Kerr just trying to fit in (sort of)

There are plenty of problems in Portland, but guard Steve Kerr is not one of them.

Updated: January 1, 2002, 8:14 AM ET
By Marc Stein | Special to ESPN.com

It will undoubtedly be one the first questions dribbleheads ask in 2002, those of us whose idea of New Year's Day sports viewing is firing up League Pass for Blazers at Clippers.

Steve Kerr
Guard
Portland Trail Blazers
Profile
2001-02 SEASON STATISTICS
GM MIN FG% 3FG% APG PPG
28 15.7 .500 .419 1.1 5.6
That question: How did poor Steve Kerr end up with those louts?

Kerr laughs at that question, mainly because he was the one asking it back in July. That's when he got banished to Portland, as a salary-cap ballast in the Steve Smith/Derek Anderson blockbuster, putting a shell-shocked Kerr with one of the last teams he wanted to join.

"Trepidation," Kerr politely tells his questioner, "is probably the wrong word."

Hence the chuckle when he looks back now, because it ain't just baseball. Basketball, too, is a funny game. With the San Antonio Spurs, a theoretical haven for a 3-point deadeye and low-key guy like Kerr, he failed to fit in and went the last two seasons without scoring more than 12 points in a single game. With imploding Portland, in what's looking like its first season in two decades without a playoff berth, Kerr is one of the few guys Blazermaniacs can't question.

If he doesn't fit in with his new team -- the one with the $84 million payroll and the four-game losing streak and the 13-16 record that translates to a 37-45 pace -- it's because Kerr's not underachieving.

"I wasn't thrilled at first, because I knew it was going to create some problems family-wise," Kerr, 36, said of leaving Alamo City, where wife Margot and their three children still live. "But as much as I loved San Antonio -- great city, great bunch of guys, great staff -- it didn't work out there.

"You might not have a good year every year, and you might not be on the right team every year. The thing I've learned in the NBA, when you're not a great NBA player, is you've got to find your spot."

That's what Kerr did in 1993, when the 14-year vet joined up with some lads in Chicago. Late in Kerr's second season with the Bulls, Michael Jordan unretired. Kerr won titles in his next three seasons -- and made the shot that clinched the second of those crowns, off a pass from Jordan in Game 6 against Utah, a play they still show routinely on NBA.com TV commercials.

Kerr migrated to South Texas when the Bulls' dynasty got Jerryed and won his fourth straight ring in the lockout season of 1999. But he didn't shoot the ball too well in those playoffs (26.7 percent, 23.1 percent on 3s) and gradually drifted out of the Spurs' main rotation. Gregg Popovich saw no way to play Kerr in the same backcourt with Avery Johnson, and San Antonio's reliance on Tim Duncan and David Robinson -- compared to the passing-and-cutting Chicago triangle, in which formal positions never seemed relevant -- somehow worked against Kerr.

"My game is actually moving without the ball," Kerr said. "It's not really just standing there and shooting. That's part of it, but I really feel the most comfortable when I can move off the ball, set picks, provide a lot of energy.

"San Antonio's offense was based on basically throwing the ball inside and standing still. There was no movement, which I struggled with. It turned out not to be a good fit."

Which brings us to Portland, where Kerr is nicely positioned once again -- as opposed to numbly spotting up for Js. And maybe all those years with the Chicago circus, albeit a good kind of circus that could get you a ring at the end of all the chaos, is why Kerr seems so calm now in the face of the Blazers' ongoing fall from grace.

Even in cyberspace, you almost run out of room running down Portland's ills, not yet 20 months removed from that fateful Game 7 against the Lakers in the Western Conference finals of 2000. There's the roller-coaster existence of Mr. T, Rasheed Wallace. The bloated salaries and miniscule production devoted to and coming from Scottie Pippen and Shawn Kemp. The not-quite-permanent retirement of Arvydas Sabonis. The now-standard backcourt logjam: Anderson and Ruben Patterson, as well as Kerr, all brought in at Bonzi Wells' position. And, of course, the new crisis -- the fans' revolt against the only team in town for the Blazers' boorishness, arrogance and unabashed apathy, after so many years of sellouts and two-way devotion.

Kerr?

Amid all that, he's averaging a surprising 15.7 minutes off the bench for rookie (beleaguered also works) coach Mo Cheeks. Kerr's only scoring 5.6 points per game, but his shooting percentages (50 percent overall, 41.9 percent on 3s) are more what you'd expect from the man who began this season as the best career triples hitter -- 46.2 percent from behind the arc -- in league history.

If anything, (the Blazers' volatile reputation has) helped me, because I can be a calming influence. I don't say much. I just try to help things work smoothly.
Steve Kerr

It's enough to make Cheeks describe Kerr as "one of my favorite players," which seems odd since he didn't know Kerr until they both got to Portland. Odd until you take note of all the flammable timber on the Portland roster, courtesy of Bob Whitsitt.

Trader Bob's major in college, remember, was not chemistry. High finance, probably.

"Things have really been pretty calm," Kerr insists. "Just playing hard and being consistent -- that's what we haven't done. I'm much more concerned with those things than anything else.

"If anything, (the Blazers' volatile reputation has) helped me, because I can be a calming influence. I don't say much. I just try to help things work smoothly. On this team, I've been a factor. On the Spurs, they had a lot of guys to do that, and I didn't stand out as much."

Kerr has also been a staunch defender for the Blazers ... of Pippen. He calls our pal Scottie "one of my favorite all-time teammates" and disputes the widely held notion that Pippen is merely coasting with almost $40 million coming this season and next. Pip's injuries are real, Stevie says, and that means Portland doesn't have one key guy who can address Kerr's contention that "we don't always play smart basketball" and that "we don't always play well together."

Add up Kerr's contentions and you have a sub-.500 disappointment threatening to blow the longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances in professional sports. Portland hasn't missed the postseason since 1982, but these Blazers have even lost two in a row with Wallace scoring at least 23 points -- his magic number.

In his attempt to behave better, accumulating just nine technicals so far for a mild pace of 25, Wallace has reached the 23-point plateau only 12 times in 29 games. The Blazers won the first 10 before recent setbacks at Sacramento and at home to Minnesota.

In his bid to ease the tension, or merely show how comfortable he is in Rip City, Kerr occasionally cracks his own Blazers joke. "I went from the milk-and-cookies gang," he recently quipped, "to the Trail Gangsters." Won't be so ha-ha for Whitsitt come April if, of all things, he needed more low-key guys like Kerr to make this rich-but-toxic mix work.

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics