SAN ANTONIO – In 41 years as an NBA coach and executive, across five decades, Bernie Bickerstaff learned, deployed, imparted and maybe even forgot more X’s and O’s than used in all the episodes of Hollywood Squares combined.
But when it came time to reflect on his career – which continues these days as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers – Bickerstaff defaulted to faces and names and people. That is the NBA he has most enjoyed, the one he thanked Thursday for “letting [him] come along on this wonderful ride for 40-plus years.”
“I’ve been fortunate to start a lot of good relationships,” Bickerstaff said, “with ball boys, with trainers, PR people, assistant coaches, head coaches, general managers, presidents, owners – and even some of those owners and general managers who decided they wanted to go in a different direction.”
Bickerstaff, 70, was presented with the 2014 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, as chosen by the National Basketball Coaches Association, prior to Game 1 of The Finals. As described by NBCA president Rick Carlisle, coach of the Dallas Mavericks, the Daly award honors competitive integrity, diversity, longevity and “the thing that Chuck always talked about, which was love and respect for the game.”
That love and respect was looping back toward Bickerstaff at the AT&T Center. Fellow coaches Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson made sure to be in the audience for Bickerstaff’s news conference. His sons John-Blair, an assistant on Houston coach Kevin McHale‘s staff, and Bernard were in the front row. And so was his wife of 46 years, Eugenia. “Like Chuck, she knew the buttons to push – she didn’t always know when but she knew the buttons to push,” Bickerstaff said.
Bickerstaff , a native of Benham, Ky., has worked at the NBA’s highest levels throughout his career, not just on the bench but in the front office. He became the youngest assistant coach in league history, joining the Washington Bullets’ staff at age 29 in 1973. He had made the jump from the University of San Diego, and the differences were immediately apparent.
“When I joined the Bullets in ’73 I didn’t have a clue about the NBA,” he recalled. “I was mesmerized by all the picks that they set. There was one, two, three, four picks, and basically in college you go off one screen and you go to the other side of the screen and that was it.
“And the talent. When you think of the team we had, we had [Wes] Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Archie Clark, Phil Chenier – the talent level was so much different than it was at the University of San Diego.”
In Washington, Bickerstaff worked for K.C. Jones and Dick Motta and helped the Bullets reach The Finals three times, winning the franchise’s only championship in 1978. In 1985, he was hired as head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and led them to three postseason appearances in five years.
Of those Sonics clubs, his personal favorites, Bickerstaff said: “They were all 6-8, 6-9, so the things that you could do defensively. They were athletic, they were mentally tough. But we couldn’t get by the Lakers, you know?”
The Denver Nuggets offered Bickerstaff the role of president and GM in 1990, and he took over as head coach four years later, guiding them to the first No. 8 vs. No. 1 playoff upset in NBA history.
In 1997, he went back to Washington as head coach for three seasons. In 2004, the Charlotte Bobcats hired him as coach and GM. And Bickerstaff served between and after those gigs as an assistant with Chicago, Portland and the L.A. Lakers. In fact, when he temporarily took over on the Lakers bench between Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni in 2012, his 4-1 mark moved him high on that franchise’s all-time success list.
Bickerstaff ranks No. 41 all-time in NBA coaching victories (419) and No. 29 in games coached (937).
When San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich saw Bickerstaff near the interview room in the hours before Game 1’s tipoff, he heartily congratulated him. “He’s one of those guys you call a ‘lifer,’ like a lifer in the military or in the NBA,” Popovich said. “He’s helped many people be better coaches and better people, and that’s one of the reasons he’s here tonight for that award.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra grew up in Portland as a Trail Blazers fan when Bickerstaff was working in Seattle and teased him from the podium Thursday evening. “I didn’t like the Sonics when he was coaching there,” Spoelstra said, “but he had some great teams out there and all of his different spots.”
Said Bickerstaff: “I think the two fortunate people here tonight are Spo and Coach Popovich because they’ve got a chance to walk home with the crown.”
Brown, the former Cavs and Lakers coach, was brought into the league by Bickerstaff as Denver’s video coordinator in 1992. He hired Brown as an assistant in 1997, too, after his move back to Washington.
“‘NBA coach Mike Brown’ would not be in existence if it wasn’t for Bernie,” Brown told the Cleveland Plain Dealer upon learning of Bickerstaff’s award. “I’m thrilled for him. He’s got his name etched in stone in a few other places, but this place is one of the best. It’s a neat award for what Bernie has given to the game of basketball. He definitely has contributed to the growth of the NBA in his own way. His longevity in itself is an accomplishment.”
The Daly award, conceived in 2009, is dedicated to the memory of Hall of Famer Chuck Daly, who coached for four NBA franchises over 14 seasons, led the Detroit “Bad Boys” to consecutive championships in 1989 and 1990 and was voted one of the league’s Top 10 coaches of all-time in 1996.
The award is selected by a committee of NBA insiders, including Popovich, Riley, Billy Cunningham, Donnie Walsh, Lenny Wilkens, Joe Dumars and Phil Jackson. Past winners include Bill Fitch (2013), Riley (2012), Wilkens (2011), Tex Winters and Jack Ramsay (2010) and Tommy Heinsohn (2009).