After spending 12 years as an assistant coach with the Washington Bullets, Bernie Bickerstaff yesterday was named head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics.

General Manager Lenny Wilkens used a press conference in Seattle -- called to introduce top draft pick Xavier McDaniel -- to announce the selection of Bickerstaff as the SuperSonics' eighth head coach.

"Right now, this begins a new era in SuperSonics basketball," Bickerstaff said. "I think the Sonics have a nice nucleus and a nice group of players to be developed. The only way to go is up."

Bickerstaff, 41, served the Bullets as an assistant under three coaches -- K.C. Jones, Dick Motta and Gene Shue. Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry said yesterday he was so happy about Bickerstaff's new position that "I don't feel like we're losing an assistant."

Still, the team has to hire someone to join Shue. The first name that surfaced was Wes Unseld, a former Bullets player and now a vice president with the team. According to one Bullets player, that would be a good choice in terms of relating to players, but not necessarily in terms of hands-on coaching.

"You shouldn't expect it, it's not realistic, but I think we need someone that provided all the things that Bernie did," the player said. "That included things like dissecting the other team's plays. I don't know how much experience Wes has with stuff like scouting."

Another viable candidate for the job could be Fred Carter, recently fired as an assistant in Chicago. "That wouldn't be a bad choice," one Bullets player said. "He's one of the league's quality assistants and he probably knows our personnel very well."

As for Bickerstaff, he has made it no secret the last few seasons that he longed for a head coaching position.

He said, "I think this matchup is perfect for the Seattle SuperSonics and Bernie Bickerstaff." That could be true in several ways, since Bickerstaff's previous frustrations at not being offered head coaching jobs had led him to suspect it was because he is black. Beginning with Wilkens in the 1969-70 season, the SuperSonics have had a black coach for 15 of the last 16 seasons. Bickerstaff is the first black to be named an NBA head coach without playing experience in the league.

Bickerstaff said that he planned on taking the SuperSonics from a defensive philosophy to one emphasizing offense. "We want to be exciting but we also want to be intelligent," he said. "The most important thing for me to do right now is analyze the films of the team. The system must fit the players. We'll have discipline, we'll have structure but we'll have fun."

According to members of the Bullets, those are all attributes that Bickerstaff possesses in abundance. "He got along really well with the players and was able to relate," one player said. "But he has a way of saying things that gets right to the point. He would say sometimes that we had to learn to separate our Bs -- the bull from the basketball."

The two candidates Bickerstaff is expected to consider to join him as assistants in Seattle are Dick Helm, one of the team's current assistants, and Bob Kloppenburg.