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FORMER UCLA BALL BOY, HE'S. . . IN ENEMY TERRITORY : But Arizona's Kerr Hoped to Play for the Bruins, Not Against Them

February 13, 1986|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

Everything seemed to be in place for Steve Kerr. He once was the Bruin ball boy. His parents taught at UCLA. He played his high school basketball in Pacific Palisades. He had his heart set on playing for the Bruins.

But the Bruins didn't see it that way. He got no attention, not even a letter. So, three years later, Kerr is the University of Arizona starting point guard, and he will be directing the attack against UCLA in a key Pacific 10 game tonight at Tucson.

"It's not really fair to say UCLA passed me up, because everybody else passed me up, too," Kerr said. "Nobody recruited me. Not that I blame them. It's not like I was an awesome high school player. I was a good player, but I was overshadowed by some teammates.

"I'm not an awesome player now. I'm not a very visible player now, either. I look a lot better in the stats than I do in the highlight films.

"I'm getting a lot of attention now because the team is doing well, because of the fact that I wasn't recruited and because of my father."

His father, Malcolm Kerr, had been president of American University in Beirut for a year and a half when he was shot by assassins waiting outside his office on the morning of Jan. 18, 1984.

Steve Kerr was a freshman at Arizona then. In fact, he had visited his family in Beirut the previous August, just before he reported for freshman orientation.

He said, at the time, that he was concerned about the safety of his family, but that he understood that both of his parents felt a commitment to American University.

Days after his father was killed, Kerr played in a home game against Arizona State. There was a moment of silence for his father after the national anthem, and Kerr broke down in sobs that left very few dry eyes at McHale Center. When he was then able to come off the bench to make his first shot and to score 15 points in leading his team to victory, he won a lot of hearts.

As an Arizona columnist wrote: "He became everyone's adopted son that night."

Kerr is averaging 15.1 points a game for the Wildcats, just a touch behind the leader, freshman forward Sean Elliott, who averages 15.3. Kerr leads the team in field-goal percentage (55.5%) and leads both the team and the conference in free-throw percentage (89.8%). He leads the team in assists (98) and steals (37) and in minutes played. He's the team's ball handler, yet in 890 minutes he has just 42 turnovers.

"I'm just not the flashy type," Kerr said. "I get assists, but I get them by picking the right time, taking a couple of dribbles and hitting the open man. You won't see any behind-the-back passes from me. I don't make many memorable plays.

"That's a reflection of my lack of quickness and my lack of jumping ability. In a way, that becomes an advantage. I know what I can't do, so I don't try the acrobatic moves. That cuts down on turnovers. I stay within myself. I don't overextend.

"When I came out of high school, the report on me was that I was slow. That was right. And I'm still as slow as I was then."

But he was also a smart kid (his grade-point average is still higher than 3.2) who had a feel for the game and the knack for leadership. He was potential. It's not an infinite thing.

"I can achieve my potential," he said, "but I can't over-achieve it. Maybe what they mean to say is that I'm meeting my potential better than some people. Or that maybe my potential was not correctly identified in the first place."

Kerr played a lot as a freshman, coming off the bench. As a sophomore, he was the starting shooting guard, averaging 10 points a game. He didn't like it much when he had to move over to the point guard position for six games when Brock Brunkhorst tore ligaments in his knee. But he has since been convinced that his more natural position is point guard.

"I never would have said this last year, but now that I feel comfortable I think that point guard probably is my natural position," he said. "I can use my ball handling and my leadership and my knowledge of the game--and being able to shoot the ball helps to open everything else up.

The fact that the opponent has to respect my shot forces them to keep a man on me. When I throw the ball inside to the big men, they can't drop off to double-team them. That way, even if I don't get points, is still get assists."

Kerr is now playing alongside Craig McMillan, a 6-6 sophomore shooting guard who chose Arizona over UCLA and who is averaging 11.8 points a game. Kerr said: "Craig is a great shooter and he's big enough to shoot over most of the guards who are trying to play him."

Overall, the Arizona team is not real big. Not big enough to give UCLA the kind of match-up problems that, say, Washington does. Arizona's forwards are both 6-8 freshman (Elliott and Anthony Cook) and the center is a 6-6 senior.

Kerr got his first real initiation to the point-guard position over the summer, when the Wildcats played a 15-game tour of Europe. Asked about the tour, he said, "It was good experience, basketball-wise."

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