February 08, 1988 12:00 PM

Jokelore has it that when long-suffering Wildcats hoop fans would call the University of Arizona’s McKale Center and ask, “What time does the game start?” the answer would be, “What time can you be here?” For years, when the Wildcats were bad, they were very, very bad. And when they were good, well, they seldom were. That changed in 1983 when two people arrived on the Tucson campus: Head Coach Lute Olson, direct from seven winning seasons at the University of Iowa, and Steve Kerr, an undistinguished freshman from Pacific Palisades, Calif., who had been recruited by virtually nobody except Olson.

This season, of course, the Wildcats are no longer the tabbies they once were. With an 18-1 record, including wins over such powerhouses as Syracuse, Michigan and Duke, Olson has given them more than a flirting acquaintance with a national No. 1 ranking. Much of that credit goes to the 6’3″ Kerr, 22, a fifth-year senior and point guard extraordinaire who sinks an impressive 60 percent of his three-point shot attempts per game. He isn’t the most talented guy in a Wildcats uniform, but he is the gutsiest—the one who will hit the floor for a loose ball with reckless disregard for elbows and knees; and the one who overcame enormous personal tragedy when his father was slain by terrorists in Beirut. Says Olson: “Steve is the glue that holds the team together. There is never confusion when he’s out there. It doesn’t matter if he scores a point or not.”

Nicknamed Opie by his teammates because of his boyish, Mayberry R.F.D. looks, Kerr has been through more ups and downs than the stock market. College scouts considered him too small to play forward and too slow to make up for his lack of size. But when Olson first spotted Kerr playing in a summer league in L.A., he saw a kid with court savvy that more than made up for his shortcomings. “Steve is one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen,” says Olson. “I wasn’t quite sure he could play guard at this level. But something about him told me that, somehow, this kid would find a way.”

He always has. While his teammates may revel in their sudden ascension to basketball idolhood, Kerr’s outlook tends to be broader. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “Being No. 1 is terrific. But in a larger, more meaningful context, it’s really no big deal.”

What was a big deal was the news he received in the early morning hours of Jan. 18, 1984. Just before 3 a.m. he was awakened in his dormitory room by a telephone call from Vake Simonian, the minister of a Presbyterian church in Beirut, Lebanon. Simonian, a friend of Kerr’s family, told Steve that his father, Malcolm, 52, president of American University in Beirut, had been shot and killed by a pair of anti-American religious fanatics as he stepped out of an elevator on the way to his office. The men were never apprehended.

“My initial reaction was absolute shock,” says Kerr, who was then a freshman and the team’s sixth man. “That imaginary shield we all think will protect our families just wasn’t there. I’ve never felt anything like it, and I never will again.” Steve, one of four children of Malcolm and his wife, Ann, an English professor, had been born in Beirut, where his parents had met as students. When Malcolm became the university’s president in 1982, he and his wife knew there were risks. The man he was replacing, David Dodge, had been kidnapped and was still being held captive. So after years of shuttling between California and the Middle East, Ann Kerr decided to remain in the U.S. with her children.

In the wake of Malcolm’s death, all Tucson seemed to rally around his distraught son. “The whole city grieved for Steve,” says Wildcats booster George Kalil. “The kinship and compassion for him is as strong now as it was then. In a way, the people of Tucson adopted Steve Kerr.” Kerr chose to play in Arizona’s next game, only two days after his father’s murder. During a pregame moment of silence, Kerr says he “shed a few tears”; eyewitnesses say he sobbed openly. In any case, Kerr put his pain aside to concentrate on archrival Arizona State, winners of 10 consecutive games with the Wildcats. Kerr was on fire that night, burying his first shot, a 25-foot jumper, scoring 15 points and leading the univerity to a 71-49 blowout, Coach Olson’s first win in the rugged Pac-10 conference.

Kerr’s travails didn’t end there. Playing for the U.S. team in the 1986 World Championships in Madrid, a primer for the Olympics, he blew out his right knee so badly that his surgeon recently conceded that Kerr “could have ended up with a limp and become the team mascot instead of its point guard.” So Steve sat out his senior season and underwent nine excruciating months of rehabilitation. This year, his last at Arizona, he has come back quicker and stronger than before, though it’s unlikely he’ll ever play in the pros. Kerr isn’t looking for the sympathy vote. “I don’t like it when people say I’ve had bad breaks,” he says. “I’ve been one of the luckiest people in the world. The knee injury taught me perseverance. And my father’s death has helped me put things in their true perspective. I realize now, like I never did before, how things can be cut short suddenly. That’s why I play basketball. I love playing as much as anything on earth. And if you don’t do the things in life that you really want to do, then life’s really not worth living.”

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