Bickerstaff Began Bullets' Climb
By J.A. Adande
Several times during the course of Sunday's showdown game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a Cleveland fan at Gund Arena heckled Washington Bullets Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, telling Bickerstaff he had done nothing but take over a team that was loaded with talent, that he had lucked into this job.
"Hey," Bickerstaff shot back. "I've got a job."
He left it at that. He didn't talk about how large a role he played in snapping the Bullets out of their underachieving ways and turning them into a winning team that made the playoffs for the first time in nine years. He didn't point out that the Bullets had won 16 of their last 21 games to overtake the Cavaliers for the eighth playoff spot.
That wouldn't be like Bickerstaff.
He is getting plenty of praise from other quarters, including from the man whose opinion matters most: team owner Abe Pollin.
"Bernie is fantastic," Pollin said amid the euphoria after the Bullets beat Cleveland, 85-81, to earn their playoff berth. "He turned this franchise around. He took the raw talent and knew how to meld it and blend it and produce a winner."
Yet every time credit comes Bickerstaff's way, he deflects it.
"It goes to the players," Bickerstaff said. "They reached down, they were receptive. They deserve it. I'm happy for them."
Normally in Washington this type of pass-along is reserved for blame. The Republicans blame the Democrats. The Democrats blame the Republicans. The White House blames Capitol Hill.
Bickerstaff won't play that game, even though his is a line of work where failures usually have a way of finding their way back to the top. That's why Jim Lynam, Bickerstaff's predecessor, lost his job on Feb. 5 after the Bullets lost more than half of their first 46 games.
Perhaps Bickerstaff didn't personally account for any of the 23 games the Bullets won in the 45 they played after the all-star break. And the Bullets had a favorable schedule, to be sure. Of the 11 teams they beat in March, only two had winning records (Miami and Portland).
But Bickerstaff created a recipe and an atmosphere for success. Under Bickerstaff, practices became more structured. Not that he existed solely to play the role of drill sergeant; if the team showed the slightest hint of fatigue after a game, Bickerstaff would cancel practice the next day. When they did practice, he wanted to make sure it ran with maximum efficiency.
It's one thing to have a plan. Getting the players to believe in the plan might be the toughest aspect of coaching in the NBA today. Bickerstaff walked into particularly treacherous waters because he asked his two young stars, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, to do less and involve their teammates more.
Instead of pushing the ball up-court themselves after a rebound, they were told to find Rod Strickland and pass to him. Strickland took more control in the halfcourt offense, and plays often began with him driving to the basket instead of passing to Webber and Howard on the wings. Bickerstaff left the low-post offense to Gheorghe Muresan. What's the point of having a 7-foot-7 center if you don't get him the ball near the basket?
Muresan, Strickland and guard Calbert Cheaney, who was practically an afterthought in the first part of the season, all flourished in the second half of the season. Even players at the end of the bench, such as Ben Wallace and Ashraf Amaya, had their moments in the spotlight. Although Webber and Howard had slightly diminished roles, Bickerstaff made sure they knew he recognized how vital they were to the team.
"He did a great job of bringing the system in," Howard said. "All of the guys listened to all of the details and stayed strong and wanted to get to the next level."
"We just have cohesion about our team right now," guard Tim Legler said. "Twelve players and the coaching staff bonded together. We believe in each other. Everybody believes that the next guy is going to make a big play."
Bickerstaff never ripped his team publicly after a bad loss. And he never heaped praise upon his players after a victory, not as long as they had to keep winning to ensure themselves a spot in the playoffs. This was the approach he wanted his players to have, a professional attitude. He winced at some of their antics on the court and sometimes pointed out their tendencies to celebrate too soon. When Cleveland called time out with 13.3 seconds remaining Sunday, and the Bullets jumped up and down and chest-bumped at halfcourt to celebrate their four-point lead, Bickerstaff yelled, "Get over here!" and directed his young players to the bench.
In 24 years in the NBA (the first 12 as an assistant with the Washington Bullets), Bickerstaff had seen enough to know that the victory was not yet secured. In fact, this whole playoff push brought about a sense of deja vu.
In 1995, when Bickerstaff was president of the Denver Nuggets, he took over the coaching duties for a team that was 21-29. The Nuggets went 20-12 down the stretch to finish 41-41, beating the Sacramento Kings on the last day of the season to clinch a playoff spot. Sound familiar?
"The difference here is we won [the final game] on the road," Bickerstaff said. "That's a heck of an accomplishment."
And that as as close as Bernie Bickerstaff will get to taking a bow.
Bullets Notes: Webber was named the NBA player of the week after averaging 22 points, 15.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2 steals in four Bullets victories. . . . The Bullets will head to Shepherdstown, W.Va., for a mini-camp today and Wednesday.