Bickerstaff, Bernie 1944–

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Bernie Bickerstaff 1944

Professional basketball coach

From Division II to the Pros

Finally, A Head Coach

Move To Denver

Back Where It All Started


Bernie Bickerstaff, head coach of the National Basketball Associations Washington Wizards, is known throughout the league as a hardworking tactician who can fill holes in a team and create a strong lineup. For 12 years, beginning in the 1970s, he was on the Washington sidelines as an assistant coach and played an integral role in creating that decades greatest team. As a head coach for the Seattle Supersonics, the Denver Nuggets, and the Wizards he has been able to build teams that stun their opponents and silence their critics. As the basketball writer of USA Today David DuPree wrote, Bickerstaff is a master at defining roles and designing a system that takes advantage of his players strengths. Bickerstaff designed these systems for three teams, each time building a playoff-caliber unit that exceeds everyones expectations.

Born Bernard Bickerstaff in Benham, Kentucky, in 1944, Bickerstaff headed west after high school to play for the famed college basketball coach, Phil Woolpert, at the University of San Diego. After graduation Bickerstaff worked as an assistant for Woolpert, who taught him the art of strategizing and making the small parts of the team come together as a whole. After a few years as his assistant, Bickerstaff succeeded Woolpert as head coach at San Diego, a post he held for three years.

From Division II to the Pros

In 1973, though Bickerstaff had never played or coached above Division II college level, he was picked by K.C. Jones, the newlyacquired head coach of the Bulletsthen known as the Capital Bullets-as an assistant. Whatever I have in the NBA, I owe to K.C. Jones, Bickerstaff admitted to DuPree. I got respect from him immediately and our friendship never swayed from that. He taught me a lot of things that transcend just being a basketball coach. Bickerstaff would remain in this role for twelve years, serving three head coaches and garnering a reputation as one of the great assistant coaches of the NBA. In the second season under Jones, the Bullets went to the NBA Finals, but were swept by the Golden State Warriors. After being eliminated early in the playoffs in the 1975-76 season, Joness contract was not renewed. When Dick Motta, Joness successor, wanted to keep Bickerstaff on as his assistant, Jones encouraged his friend to stay.

At a Glance

Born Bernard Tyrone Bickerstaff, February 11, 1944, in Benham, KY. Married Eugenia King. Children: Cydni, Bernard, John, Blair, Tim, Robin. Education: University of San Diego.

Career: Basketball coach. Assistant coach at the University of San Diego, 1967-70; head coach at the University of San Diego, 1970-73; assistant coach for the Capital/Washington Bullets, 1973-85; head coach for the Seattle Supersonics, 1985-90; vice president of Basketball Operations for the Seattle Supersonics, 1990; general manager and vice president of Basketball Operations for the Denver Nuggets, 1990-95; head coach and president of Basketball Operations for the Denver Nuggets, 1995-96; general manager and president of the Denver Nuggets, 1996-1997; head coach of the Washington Bullets/Wizards, 1997-.

Awards: Assistant coach for NBA champion Washington Bullets, 1978; Coach of the Year, 1987; Bernard Bickerstaff Boulevard opened in Benham, KY, 1991; named a Kentucky Colonel, 1991.

Addresses: Office Washington Wizards, MCI Center, 601 F St., NW, Washington, D.C., 20004.

Throughout the last half of his tenure as a Washington assistant, Bickerstaff turned down several head coach offers while also interviewing for some positions that were eventually filled by others. Everyone else looks at it like it was such a long wait, like it was a real long time, he confessed to Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times.But I look at the times in Washington as a helluva learning experience. While working with Motta in the 1977-78 season, Bickerstaff learned what it was like to win an NBA championship, when the Bullets won it all. Bickerstaff would also work with Mottas replacement, Dick Shue, but eventually the right team came along at the right moment and in 1985 after twelve years as an assistant, Bickerstaff was named head coach of the Seattle Supersonics.

Finally, A Head Coach

Bickerstaffs first year in Seattle, however, was a disappointment. The team only managed a record of 31-51, the same record which got Bickerstaffs Seattle predecessor, Lenny Wilkins, fired. During the off-season Bickerstaff reconstructed the team through trades, waivers, drafts and pick-ups from other leagues to create a lineup which featured only three Seattle players from the previous season. Essentially it was a team of players nobody wanted. I like to give people opportunities, he told Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times.Somebody finally gave me a break. Once you get that opportunity, you dont have an excuse.We basically brought in people who had not had an opportunity to excel. What we said was, OK, heres your platform. I think it worked. Something worked. In only his second year as an NBA head coach, Bickerstaff put together an inexperienced team that had never played together before and led them all the way to the Western Conference finals becoming the basketball story of 1987 and garnering Coach of the Year honors.

Bickerstaff took it in stride. Ive never been surprised at my coaching ability. There are a lot of great coaches who dont have players. So I give credit to the players. The players make you look good, he told Bonk. For their part, the players wanted to make Bickerstaff look good. Hes done so much for my career, one of his players, Dale Ellis, told Bonk during the 1987 playoffs. He threw me in the starting lineup and hes instilled a lot of confidence in me. I havent had that before in the pros. Hes the type of coach you want to win games for.

At the beginning of the 1989-90 season Bickerstaff hired a familiar face as his assistanthis old boss, K.C. Jones. Jones had coached five seasons for the Boston Celtics, guiding them to the NBA Finals four times and winning the championship twice. At the end of the 1987-88 season he retired from coaching and became a vice president for the Celtics. Feeling uncomfortable in the Boston front office, Jones decided to take the assistant job in Seattle, insisting it was not a step down after his enormous success as a head coach. At this stage in my career, it isnt about status, Jones told DuPree. Its about friends helping each other. Im very secure in who I am and what Ive done. It was just time to make a move, I think. If it was anyone but Bernie, though, Id never have done it.

Bickerstaff insisted to DuPree that Jones would be much more than an assistant. He has carte blanche here We need K.C. just to be K.C. That was one of the first things he taught me when I first came into the leaguebe yourself because as soon as you get out of character, the players will pick it up and youll have trouble. During the season Bickerstaff missed six games when he was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer. At seasons end, Bickerstaff stepped down as head coach and became vice president of basketball operations for the Supersonics, with K.C. Jones taking over as head coach.

Move To Denver

Just months later, Bickerstaff was named general manager and vice president of operations for the Denver Nuggets. In this role, Bickerstaff oversaw the hirings and acquisitions of players and coaches, and it seemed as if he was finished with coaching for good. In the middle of the 1994-95 season, however, Bickerstaff relinquished his title of general manager while becoming president of the Nuggets as well as head coach, replacing interim head coach Gene Littles. Littles had been named interim coach for 16 games after Dan Issel resigned, and acquired a dismal 3-13 record. When Bickerstaff took over in March of 1995, the Nuggets were eight games out of the playoffs, but Bickerstaff led them to win ten of their next 15 games, prompting him to be voted NBA coach of the month. The Nuggets ended up winning 20 of their last 32 and made their way into the playoffs only to be swept by San Antonio in the first round.

In a move reminiscent of his hiring of Jones in Seattle, Bickerstaff brought in another former boss as an assistant when he hired Dick Motta. Similarly, in late November of 1996 Bickerstaff stepped down as head coach, allowing Motta to take over the team. Bickerstaff remained president of the Nuggets organization and reclaimed the title of general manager. I feel good about this decision, Bickerstaff told DuPree. I always said I would do what is best for the organization. This gives me an opportunity to step back and try to solidify the talent level and the contract situation of this basketball team. Thats the job I was originally hired to do.

In early 1997, amid rumors that Bickerstaffs job at Denver was on the line due to low attendance, new rumors surfaced placing Bickerstaff on the top of the Washington Bullets wish list for their new head coach. In February of 1997 those rumors proved true as the Bullets and Bickerstaff announced his return to the team where he started his professional career. I feel lucky to be able to come back into a situation where Im familiar with the community, the organization and the owner, Bickerstaff said at a press conference. Im very fortunate to be back with the organization that gave me my start, and Im excited about the prospect of getting things done here.

Back Where It All Started

Bickerstaff was brought back to the team he started with by Bullets general manager Wes Unseld, who had played for the Bullets in the 1970s while Bickerstaff was an assistant and who later coached the team. Oddly enough, seven years earlier in the Washington Post, columnist Michael Wilbon wrote that he thought an Unseld-Bickerstaff team was just the thing the Bullets needed. Unseld could be GM, Unseld could be coach, Tilbon wrote. Bickerstaff could be GM, Bickerstaff could be coach, adding, [Bickerstaff] never should have been allowed to leave in the first place.

By the time Bickerstaff took over the Bullets in the middle of the 1996-97 season, the team had not been to the playoffs since 1988, the longest playoff drought of any NBA team. Team owner Abe Pollin, however, had high hopes for his new coach. I think we have a team, the players, the potential to win the championship, J.A. Adande quoted Pollin as saying in the Washington Post.I believe that and I believe it strongly And I believe that Bernies the right guy to bring us there.

An NBA championship is a pretty tall order, but Bickerstaff did put an end to that unfortunate playoff drought. As he did in Seattle and Denver, Bickerstaff rallied his young team together and led them to a 22-13 record, clinching a playoff spot in a high pressure game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bernie is fantastic, owner Pollin told Adande. He turned this franchise around. He took the raw talent and knew how to meld it and blend it and produce a winner. Star forward Juwan Howard agreed, telling Adande, He did a great job of bringing the system in. All of the guys listened to all of the details and stayed strong and wanted to get to the next level. The next level, however, was facing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for the best-of-five series and the Bullets were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

The momentum of the 1996-97 season was all but lost the next year. The teamnow known as the Washington Wizardswas only able to scrape together a 42-40 record and the players were distracted by off-the-court legal entanglements. Fights, drunk driving, and sexual assault charges plagued the team while Bickerstaff tried to make the decisions about who to let go, who to keep, and who to get. Emotions cant play a part in anything, he told Rie Bûcher of the Washington Post.You always have to step back from the table and let the emotions subside. There are likes and dislikes and this isnt about that. Its about whats best for the basketball team.

The 1998-99 season was the season that almost wasnt. With players and owners failing to meet a labor agreement, the owners staged a lock-out and half the season, including the All-Star game, was canceled. By the time it was resolved, the season did not start until February and would consist of only a 12-week, 50-game schedule. One major change to the lineup was the trade of forward Chris Webber to the Sacramento Kings and after the long non-season, the Wizards, and the rest of the league, had to win back the fans. Weve got to earn our fans back with our performance and our deference to them, Bickerstaff admitted to Richard Justice of the Washington Post.I think were up to it. We know weve got to reach out to them, and were willing to do that. Theres an understanding that the fans are important. I think we realize theyre the ones who really make this happen for us. Sometimes we take them for granted, but weve got to take this opportunity to make them feel good.

With the shortened season, the retirement of Michael Jordan and the slew of roster changes, there was no clear frontrunner for the 1999 NBA championship. Mike Wise of the New York Times predicted the Wizards would at least get to the playoffs and theres no doubt that Bickerstaff would love to win a championship as head coach. But even if he does not, he still had the chance. Im just happy to be here and to have the opportunity, he confessed to Adande in his first season as Washington head coach. Ive spent the majority of my life doing something that I love.



Black Enterprise, July 1995, p. 73.

Jet, October 28, 1991, p. 52; March 13, 1995, p. 46; December 16, 1996, p. 50; March 3, 1997, p. 49.

Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1987, p. III-1.

New York Times, February 4, 1999, p. D-3.

USA Today, May 5, 1987, p. 13-C; May 14, 1987, p. 1-C; September 26, 1989, p. 10-C; May 16, 1990, p. 9-C; November 27, 1996, p. 4-C; February 11, 1997, p. 4-C; April 8, 1997, p. 8-C.

Washington Post, December 13, 1989, p. C-l; June 14, 1990, p. D-l; February 7, 1997, p. C-l; February 8, 1997, pp. D-l, D-7; February 9, 1997, p. D-l; March9, 1997, p. D-l; April 21, p. C-l; April 22, 1997, pp. E-l, E-4; January 24, 1999, p. D-l.

Brian Escamilla