Getting a job as a coach in the National Basketball Association is a lot like trying to land a part in Hollywood, Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry says. "You have to impress that one right person at just the right time, and if you can do that, nothing else really matters. You don't even have to be that good a coach."
Ferry has had a hand in hiring three coaches for the Bullets--K.C. Jones, Dick Motta and Gene Shue--all successful, yet as different as a slam dunk and a three-point shot.
"Hiring coaches is a lot like drafting players," adds Ferry. "It all comes down to what you feel in your stomach. You just hope you get the right feeling."
There are expected to be a number of coaching changes before the start of next season. Two coaches have already been fired and three have resigned.
The new coaches will come from basically four sources: head coaches with other NBA teams, NBA assistant coaches, college coaches or former players with no coaching experience. Statistics show that someone with prior NBA head coaching experience has the inside track.
Of the 23 head coaches this season, only Pat Riley of Los Angeles, Al Attles of Golden State, Del Harris of Houston, Billy Cunningham of Philadelphia, Paul Silas of San Diego and John MacLeod of Phoenix never previously was an NBA head coach.
When the season ended, Silas was fired, Attles retired and Harris resigned under pressure.
The way the system works, with the same coaches getting fired and rehired by other teams year after year, many talented young assistant coaches like Washington's Bernie Bickerstaff are on the outside, begging to get in.
"I'm ready to be a head coach," said Bickerstaff, 38. "I've paid my dues and I want a job, if it's the right one. So far all I've been doing is waiting. Not many people are calling."
Ferry thinks Bickerstaff is ready to be a head coach, "but there are a number of other people in the league like Bernie--qualified assistants wanting a head job. Men like Bucky Buckwalter of Portland, John Killilea of Milwaukee, Frank Hamlin of Kansas City and Bob Weiss of Dallas.
"Then there's another group of assistant coaches who were former head coaches, who want to get back into a head job, like Al Bianchi of Phoenix, K.C. Jones of Boston and Phil Johnson of Utah."
Bickerstaff is also black, and black head coaches are rare.
In the 36-year history of the NBA, there have been only 11 and eight of them were fired and not rehired. They are Earl Lloyd and Ray Scott of the Detroit Pistons, Elgin Baylor of the New Orleans (Utah) Jazz, Willis Reed of the New York Knicks, Satch Sanders of the Boston Celtics, Jones of the Bullets, Bob Hopkins of the SuperSonics and Silas.
Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens are the only black coaches to have coached more than one NBA team.
The other black coach, Attles, retired to become general manager last week, after 13 seasons as the head coach at Golden State. And with the firing of Silas, Wilkens is the only black coach left.
"Seventy-five percent of the NBA is black, so, of course, we'd like to have more black coaches," said an NBA spokesman. "But we can't tell people who to hire or presume racism is the reason there aren't more black coaches."
Jones, who was fired after having a winning percentage of .630 in three seasons as the Bullets' coach, is tired of waiting and is contemplating going back to college coaching.
"I've been waiting eight years," he said. "It makes you wonder."
Statistics covering the past 10 seasons show that most proven NBA coaches can virtually always get another job.
Gene Shue of the Bullets, Cotton Fitzsimmons of the Kansas City Kings and Tom Nissalke of the Cleveland Cavaliers have all been head coaches with four NBA teams in that 10-year span, and Dick Motta of the Dallas Mavericks and Wilkens have coached three teams.
"That's the nature of the game," said Ferry.
"I really believe that when you make a decision on a coach, you want to know what you're getting and that's the big reason you go with a proven head coach. You don't want to gamble on what you might get.
"I think knowing personnel and how to handle the professional athlete is more important than strategy. And it was on that basis we hired Motta and Shue. At the times, they were the right people for our personnel . . .
"With Gene," Ferry said, "the team had reached its peak and, because of its age, you could see a transition coming. I could see some rough times ahead and I didn't want to have to evaluate if a coach could coach while I was trying to see which players could play."
Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA players association, thinks it's time the owners quit recycling coaches.
"It's a sickness that pervades the industry," he said. "Teams feel they have to make changes, but they still only hire a guy with NBA coaching experience, so the same guys keep getting hired and fired and rehired. It's like chasing your own tail.