SAN ANTONIO – Bernie Bickerstaff is an NBA lifer who has been an assistant, head coach and executive, for parts of five decades. Take a glance at Bickerstaff’s career path and you’ll find that his influence has been felt around the league.
He was an assistant in Washington when the Bullets won the 1978 NBA championship; a head coach in Seattle when the SuperSonics lost to the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers in the 1987 Western Conference Finals; a coach and general manager in Denver in 1994 when Dikembe Mutombo gleefully held up a basketball from his back after the Nuggets became the first No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed; back in Washington when Chris Webber and Juwan Howard brought playoff basketball to the city for one year in the 1990s; an executive and coach in Charlotte to start an expansion franchise in 2004 and just completed a year as an assistant in Cleveland.
On Thursday, Bickerstaff’s longevity and success was recognized when he received the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Basketball Coaches Association. With his wife, Eugena, and sons, John Blair and Bernard, in attendance, Bickerstaff accepted an honor that was 41 years in the making.
“Anytime that your peers recognize you, it’s an honor. But when you think about the deserving coaches in this league, then it becomes very humbling,” Bickerstaff said in a news conference before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “I’m appreciative of the opportunity, you know, to share in the legacy, in my opinion, of the quintessential basketball coach on any level, when we talk about Coach Daly.”
Bickerstaff made history by becoming the youngest assistant coach in NBA history in 1973 when he left his alma mater, the University of San Diego, to join K.C. Jones’s staff with the Bullets.
“I didn’t have a clue about the NBA,” Bickerstaff recalled. “When you think of the team we had, we had the Unselds, Elvin Hayes, Archie Clark, Phil Chenier, the talent level was so much different than it was at the University of San Diego. But the guy that I was working with, he helped me because he paved the way and I’m talking about K.C. Jones. He made it possible for me to succeed as a coach because of the way he handled the team and what he allowed me to do.”
Bickerstaff was a part of the organization for 12 years before taking his first head coaching job in Seattle in 1985. In 15 seasons with Seattle, Denver, Washington and Charlotte, Bickerstaff coached 937 games, which ranks 29th all-time, and won 419 games, which ranks 41st all-time. Bickerstaff was head coach in Washington for parts of three seasons, compiling a 77-72 record. He led the franchise to the playoffs in its final season as the Bullets.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Bickerstaff, who continues to maintain a residence in Northwest. “I started as a young coach, but there was always somebody there who pointed me in the right direction. I was a head coach at 24 at the University of San Diego, but there was somebody there. I don’t know if you remember Coach Phil Woolpert, who coached Bill Russell and K.C. Jones to two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco, and Coach Bob Kloppenburg, who implemented a lot of defenses that we run in the NBA, and John Cunningham who was a sounding board.
“And then I came to the National Basketball Association and, again, great coaches, that I worked with and mentored me and I was just a young buck. They showed me the right direction, and I’m talking about K.C. Jones, who brought me into the league, and then Dick Motta and Gene Shue, the general manager Bob Ferry and then Lenny Wilkens. And as you can see, these were not only great coaches but great basketball players. Now Dick Motta was not a great basketball player, but he had the ability to palm the basketball. He would stand and open his legs and hold the ball out. I think that was the extent of his game, but he was an excellent basketball coach.”
Prior winners are Bill Fitch (2013), Pat Riley (2012), Lenny Wilkens (2011), Tex Winter and Jack Ramsay (2010) and Tommy Heinsohn (2009).