Can't touch Warriors now: 2015 NBA champs

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Thursday, June 18, 2015

CLEVELAND -- Looking back on it now, it's hard for Nick U'Ren to believe he even considered the alternative. But he was just 21 at the time. It's not easy to see the big picture at that age. So U'Ren took a few days to decide whether to pay his own airfare so he could work at a camp for foreign basketball prospects in Treviso, Italy.

"I didn't know how I was going to pay for it," he says. "But then I kinda sat back and thought: 'What am I thinking? If this is what I want to do with my life. I have to go. It's Italy. It's a chance to meet basketball people. I have to go."

U'Ren called his parents and asked for a little help, dug into his savings for the rest of the $1,500 plane ticket and got on a plane. He'd met NBA types at the Las Vegas Summer League, where he volunteered throughout college. He'd gotten to know others as the manager of the basketball team at the University of San Diego. In Treviso, he met Steve Kerr, then the general manager of the Phoenix Suns.

U'Ren told Kerr he had just graduated and had always dreamed of working in the NBA. Kerr told him he couldn't pay him much. U'Ren told Kerr he didn't care because he was from Phoenix and could live at home with his folks, if that made Kerr feel better about the arrangement.

That fall, U'Ren started work as Kerr's assistant. He soaked up everything he could and did whatever he was asked. Kerr's family was still in San Diego at the time, so he'd often invite the wide-eyed kid out to dinner after a long workday.

"I didn't know if this is how it was for everybody or if I was just the luckiest kid in the world," U'Ren says. "It's really amazing how these small decisions you make end up changing everything."

If this story had been told a few weeks ago, you'd probably think it was quaint -- another example of how nice Steve Kerr can be. But if you've been following these NBA Finals, Nick U'Ren is a household name. He's the 28-year-old video coordinator who suggested inserting forward Andre Iguodala into the Golden State Warriors starting lineup after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers had thrown the Warriors into an existential crisis by going up 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. James had somehow turned the series into a game of 1-on-1. The Cavs were dictating the pace of the series by walking the ball up the court and swarming league MVP Stephen Curry every time he touched the ball, throttling the Warriors' free-flowing offense.

With every sluggish possession, Golden State was confirming the doubts traditionalists such asCharles Barkley had raised about their jump-shooting offense all year. Somehow, they needed to change things up and get back to who they were. In the middle of the night after Game 3, U'Ren had an idea.

What if they just went extra-small by inserting Iguodala into the starting lineup for center Andrew Bogut? What if they stopped pretending to play a traditional lineup with a center, two forwards and two guards? What if they just put their five best, most-skilled players on the court and let them play?

"It was a hell of an idea," says Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry, who runs the team's offense. "At first I was kind of against it, like, 'We won 67 games playing the way we play, we shouldn't change it now.'"

But Gentry has always been open to suggestion. He's a malleable guy, not a preacher. At 60, with three decades in the NBA, he's long since decided there's no right or wrong way of playing. The Warriors coaching staff met in the morning before Game 4 and decided to make the switch. The rest is NBA history. Golden State won its first title in 40 years, Iguodala went on to be named the Finals MVP, Kerr became the first rookie coach to win a championship since Pat Riley in 1982. And U'Ren? He's still trying to explain what happened.

"It's been a little overwhelming, to be honest," he says. "I don't deserve the credit. Steve deserves the credit, Andre deserves the credit. The team deserves the credit."

It was a small tactical move. But it created a beautiful butterfly effect.

Kerr had spoken to the team about just such an effect earlier in the playoffs. They were down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies, having been knocked off stride by the Grizzlies punishing interior game. It was the first real test the Warriors had faced all season. Would they tighten up? Would they try too hard? Kerr knew this moment would come eventually. As easy as the Warriors had made the game look all year, the road to a championship is never easy. Having won five titles as a player with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, he told them the truest thing he could.

"He just said we needed to let good things happen to us," U'Ren says. "I think that was his way of saying: 'Be aware of how lucky we are. Have fun. Allow good things to happen to us by treating people with compassion and playing with joy.'

"Steve constantly reminds these guys how lucky we are. We're all getting paid a ton of money to work and play in a game we love. There are people out fighting wars or struggling to eat and they're paying to come to our games.

"Whether you're the first guy or the 16th guy, whether you're the video guy or the head coach, we're so fortunate."

There are generally three key components to a good story. You need great characters. Then you challenge them. Then you see what happens. The drama comes in the moments of self-doubt, when the characters have to confront their flaws.

It's why players speak of proving people wrong. Of the mountains they had to climb on their way to the top, and the valleys they look back and down upon.

Motivation comes from these wells. So do clichs. It's us against the world. Nobody believed in us. We wanted to prove we belonged.

All season, the Cavaliers played a video during games that echoed all these themes. In Cleveland, a shoeshine man says nothing is given. You work hard for what you have, another hard-working man says. You have to overcome odds and doubters and history. Villains are everywhere. During timeouts, when the Cavs want fans to boo, they'll put up images of Cleveland's many rivals: the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger,the University of Michigan to name a few.

Had LeBron led the Cavs to a title, these are the narratives that would've been written. Perhaps it's simply a remnant or a legacy of the Michael Jordan era, when scowling was leadership. Anger was heroic. Bitterness was how you won titles.

But not all great stories follow this construct. Motivation can come from a different spring. In Oakland, a DJ spins '90s music during games. Practices begin with Steph Curry trying 75-foot shots and Kerr trying to drop-kick the ball in from half court. U'Ren splices funny cartoons into the team's film sessions to break up the monotony. Assistant coaches volunteer their most embarrassing moments for public ridicule under the guise of teaching valuable lessons. Before Game 1 of the Finals, the whole staff, all the way up to general manager Bob Myers, played in a pickup game after shootaround. Kerr jokes that Sir Charles has bought him so many beers over the years, he can say whatever he wants about jump-shooting teams.

They all really do appear to be having way too much fun. And if that's not something Jordan would admire, so be it.

"It's just joy," U'Ren says. "We don't have a mean streak or think it's 'us against the world.' It's a love for each other and a love for the game."

Except for the Finals, the biggest challenge the Warriors faced all season came in the beginning, when Kerr took over from popular head coach Mark Jackson. Curry, Iguodala and Draymond Green had all spoken publicly in support of Jackson, pleading with ownership not to fire him. Kerr was sensitive to the situation. He treaded lightly at first.

In one of the first practices of training camp, Curry asked him if they could keep the chant they'd broken huddles with under Jackson: "Just us." Kerr agreed immediately. This was their team, he said, not his. Curry and Iguodala were its captains; he was just the coach. His job was to build off of what they'd done, not tear it down and make it his own.

Kerr had waited nearly two decades to become a head coach. He'd spent years and years thinking about what he would do when he finally took over his own team. He'd filled binders with notes and thoughts, culled from a playing career with tours under some of the most successful coaches ever: Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Lenny Wilkens, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Lute Olson. Over the past decade, he'd been studying the league from the broadcast booth, using pregame interviews with coaching staffs to pick their brains or try out ideas.

"I think you'd be surprised if you went back and asked all the general managers in the league if they talked to Steve about coaching," says Kerr's best friend and Warriors player development coach Bruce Fraser. "Every offseason, for about the last five years, Steve's been offered multiple jobs as either a coach or a GM."

One of those was the Cavaliers job last summer. General manager David Griffin had worked with Kerr in Phoenix and knew he had an itch and an ability to coach. Kerr took the call and politely considered the job but ultimately decided against going any further in the process.

Phil Jackson had already put feelers out about his willingness to coach the New York Knicks, and Kerr felt deeply that he needed to give his mentor an honest shot. The Warriors called around the same time, and Kerr told them the same thing.

"We didn't think we were going to get him," Warriors general manager Bob Myers says. "We couldn't even get an interview. We'd asked him to interview, but he said, 'Out of respect for Phil, I want to see how this process goes before I agree to meet.' Then, for whatever reason, that changed. He reached out and let us know he was ready to meet."

They met at a private airport terminal in Oklahoma City after one of Kerr's TNT broadcasts. He brought a binder full of notes and observations about the Warriors. It was so impressive, the Warriors tried to hire him on the spot. Kerr took a few days to mull the decision. Difficult as it was to say no to Jackson, he had to trust his instinct. The Warriors had a young and talented core group of players, were close to his home in San Diego and had an ownership group whose philosophies and values meshed with his.

Kerr had scouted Curry as the general manager in Phoenix and desperately wanted to draft him in 2009. He saw brilliance in the young point guard's play that reminded him of Steve Nash. He saw character in him that reminded him of Tim Duncan. Coaching Curry was an opportunity to blend the experiences of two of the most successful coach-player partnerships he'd witnessed -- Mike D'Antoni and Nash in Phoenix, and Popovich and Duncan in San Antonio.

"Steve [Nash] was kind of the original Steph Curry," Kerr says. "Slightly different, but similar mindset and skill set of passing and ballhandling. And the Suns were so close. Things didn't go their way. But I imagined it."

D'Antoni's name has come up a lot this season. History will likely regard him as the Martin Luther of the NBA's small-ball reformation. Most of the league now plays the way his paradigm-shifting "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns did a decade ago. He's just now getting credit for it.

This heartens D'Antoni but doesn't change history. He still left Phoenix before he should have. He never did find another player who could bring his offense to life the way Nash did. Those years were special. Nash breathed a joy and a life into the game that made the whole basketball world look at offense differently.

"I think Steve kind of laid out a vision for a whole generation of young point guards," Kerr says.

D'Antoni can see that now. He feels good about it. But he has regrets. He got too focused on proving his system worked and stopped enjoying the beautiful thing he'd created.

"You have these windows in your career," D'Antoni says, wistfully. "And you just have to push through them when they're open.

"I think we should've stayed the course and just tweaked things. But that's not what happened. We changed course.

"We were fighting conventional wisdom. It's hard to keep the players believing when you're doing that. And winning is mostly about belief."

Kerr was the general manager in Phoenix when D'Antoni left to take over as coach of the Knicks. He presided over the Shaquille O'Neal trade, too. That's mostly what people remember about his years in the desert. What they forget is that he also presided over the 2010 season, when Gentry resurrected the Suns offense and took them to the Western Conference finals, where they lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Kerr learned a lot from those years in Phoenix, but not the lesson you'd assume. He learned about trust and how important it is to build at every level of an organization. He and D'Antoni never fully trusted each other's motivations. Kerr was ownership's handpicked guy, and D'Antoni was never sure if he was a true believer in his vision of basketball.

When Kerr took over the Warriors, he was determined to build trust with his players and staff from the beginning. It's hard to trace all of the ways he built that trust. It was just obvious once he had.

Early on, during a light practice, Kerr told the team to get some shots up, treatment, conditioning, whatever they felt they needed. They were all professionals. He trusted them to know what their body would respond to. He did not give specific instructions, except to say, "Get what you need."

Reserve guard Brandon Rush smiled and parroted back the phrase in a high-pitched, soulful voice nobody could mimic if they tried. "It's just the way Brandon says it. Get what you nee-eeed! It's just so perfect," says reserve guard Shaun Livingston. "Every time Steve brings it in [for a huddle], we all just wait for Brandon to say it and crack up."

So much has happened since last summer, it's easy to forget that Livingston was the Warriors' main free-agent signing. At 6-foot-7 with the ballhandling skills of a point guard and the length of a small forward, Livingston embodies the type of versatile, high-basketball-IQ player the Warriors have sought ever since Bob Myers took over as general manager in 2011.

Myers, a former UCLA star, had built a successful career and clientele under super-agent Arn Tellem, but he always had an itch to do more. He missed the camaraderie of being part of a team. Of building something meaningful and lasting and not just the fortunes of his clients. Though he never played under John Wooden at UCLA, the legendary coach was a major influence on him.

"He was always a presence," Myers says. "He made you feel that the journey was as important as the results. Even though he'd been wildly successful as far as results, he had a great perspective on what was important in life."

Myers grew up in the Bay Area. He was 8 when he attended his first NBA game in Oakland.

"Right up there," Myers says, pointing to the rafters at Oracle Arena before Game 2 of the Finals. "I grew up here. I wanted to see this organization succeed. I didn't imagine it would ever come along, but I always thought, way in the back of my mind, 'If I could work for that team, I'd take that opportunity.'"

When that opportunity did come along, Myers jumped in with a set of idealistic beliefs about what kind of team he wanted to build but few specifics. "We loved the idea of size, skill and shooting," Myers says. "I think a lot of people do. Combined with trying to find a team with character, which a lot of people also want."

Myers is self-deprecating like this all the time, which is not surprising for a man whose favorite Wooden quote is, "It's amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit."

It's easy to let his humility diminish the successful choices he made. But Myers really did have a clear vision of the kind of team and player he believed in. People just missed it because his first act was to sign 7-foot center DeAndre Jordan to a four-year, $43 million offer sheet, which the Los Angeles Clippers eventually matched. Jordan had been one of Myers clients, so many chalked it up to nepotism. It wasn't.

"When we did that, I think a lot of people thought it was an overpay. It's not an overpay," Myers says. "He's huge. He's mobile. He's active. We really believed in size at positions. Multiple positions, multiple skills, being able to be very versatile. I think the new NBA is much more versatile."

Livingston is just the latest example of the "Warriors type" of player. He can play point guard, shooting guard and small forward. He's long enough to defend anyone. So when U'Ren came up with this idea of going radically "small" after Game 3, it played to the Warriors' strengths, not their weaknesses.

"We have basketball players. We don't have 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s or 5s. We just have basketball players," Gentry says. "We can match what people are going to do against us. We don't mind playing against big guys. We don't mind playing against all smalls. We can play a lot of different ways."

Livingston has a hard time putting into perspective what it means to him to have this chance, at this stage at his career. There were so many times over the years he thought he was done -- that the traumatic knee injury he suffered in 2007, as a 21-year-old with the Clippers, would be the end of his career. But 11 teams and eight years later, he's found his way to this special team.

"Blessed," said Livingston, who even had to work his way back to the league, with stints in the D-League in 2009. "This is the pinnacle of everybody's career. But for me, it's like I've had two or three careers."

He's been a lottery pick full of hope and joy. He's been the guy everyone felt sorry for after his injury. They'd speak in hushed tones around him, like he had some terminal disease. He's been the guy just hanging on, trying for one last shot.

Now he's the guy appreciating all of it.

"It's kind of like the fairy tale ending," Livingston says. He's been especially reflective lately. This season, with this team, enjoying the game again, means everything to him. "I'm not like a preacher or philosopher, but at the end of the day, life is about happiness. I just have that perspective after everything I've been through. This is a game, don't put too much stress on yourself."

Kerr never looked at him that way. Like Livingston, his life had been shattered in his early 20s. While Kerr was in college at Arizona, his father, Malcolm Kerr, was murdered in Lebanon by political extremists. Much has been written over the years about the murder of Kerr's father, a prominent academic, diplomat and intellectual. In many ways, it is the defining story of Steve Kerr's life. You simply cannot understand Kerr without knowing how he responded to his father's murder and how it changed him.

"Initially, when it happened, it crushed him," says Fraser, who was Kerr's teammate at Arizona. "His family was all away overseas. Basketball was his family. So in a good way for his growth, it put a perspective on the game where life was bigger than basketball."

It's remained that way ever since. The game is just the game. Something to be enjoyed. An experience to share with a group of teammates and coaches. A court to compete on but then be left behind when the game is over.

"He's a mindful person," Fraser says. "Part of mindfulness is having joy not only in what you do, but in life. If it's too absorbing, you've got to be able to create space in your mind for other things."

Other things such as spending time with family, reading, surfing, hiking, working out or camping with friends. Kerr insists everyone in the organization do the same.

"I've actually played golf during this season," Gentry says. "I don't know if I've ever done that during the season. Even living in Phoenix, I belonged to two country clubs and I don't know if I ever did it. But Steve would say, you've got to get away and you've got to have a balance.

"Everybody says, 'Well, you were winning.' But I'm telling you, it would be that way with him no matter what. He's not going to be one of those guys that all of a sudden changes into a demon. This is just who he is."

People sometimes mistake Kerr's insistence on time away from the game for a lack of passion or commitment. You hear stories about him and Fraser surfing in Del Mar, at 27th Street near the river mouth, and think these guys are just a couple of surfer dudes with good jump shots.

Then you're reminded that Kerr was the guy who took a punch from Michael Jordan in training camp with the Chicago Bulls but later earned enough respect to be trusted to knock down a critical 3-pointer in an NBA Finals game.

"It all goes back to Steve's approach," assistant coach Luke Walton says. "We want to compete like crazy at everything, but we want to have fun doing it."

Myers thinks the compartmentalization of basketball and life helped steady the team during these playoffs. Kerr and Walton are the only two in the organization with championship rings. When things have gotten most tense during the playoffs, the team has turned to them for counsel.

"Steve's got a macro view of the world," Myers says. "This is such an intense occupation, whether you're a player or a coach or in the front office, that it's very hard to not get caught up in whatever it is -- whether it's good, bad or ugly -- but you do your best to stay humble, stay sane, and Steve was the leader of that for us. He really was."

It was hard to know whom to root for in these Finals. Cleveland hadn't tasted champagne in any major professional sports since Jim Brown led the Cleveland Browns to a championship in 1964. The Warriors hadn't won a title since 1975. Both have passionate, forgiving fans who can realistically say they stood by their teams while they struggled and spiraled through decades of ineptitude.

The Cavaliers fans have suffered more heartbreak over the years. Jordan was particularly cruel to them. But the Warriors have put their faithful through plenty, too.

The difference is in how each city handled the years of losing. In Cleveland, it's become part of the civic identity. There's been so much disappointment over the years, folks expect it to continue. They brace for the other shoe to drop, as it finally did to this Cavs team after Irving was lost in Game 1 with a fractured kneecap. LeBron came home last summer and made them believe things might finally change. That act, in and of itself, of returning to his roots was something of a paradigm shift. Most kids who leave Rust Belt towns like Cleveland come home only for birthdays and funerals. LeBron came home to win, and live among them.

Oakland is different. That title the Warriors won in '75 was part of a decade of dominance for Oakland teams.

"I was there in 1975. It was amazing," said the rapper MC Hammer, an Oakland native who sat courtside Tuesday night in Cleveland as the Warriors closed out their championship. "We had just come off of winning three consecutive World Series in baseball, from 1972-74. Then the Warriors won it, and then the Raiders won it in 1976. We were championship city."

Hammer puffed his chest out just talking about those great Oakland teams of the 1970s. That swagger has never left town. It's faded over the years, as Oakland's teams, economy and stadiums declined. But anyone who lived through that golden era remembers how great it was when things were rolling.

Hammer has supported all of Oakland's teams over the years but had never gotten on planes and followed a team around like he has with these Warriors.

"You can just tell they love what they're doing," he said.

The story of these Warriors isn't of Nick U'Ren or Steve Kerr or Stephen Curry. Bob Myers was the architect; so was Jerry West. New owners Peter Guber and Joe Lacob have been wonderful stewards, but ownership can only do so much to build a team.

On the podium after the game, Kerr said this year was about sacrifice and players such as Iguodala, who accepted a lesser role for the good of the team. Iguodala said it was about faith and a group of men trusting in each other and the bond they formed.

But maybe it's just about the choices we make, and the way we live our lives. Like U'Ren, Kerr almost missed out on a golden opportunity when he was in his early 20s. He didn't see the long view.

The Phoenix Suns had taken him in the second round of the 1988 draft as something of a popularity pick. He'd starred at Arizona under Lute Olson and was worth a flier. But in that first year, Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons found little use for him. Kerr barely played. By the end of the year, he was thinking about next steps. He even called Fraser, who'd gotten a job as a graduate assistant on Olson's team, to see if there might be a spot for him on staff the next year.

But Fitzsimmons saw something in Kerr that made him want to help. He called his son, Gary, who was in the Cavs front office, and put in a good word for Kerr. The Suns traded Kerr to Cleveland, where he sat on the bench until an injury to Mark Price opened up some minutes. The rest is NBA history.

"I didn't know that story," U'Ren says, marveling at the butterfly effect. "I guess if we do our job and we treat people the right way, if we prepare and play the game the right way, I think the universe rewards teams and people like that."

Jordan was a singular person with an approach that worked for him. But not every great player or team is motivated by anger or spite. There are teams that run on love and joy. The one that won the title Tuesday night is coached by a guy who took the punch from MJ and kept smiling.

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