Nine teams in the National Basketball Association lost more games than they won this season, and because it's been balmy and I didn't die after playing serious softball for the first time in 16 years the other night, I'm going to tell them how to improve in a hurry.
There is a coach on the loose with the following resume:
Four years running a Division I college program. Pro assistant at 29, with a team that later went to the NBA finals three times. Has been to the playoffs with veteran players and a collection of rookies and rejects.
But then Bernie Bickerstaff has been qualified and available long before now.
When a dribbling Tiny Archibald throws up his fist, or some such signal for a play tonight in Boston, Bullets assistant Bickerstaff often will know what it means before the Celtics do. Bickerstaff also sensed this Bullets team would be special, if not great, earlier than anyone, for he poured quite a lot of its foundation.
While the rest of basketball was catching its breath last summer, Bickerstaff was running a comprehensive offseason program. And discovering, to his delight, that Jeff Ruland could play in the NBA and that Rick Mahorn would play long and hard.
Even devoted NBA fans assume the Bullets were remade more quickly than a veteran pit crew could overhaul a clinker at Indy. In truth, it was slow and sweaty, but by the time Bickerstaff had completed his three-month project the organization knew with near-absolute certainty before training camp what rookies would make the team.
In nine years as an assistant here, Bickerstaff has mastered every phase of basketball except its politics. Surprised and hurt when no team in a league notorious for copycatting failed to grab him after the Bullets won the NBA title four years ago, he now is boiling with frustration.
"I feel sorry for myself sometimes," he admits, "but I've made up my mind that it's like basketball on the court: the contributors never get much (glory). They just contribute. I look at myself as a contributor; I've got to get my satisfaction my own way."
Cleveland came calling after That Championship Season, but Bickerstaff believes the interview was no more than a courtesy to several Cavaliers players. In pro sport, the least consulted people before most hirings are those who must be inspired by the new man.
What about the Bullets after Dick Motta left? Oh, yes, Bickerstaff was quoted that he wouldn't take the job just then.
"But I was never offered the opportunity to turn it down," he said.
Is that bothersome?
"Yeah, I think about it," he said after a long pause. "I think about it."
Another pause. More scrambled hoop logic races though his mind.
"It gets hard," he said. "It's tough, when you know you're ready. The San Diego thing (when he lost out to Paul Silas for the Clippers job) I think would have been appropriate, because I played in the town and coached there (at the University of San Diego).
"I think that's the only thing that keeps me going, that I was a head coach at the college level, ran my own program (for four years, with a 19-9 record the last season). That helps.
"The one thing that bothers me--and this isn't throwing rocks at anybody--is that I've seen guys advance because they were associated with success." Here he laughed, then restated the obvious:
"The Bullets have been successful. Eight out of nine years we've been in the playoffs. We've been in three championship rounds. Won it all once. (Bickerstaff came to Washington with the franchise, and stayed with three almost totally diverse head coaches.) And in two years in Puerto Rico I won the title one year and was runner-up the other."
Last June, knowing the Bullets would be in as tough a transition as teams ever experience, Bickerstaff assembled all the young, unknown players General Manager Bob Ferry could find and started teaching.
Basketball fundamentals. How to survive in the NBA. Three days a week, Mahorn, Ruland, Charles Davis, Garry Witts and the others practiced in the steamy Bowie State College gym. Saturday and Sunday, they played in the Urban Coalition League.
Bickerstaff tolerated no laxity, on or off the court. He would call time if the Bullets were ahead by 40 points to correct a mistake made twice, and to emphasize such as how to finesse a few seconds off the clock after the opposition has scored to assure having the final shot of a period.
Mostly, the Bullets have outworked and outsmarted everybody at their level this season. Quietly, Bickerstaff has added even more impressive credentials. And owners of losing franchises have yet to beckon.
"I refuse to cry," he said, "And I refuse to quit."
What about a college job?
"I've put a lot of time in here (the NBA). Somewhere along the line you've got to do what's right. And everything that Abe (Bullets owner Pollin) talks about and everything Ferry talks about comes down to fidelity.
"And I've been that. So I think I'll be rewarded somewhere down the road."
The satisfactions this season have been numerous, though mostly obvious only to him: Ruland being such an offensive force inside; Witts and Davis, the entire team, growing.
"This team has gotten the maximum out of its ability," he said. "I love that. And Gene Shue has done a masterful job."
Has Bickerstaff, 38, a timetable, a point where he either gets a head job or leaves the sport?
"When you're not in control," he said, "you can't give yourself a timetable. The biggest thing is keeping yourself up, when there's a whole lot of things happening around you that are good. You get yours from somewhere else, from yourself.
"And I can't go after just anything. Some guys can go out, lose and land on their feet. I just don't feel that I can do that. We're talking about something that's a little more profound than the surface: black coaches do not land on their feet after not being successful."