Bullets try physical restart Bickerstaff stresses defense in 1st practice


BOWIE -- From the first day of training camp, and even through the struggles during the first half of the season, the players who make up the Washington Bullets have not been afraid to tell you how good they are -- and how good they can become. As new coach of the Bullets, all Bernie Bickerstaff wants to do is see for himself.

"They've all been very eloquent with their verbiage," Bickerstaff said. "What counts is when they step across the lines, are they the real deal?"

And so the Bickerstaff era with the Washington Bullets began yesterday, as the former Bullets assistant was named the 14th head coach in the team's history.

Greeting the local and national media, a smoothly dressed Bickerstaff said how happy he was to return and try to right the wrongs of a team that was one of the NBA's biggest disappointments during the first half of the season. And then Bickerstaff went into the coaches' office, threw on some sweats that were left around and did what he will be paid $4.5 million over the next three years to do: coach.

What Bickerstaff emphasized during his first practice last night was defense, and the result was one of the longest -- and perhaps one of the more physical -- practices the team has had since training camp.

"The main thing he did was stress defense, and that's what we need," guard Calbert Cheaney said. "He gave some real nice input as far as that was concerned. He knows what he's talking about."

And the Bullets hope that Bickerstaff can lead the team to the playoffs, a thought that was a given during the preseason -- but a thought that is not that much of a surety now. The Bullets ended the first half of the season with a 22-25 record, with four straight losses. They go into tonight's game against the New York Knicks in 10th place in the Eastern Conference (three games behind the eighth-place Cleveland Cavaliers).

"I think my job is to rectify that," Bickerstaff said. "I think maybe we need to define some roles. We have to find out who can deliver at this time."

Bickerstaff wouldn't tip his hand about how change was to come about. But he has always been a big fan of point guard Rod Strickland. And he gave indications that Strickland would handle the ball more on the fast break, a role he has shared with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard.

"He has to have the ball to make people better," said Bickerstaff, who for years had tried to trade for Strickland. "When he doesn't have the ball, then his effectiveness is not being used when you get on the fast break."

Bickerstaff spent the last seven years with the Denver Nuggets working a wide array of jobs from team president to head coach. Before that, he was the head coach with the Seattle SuperSonics where, in five years, he led the team to three postseason appearances, including a trip to the 1987 Western Conference finals. The Sporting News named him the NBA Coach of the Year in 1987.

When he began his 12-year stint with the Bullets in 1973, Bickerstaff was the youngest assistant coach in the league at the age of 29. He was an assistant coach on the 1978 team (which included Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier) that won the NBA title.

"A lot of times he was the go-between between the players and the coaches," Chenier said. "He had a certain amount of credibility. As he stayed on, he gained more confidence and knowledge in the role."

Bickerstaff said he developed his love for coaching by working with some of the game's top minds.

"I've been fortunate to work with guys with over 100 years of experience -- Lenny Wilkens, K. C. Jones, Bob Ferry and Dick Motta," Bickerstaff said. "Something should rub off on you, even if it's what not to do. The one thing I learned from that, even though three or four of them were diametrically opposite, they all had success. So that tells me to do it your way, and live with it."

And as Bickerstaff does things his way, it's the Washington players who will have to live with his style in midseason.

"Whatever the coach chooses to do, I'm all for it," Howard said. "And I think Chris has to agree on that as well. And the team. We all need to come back with a change, and that starts with your mind-set. We have to be mentally tough, forget about the first half and get ready for the second half."

Bickerstaff used part of yesterday to dismiss the reports out of Denver that he was on the verge of being forced out because of ownership dissatisfaction with the job he did.

"I think some of the things they talked about in Denver was that I was on shaky ground," Bickerstaff said. "If I was, you should all be so lucky. You can interpret that one any way you want."

He also didn't want to address the criticism directed at him over the weekend by Dikembe Mutombo, who felt Bickerstaff didn't use him properly.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.