There are some head coaches in the National Basketball Association who couldn't care less about the clothes they wear or the image they project on the court. With others, it's easy to gauge the importance of the game just by looking at them -- suit or sport coat? Designer or Haggar?
But whether Chuck Daly of the Detroit Pistons is better-looking or more efficient than, say, Frank Layden of the Utah Jazz, is relatively unimportant. What counts is that, along with 21 others, they have head coaching positions in the league.
Bernie Bickerstaff doesn't. Looking at him on the sideline at Capital Centre at Washington Bullets games, one wonders what kind of cloth the 12-year assistant would cut. Daring and bold, with threads fused of full-court pressure and three-point bombs? Or would he perhaps slip on something a tad more conservative? Something with "smart" Xs and Os?
That, more than likely, would be the way Bickerstaff would go. Not so much because of a limited closet. There are times when the man is downright sartorially resplendent. However, the problem is -- and always has been -- whether or not Bickerstaff will be allowed to walk down the modeling runway and if so, for how long?
The lineage of the 23 men holding head coaching spots in the NBA is a simple one, similar to society in general; it's not what you know, it's whom you know, or at least who you are. For example, 11 of the spots are filled by former players, many with high name recognition, such as Philadelphia's Billy Cunningham.
Philadelphia also plays a big role in the who-do-you-know department. Daly of Detroit is a former assistant to Cunningham. Jack Ramsay of Portland, formerly coach of St. Joseph's University in the City of Brotherly Love, bestowed some of that to Jim Lynam, a successor in the college ranks. After joining the Trail Blazers as an assistant, Lynam moved on to the head spot with the Los Angeles Clippers before being fired last week. Doug Moe of Denver begat George Karl of Cleveland.
Phil Johnson was an assistant to Layden in Utah (Layden himself was an aide to Hubie Brown) before being chosen by Kansas City to replace Jack McKinney (another of Ramsay's proteges). It was Johnson's second go-round in Kansas City; earlier, he joined the team following an apprenticeship with Dick Motta in Chicago.
During his four years coaching the Bullets, Motta's No. 1 assistant was Bickerstaff, just as Bickerstaff was for K.C. Jones in the two seasons he spent in Washington. Throw in present Coach Gene Shue and you've got 12 years of continuous service under three men who have coached a total of 3,014 games in the NBA entering this season, winning 52 percent of those games and two league championships.
Given all that, it's hard to believe that Bickerstaff hasn't joined the fraternity. Perhaps part of the fault lies with him. While playing the game of keeping in touch with teams, keeping his face visible and his name circulated, he has truly attempted to land only four of the many vacancies that have popped up over the years.
According to Motta, the reason for that is because "Bernie's not stupid. He makes about $100,000." Then, with a gleam in his eye and a needle directed towards his friend and former aide, he said, "He earns about a third of it. Why should he go after jobs?"
There's no denying that Bickerstaff is well entrenched in Washington, but not so well that he wouldn't take a flyer with his own team, provided it was exactly that -- his own team.
"I don't want to be anyone's guardian angel," he says, meaning seeing a successor reap the benefits of the groundwork that he laid. "Getting into that circle (of coaches) is tough enough, but when you're black, once you get fired, chances are you're not gonna get back in, so you better make sure that you've got a chance to win."
It seems almost ludicrous to think that in 1985, in a league in which 70 percent of the players are black, that the only reason Bickerstaff hasn't gotten a head coaching job is because he's black. "I may be a bit naive but I really don't think that's the reason why. I've always thought race relations in the league mirrored, if were not actually better than society as a whole," says Pete Babcock, the director of player personnel for the Denver Nuggets. "I heard some trainers say that they don't like working with blacks, some owners say they'll never have a black as a head coach. You wonder what are they doing in the league? There are other things they could be doing."
"You would hate to think that it's racial, that Bernie hasn't gotten a job solely because he's black, but then you realize that that's an area that others have had to deal with in nearly every aspect of society, so why not basketball?" says Dave Wohl, an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"The reasons why he hasn't gotten a job are something that Bernie has to determine in his own mind, but, judging from his qualifications, there's only one that comes to mind."
The chances are that Wohl, 35, and an assistant with the Lakers the last three seasons, with Milwaukee for the three seasons before that and with the New Jersey Nets for one season, will get a head coaching position before Bickerstaff. In dissecting the reasons behind that, nearly any person connected to the league will mention a single word.
Comfort. In the sometimes bone-jarring world of professional basketball, on the court in the form of hard picks and in the almost ruthless maneuverings that go on off the floor, it's amazing how important feeling good is for some people.
And not in the sense that Motta spoke of earlier, either. Lots of people in the NBA make Bickerstaff's money; the comfort they speak of means being able to continue making it. And that means saying to Bickerstaff, "We can't hire you. It's not that you're black. It's just that some of our people wouldn't be comfortable if we did."
One of the jobs that Bickerstaff actively pursued was the opening in Chicago after the firing of Paul Westhead (another of Ramsay's proteges) after the 1982-83 season. In that case, Bickerstaff got as far as an interview with Rod Thorn, the Bulls' general manager.
Thorn was suitably impressed with Bickerstaff and his credentials but what it came down to, according to Bickerstaff, was comfort. "We got along fine, our ideas meshed, but in the end he said he was leaning towards Kevin Loughery because they were best friends and had worked together before."
And, in a sense, Bickerstaff concedes that it's hard to disagree with Thorn's position. After all, when a coach is hired, it's mostly on the recommendation of the general manager; if that choice doesn't work out, chances are he'll be the next man out the door. So if you're going to take the chance of being fired, why not do it with a friend?
That presents a dual problem: finding the person willing to take that risk, along with the team with the potential to make it work. Of the two, Jones believes the former is the biggest hurdle for a black trying to break into the NBA.
"It's like the people that run television networks: the powers-that-be who look out of their windows and see 12 million people who want to be anchormen and they can pick and choose whomever they want," he says.
In addressing the six years he spent as an assistant in Boston following his firing in Washington, Jones says, "I never thought I'd get another chance to be in the position I am today. I remember when I was hired, people looked at Red (Auerbach, president of the Celtics) and said things like, 'Are you crazy? Have you gone insane?' He was way out on a limb that wasn't strong enough to support a tiny bird."
From the beginning, all Bickerstaff wanted to be was a head coach.
When someone asks where Benham, Ky., the home of his youth, is located, Bickerstaff has to think for nearly 30 seconds before he can come up with another city remotely recognizable. Suffice it to say, the place is way out there.
"People wonder how I can wait for a job," he says. "I haven't been waiting that long. I tell them about things like the 'colored only' bathrooms in Kentucky. I waited for the first 18 years of my life to get away from that."
That the vehicle powering that egress would be basketball was unquestioned; the surprise was the direction he wanted it to take. "Growing up in Kentucky, that was the major aspiration: to be a coach," he says. "That's all you saw, the discipline those guys held in their programs.
"We'd watch teams like Boston on the game of the week, but we never thought about actually playing in the NBA; we felt lucky just to be able to see a game every now and then."
When it was time to leave Benham, he got into a car with another one of the 100 students who attended the local high school and drove out to California. After starring as a point guard at the University of San Diego, Bickerstaff turned down an offer to play with the Harlem Globetrotters when his alma mater offered him a coaching position -- as an assistant, of course.
On the day before beginning his third season in the position, the head coach, Phil Woolpert, came to Bickerstaff and said the team was his. Bickerstaff was 24 years old. "I had recruited an older class, some of those guys were as old as me," he says. "I went out and got some kids and we wound up with the best freshman team on the West Coach except for UCLA."
In his four seasons at San Diego, his teams were 55-49, going 19-9 in 1972-73. The following year, he was with Jones in Washington and became the NBA's youngest assistant coach. "Things just happened, bang, bang, bang. I was in the right place at the right time," he says. "I was 24 when I got the job in San Diego, 29 when I came to the NBA. Thank God for that; if I was 40, it would be all over by now."
By his own estimate, he has sought only four jobs during his 12 years in the NBA, but never got as far as an interview for the one he truly wanted. Following the 1982-83 season, the Clippers' coach, Paul Silas, was fired by owner Donald Sterling.
The scenario was perfect for Bickerstaff: a chance to return to the scene of past glories, with a team that had Bill Walton, Terry Cummings and Norm Nixon. Eventually, the job came down to eight men. Bickerstaff wasn't one of them.
Jones says he was dumbfounded when he heard that Bickerstaff wasn't being considered. "How could they not hire him? They sat there and interviewed everybody, any assistant coach in the league with one or two years' experience, and then not even give Bernie a call. What do you think it was?"
According to Babcock, then the Clippers' director of player personnel, the only men considered were Lynam, Loughery, McKinney, then New York Knicks' assistant Mike Fratello, Atlanta assistant Brendan Suhr, Dallas assistant Bob Weiss and two college coaches, Don DeVoe of Tennessee and Rollie Massimino of Villanova.
Of the eight men, the latter two were never seriously considered; neither was Suhr, who was, in effect, practicing interviewing in the hopes of landing a job later. Fratello, Loughery and McKinney found jobs with Atlanta, Chicago and Kansas City, respectively. So it was that the job was reduced to two, Lynam and Weiss, and both were considered for the same reason.
Comfort. Paul Phipps, then general manager for the Clippers, had worked with Weiss in Dallas; Babcock favored Lynam. "When Bernie called and I talked with him, I thought he probably did deserve an interview, but we were going to go with those eight. I think he felt slighted when I told him that I just didn't know him. You want to keep your own job, so you go with what you're comfortable with."
Babcock insists that race was never a factor in the decision. "If I had gone in and said let's interview Bernie Bickerstaff, it probably would have happened," he says. "Sterling liked Silas (who is black), he wanted us to interview Elgin Baylor. After e hired Lynam, I had a chance to get to know Bernie. If I knew him then like I do now, there's no doubt he would have been way up there."
Bickerstaff feels his qualifications (besides the University of San Diego and his success with the Bullets, he coached the Puerto Rican national team to the Caribbean Tournament championship in 1976 and was a runner-up the following year) makes such talk a bit ridiculous.
That in itself is another problem: he could be a bit too honest for some people in the league. "Some guys go into interviews and tell the general managers whatever he thinks they want to hear," Bickerstaff says. "I know that all of my interviews have been candid. If a team is hurting, I'll say so. Sometimes I've done it, told them what they needed and then see them doing the exact same thing after they had given the job to someone else. In those cases, I guess all I got was some inner satisfaction."
If that's all that Bickerstaff will receive from those wielding the power in the NBA, then the man who would be coach is prepared to deal with that too.
"I'll play the games, be sociable and all that, but you have to let people know where to get off the boat," he said. "I may never get a spot, but I have to be true to myself. I can't prostitute myself for a job."