Originally published May 12, 1996.
It is Mother’s Day, and Ann Kerr should be watching television with her husband, celebrating the finest season in her son’s career.
To be sure, there is overwhelming pride each time her boy takes the floor, a smile each time he buries a jump shot from the perimeter.
There is also a prevailing sadness that has accompanied her family for the past 12 years.
“My husband’s absence is harder now than it’s ever been,” Ann said. “Life goes on, and we’ve all built wonderfully strong lives. But grief is always ready to pounce.”
It is 3 in the morning on Jan. 18, 1984, and the phone is ringing in Steve Kerr’s dorm at the University of Arizona. On the line is a family friend from New York. It is the kind of call that pierces the night.
Malcolm Kerr — Steve’s father — had been killed by an assassin at the American University in West Beirut. Malcolm, president of the university and a prominent authority on the Middle East, was walking into a meeting when a gunman emerged from a stairwell in the administration building. Holding a handgun equipped with a silencer, the killer fired a bullet in the back of Kerr’s head.
Ann would soon be at his side, but Malcolm, then 52, would die in the same building where the couple met almost 30 years before. An extremist Arab group took responsibility for the murder.
“I was an 18-year-old freshman in college,” Kerr said. “And nothing bad had ever happened to me. It was shocking.”
The story has been attached to Kerr’s biography ever since the tragedy struck, and it coincided with Kerr’s emergence as a basketball player. Two days after his father’s death, Kerr came off the bench at Arizona, scoring 12 points while shooting 5-of-7 from the field.
“It’s funny because the legend grows all the time,” Kerr said. “I know for a fact that I scored 12 points, and it was a career high. But I read articles now, even in media guides, that say I scored 15 points. I’ve seen it written where I immediately came off the bench and hit a 27-foot jumper. I’ve seen the highlights, and it’s probably a 19-foot shot.”
Then there was the game at rival Arizona State, where fans shouted, “PLO! PLO! ... Hey Kerr, where’s your Dad?” during pregame warmups. Kerr responded by scoring 20 points in the first half.
While his father’s memory certainly was at the forefront, creating a special bond between Kerr and the fans at Arizona, the real lesson came from his mother. After Malcolm’s death, Ann moved in with her other two sons, accepting a teaching job at American University in Cairo, Egypt. Her oldest daughter remained in Taiwan with her husband and two children.
“I worried a lot about Steve because he was alone,” Ann said. “But he was so buoyed by the (Arizona) team that he was probably better off being alone, getting famous.”
The following summer, the entire family reunited in California. At their home in Pacific Palisades, they healed together, and Ann began writing her memoirs. “Come With Me From Lebanon” was published in 1994, on the 10-year anniversary of her husband’s death.
“We were already very close, but we became even closer,” Steve said. “We all really relied on each other after that. It was difficult because my mom was grieving, and at the same time, she was trying to be a mother to all of us. It wasn’t easy on her. But the main thing she did was continue on with her life. She was the example, and that was the approach we all took because, ultimately, that’s all you can do. You keep going.”
It is Mother’s Day, and Steve Kerr is on top of the world. He plays a vital role in the Bulls’ quest for a fourth NBA championship, but nothing means more than his own family. Ann describes Kerr’s wife, Margot, as “the perfect mother,” and together, Steve and Margot are raising two children.
Steve’s strength of character comes from his mother, which is never more evident than on days like this.
Ann, 61, is still on the board of trustees for American University, which provides Malcolm Kerr scholarships to 100 students around the world. She’s the coordinator of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar program at UCLA. And she’s a member of the advisory board for the national council on U.S.-Arab relations.
“I’m really proud of what my mom has done,” Steve said. “I think about what it would be like to lose my wife, and I don’t know how I could deal with that. I’m really amazed at how my mom has gotten on with her life and been a huge success. It wasn’t any one act or one heroic thing. It was that she kept plugging away through the sadness.
“The incident itself has given me a different perspective on life, how precious everyone’s health is, how precious each day is. We saw how quickly one of us could be taken, and how terrible it is. And I don’t think there’s a chance we could each other for granted again.”