As Warriors mourn a terrible loss, Steve Kerr’s leadership lights a hard road ahead

SAN FRANCISCO — With nothing else he could do, with nowhere to escape, no alternate reality where what he’d just seen wasn’t real, Steve Kerr retreated to the safest place he could find in the moment. A place where his shattered spirit could be upheld.

He turned to the arms of Ron Adams.

Warriors assistant coach Dejan Milojević died last week after suffering a heart attack at dinner. Kerr, his staff, a handful of players, staff members and team employees saw their beloved Deki collapse. They heard the desperation in the attempts to save his life. They felt the gripping fear from considering the worst. Something really bad was happening to someone so good. It was too much. So, on Broadway in downtown Salt Lake City, in front of Valter’s Osteria, the Warriors’ favorite Italian restaurant in Utah, beneath the dark sky last Tuesday, as the red lights of the fire trucks and police cars colored the scene with the hue of danger, Adams hugged Kerr as he cried.

“I lean on Ron Adams for so much,” Kerr said of his assistant coach on Monday after the Warriors’ practice, wearing a black shirt with BRATE in white letters across the chest. It means “brother” in Serbian, and it’s what Deki called everyone.

“Ron has been a mentor for me, obviously an amazing coach for all of our players and for our coaches. I lean on him for wisdom and I asked him a couple of days ago, I said, ‘How do we go on from here? What do we do?’”

At some point, the transition had to happen. And did. Kerr would have to simultaneously mourn and console, process and inform, reflect and project. His team needs him.

Kerr’s question to Adams was as practical as it was rhetorical. No manual exists for this. No rubric. No precedent. What is known, though, is Kerr would find the answer. That he had the question on his heart, and the person he asked, illustrates what everyone in the Warriors organization already understands. Kerr has the answer within him. He is the answer.

If any NBA coach could guide the Warriors through the week they just endured, it’s Kerr. If anyone is equipped to navigate such foreign and sensitive emotional terrain for an NBA team, it’s Kerr. Not because he has the answers. Who he is, what he’s been through and what he’s about makes him seek the answers so he can put them to use for his circle. He sees people and not just players. He leads a community, not just a coaching staff. He’s part of a family.

“All the things he’s been preaching about the whole time I’ve been here,” forward Kevon Looney said. “The joy. The love. How it’s a blessing to be alive and to play this game of basketball. When something happens like this, it’s good to have someone that’s been consistent in his message. He’s seen a lot through basketball. He’s been through a lot. So he knows how hard it is for a team to move forward and for guys to deal with this type of grief. He ain’t like, ‘Just run plays now.’ He knows the magnitude of the situation. No better leader to have than Steve right now.”

These Warriors have dealt with heartbreaking defeats on the court. Devastating injuries to stars. The worst season in franchise history. Internal quarrels. Perennial drama. Championship pressure. But nothing they’ve gone through compares to this. Nothing.

Many in the franchise, especially in the locker room, are no strangers to trauma. They’ve lost loved ones. They’ve dealt with real-life issues. They’ve been crushed before. The difference, though, was they could come to work and get away from it. Basketball, their careers, was their refuge.

The death of Milojević brings the wounds to work. Their usual escape is now the epicenter of the hurt.

“Everybody on our team, everybody in our organization is traumatized,” Kerr said, the tremble in his voice revealing his still-raw emotion. “Everyone is going to experience loss at some point in their life. But it doesn’t often happen in front of you. It doesn’t often happen to someone with kids. It doesn’t happen often where it’s someone who was so beloved — worldwide. So everything that’s happened over the last five days has been just jarring, just incredibly emotional, powerful, and more than anything, heartbreaking.”

It’s taken great care to get this far. It will take incredible patience to get through their return to play on Wednesday when the Warriors honor Milojević and the sorrow they’ve spent a week managing will be revived. It will take perspective, emotional intelligence and empathy if this team is going to find themselves on the healed side of this.

Eventually, they’ll be talking basketball again. At some point, they will resurrect their push for the postseason, see if they can right a season that seemed to be slipping away. But none of that is even remotely possible if they can’t, as a team, have the proper time to get through what Kerr called the saddest thing he’s ever been a part of in his 35-plus years as part of the NBA family.

“As Steve is with so many things in life, he just gets it,” Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. said. “He’s been an amazing friend, counterpart, a resource to lean on in this situation, this tough time. His leadership and wisdom are masterful. Not only for his own staff and the players but for the entire organization. I’m lucky to have him as a comrade and cohort, and our organization is lucky to have him as a leader.”

Milojević’s family flew to Utah from Hawai’i on Wednesday morning. They decided to take him off life support. Deki, 46, a Serbian basketball legend, a burgeoning coach with a promising career ahead of him, a gentle giant who in two-plus seasons with the Warriors became an adored figure in the franchise, was pronounced dead Wednesday.

Later that morning, the entire Warriors traveling party, some 50 people or so, sat in a ballroom of The Grand America Hotel. Many of them were at the restaurant, including five players, and holding out hope for any good news. Others had only heard about what happened and anxiously awaited an update. But it was clear no good news was coming. It was all over the faces of the guests joining them this tragic morning: Natasa, Milojević’s wife; their son, Nikola, a junior wing on the men’s basketball team at Hawai’i Pacific University; and their daughter, Masa.

Still, somebody had to break the news. The answer was Kerr. And Stephen Curry will never forget it.

“There are no words to handle that type of a moment,” Curry said Wednesday. “But when he was the first to speak, he didn’t shy away from the moment at all and did his best to meet the moment with sincerity and reverence for what Deki meant to all of us. You’re the first person to talk in front of the entire organization that was traveling, and Deki’s family — he didn’t have to do that. But he chose to.”

Kerr and the coaching staff spent hours in a waiting room at the University of Utah Hospital grappling with what was happening, supporting each other. He didn’t sleep much. But the daunting journey was just beginning.

“Whether it’s communicating with family, media, doctors,” Dunleavy said of Kerr, “any situation or decision that needs to be made, he’s just got such a cool, calm head on his shoulders. You just always trust him to make the right decision.”

Kerr, by no means, was alone. He praised the hospital. He thanked the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks, who accepted the inconvenience of the NBA postponing their games against the Warriors. He called Dario Šarić an “absolute superstar” for the way he tended to Deki’s family. Šarić, a Croatian, knew Milojević longer than any Warrior, so he was crushed. Still, he was vital.

“I give a lot of credit to (athletic trainer) Rick Celebrini,” Kerr said. “We were all together in the restaurant that night. Rick’s one of our leaders. He’s an incredible leader of men. Rick was there every step of the way. Something that I’ll never forget is seeing Rick’s leadership and the way he looked after Deki and looked after everybody. Rick’s an amazing human being.”

In the middle of all this, while managing the heavy hearts of his team, Kerr remembered it was Jan. 18. The day after Milojević died was the 40th anniversary of the death of Kerr’s father.

Part of the reason this hits so hard for Kerr is the children involved. He knows the emptiness, the gnawing hollowness, that comes with losing your dad. He knows the helplessness of when you realize it’s never going away. He knows how random the intense surges of heartbreak can be. How the little things can be triggering.

“I did think about that,” said assistant coach Bruce Fraser, who’s been friends with Kerr since their days playing at Arizona. “How Steve’s experience with his loss gave him perspective and grief, sadness towards Deki’s family. I felt that in watching him comforting the family and his concern for the family. I felt it. He went through that at a young age and he knows what that is.”

Milojević played for KK Partizan from 2004 to 2006, giving his last best years to the squad in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. He took his first coaching job with KK Mega Basket in 2012. He was there for eight years, and 11 of his players were drafted to the NBA, including the Nuggets’ two-time MVP Nikola Jokić and Clippers starting center Ivica Zubac.

Coincidentally, on Monday, Partizan hosted Mega at Štark Arena in Belgrade, Milojević’s hometown. The game was preceded by a tribute to Deki, a Serbian hero.

On Monday, Kerr had the team watch the tribute during their film session. It began with a minute-long video full of highlights from his playing career. That was followed by a standing ovation lasting 1:54. Then, white flares were lit to draw attention to a giant banner with an airbrushed portrait of Deki. The capacity crowd of 19,394 broke out into a chant.

“MI-LO! JEV!” they yelled then clapped. “MI-LO! JEV!” This went on for 3:15. His former teammates, fans, friends, and countrymen fought back tears. Some couldn’t. Many, including the players, wore t-shirts with a picture of Deki from his playing days and the saying “I najveći borci nekada odlaze” — even the greatest fighters sometimes leave.


Kerr has shown Deki before during film sessions. Usually for laughs. This time, it was for honor. For inspiration. For pride.

The Warriors were getting ready to return to practice. But first, Kerr lionized their fallen brate. He validated their still-present sorrow by showing Milojević’s significance. He prepared them for the flood of emotion coming before facing the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday by giving them a taste of emotion before practice.

It’s perspective that makes Kerr suited for this unenviable task.

“He’s just very human,” Curry said. “I mean that in the way of basketball is important but it’s not and has never been the priority when it comes to his ability to manage people, his staff, the team, manage up, manage down. So in light of a traumatic experience like this, that shines bright. Because he has a way with words that are authentic — taking care of each other, putting the person before anything — and he’s echoed that in the way he’s talked about Deki.”

What was clear Monday, as Kerr became the first voice from the Warriors’ organization in over a week, was how his core is still rocked. His emotions are still raw. It was all he could to hold it together.

He has to. That’s what leaders do.

“He’s been hit as hard as anyone with this,” Fraser said. “And he’s had to take on the burden for all. He’s helped with the family, and with our team, with our staff, with our entire family along with Deki’s immediate family. There’s no one better in moments like this. … He’s an elite leader with a compassionate heart. His approach is meaningful and honest, and I don’t know if you get that from all leaders. But there is a heavy weight on him. I have thought more than once about how he’s going to get through this while he’s picking everybody else up.”


Kerr speaks on Milojević upon Warriors return

(Photo of Steve Kerr: Tony Ding / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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