rewinding the tape over and over again just to relish every detail,” John wrote in an entry for a family scrapbook made on an anniversary of Malcolm Kerr’s death. He called it “Dad’s and my high point as sports fans.”
In the middle of a night in January 1984, Kerr got a call in his dorm room from Vahe Simonian, a family friend and a vice president at A.U.B. who was based in New York. Simonian told Kerr that his father had been killed.
The assassination on Jan. 18, 1984, was international news, including on the front page of The New York Times. Malcolm Kerr, 52, had stepped off the elevator toward his office in College Hall and was shot in the back of the head. The two unknown assailants escaped. A group calling itself Islamic Holy War took responsibility later that day.
“Dr. Kerr was a modest and extremely popular figure among his 4,800 students and faculty, according to his colleagues here,” Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman wrote from Beirut that day. “He was killed, his friends insist, not for being who he was, but because now that the Marines and the American Embassy in Beirut are smothered in security, he was the most vulnerable prominent American in Lebanon and a choice target for militants trying to intimidate Americans into leaving.”
Andrew Kerr, who was 15 at the time, heard about his father’s death on a radio in a shop near A.U.B.’s campus. Ann Kerr learned about it while waiting at a campus guardhouse, out of the rain, for a friend. She ran to College Hall, to the second floor, where she found her husband “lying on the floor, face down, his briefcase and umbrella in front of him,” she wrote in her memoir, “Come With Me From Lebanon.”
A memorial service was held a few days later. John came from Cairo and Susan came from Taiwan. Steve was the only one of the children who did not attend. He missed another one at Princeton, but attended a third in Los Angeles.
“It sounds bad,” he said. “Obviously, the basketball wasn’t more important. But the logistics were really tricky. And it was cathartic for me to just play.”
He had a breakout game in a victory over rival Arizona State two nights after his father’s death. The Wildcats had been 2-11, but won eight of their final 14 games. The next year, they reached the N.C.A.A. tournament on their way to becoming a lasting national power.
Four years later, Kerr was the target of pregame taunts at Arizona State. A group of students shouted, “P.L.O., P.L.O.,” “Your father’s history,” and “Why don’t you join the Marines and go back to Beirut?”
“When I heard it, I just dropped the ball and started shaking,” Kerr said at the time. “I sat down for a minute. I’ll admit they got to me. I had tears in my eyes. For one thing, it brought back memories of my dad. But, for another thing, it was just sad that people would do something like that.”
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