Bickerstaff Revives Bullets

Coach: Bernie Bickerstaff Took Over At Midseason And Patiently But Firmly Turned What Had Been The Nba's Biggest Disappointment Into A Playoff Team.

April 23, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- The first half of the season is a distant blur for Washington Bullets forward Harvey Grant. Asked about the mood of a team that at the All-Star break was three games under .500, Grant's eyes nearly rolled in the back of his head.

"Oh, man," Grant began, with a big sigh. "We were playing hard, but I don't think we were playing to win. Basically, we were out there going through the motions.

"People were in a daze, and the morale was way down," Grant added. "It was the All-Star break, and everybody was just playing the season out. [General manager] Wes Unseld had to make a move. And the move he made was the right move."

That right move was the hiring of Bernie Bickerstaff, who was named Feb. 10 to replace the fired Jim Lynam and assume control of a shattered team.

And while Rod Strickland, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard have provided the play on the court over the second half of the season, it's the direction provided by Bickerstaff that has enabled the franchise to make the playoffs for the first time since 1988, finish 44-38 for its best record since 1979 and realize a return on the investment for a team whose payroll ($34 million) is the fourth largest in the league.

"I have a great impression of him," said Webber, who withheld judgment at the time of the coaching change because his friend, Jalen Rose, had had problems with Bickerstaff when both were at Denver.

"He's been a calm leader who has always demanded respect, always demanded our attention. He came in with an attitude of `we're supposed to win.' And that's been the main difference since the middle part of the season."

The course of the season has provided an amazing turnaround for Bickerstaff. At the start he was considered a lame-duck general manager with the Denver Nuggets, likely to be be fired at season's end. Bickerstaff was blamed for not signing Dikembe Mutombo during the off-season, and failing to do so has been blamed for the demise of that franchise.

When Unseld came calling just before the All-Star break, Bickerstaff was eager to talk about possibly returning to coach a team he had served as an assistant for 12 years. When his hiring was announced, the move was perceived as Bickerstaff being taken care of by an old friend.

"I think that was ludicrous," said Bickerstaff, a light drawl from his boyhood days in Benham, Ky., still evident. "You don't hire friends, if you don't think they can get it done."

Bickerstaff, who once turned down an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters so that he could coach, had no idea what he would be able to get done when he took over in midseason the most disappointing team in basketball. One thing he knew was he had talent, which is what made the job attractive.

"I had no expectations, but what I wanted to do was come in and define roles," Bickerstaff said. "Unfortunately, for this ball team, these guys didn't have the opportunity to be brought along slowly. They were just thrown in, and the expectations were high right away for a lot of reasons."

Bickerstaff was no-nonsense from the start. During his first news conference, he challenged the players to back up their talk and show they were "the real deal." Within an hour, at the start of his first practice, he told the players flat out that they were out of shape. Then he ran them to the point of exhaustion.

"He said that we were out of shape, so we knew right away it was going to be one of those practices," forward Tracy Murray said. "If you're any type of a player at all, you don't take that personally, you take it as a challenge. You go out, bust your butt, and you show him."

A coach coming in and exercising his authority right away is often risky, especially in this age of high-salaried players whose dissatisfaction often makes coaches expendable. But Bickerstaff had to be straightforward in his attempt to reach this team.

"There's no difference in relating to players from before and players today -- I just think you have to be honest," said Bickerstaff, who was 29 when he was an assistant to K. C. Jones with the Bullets. "And if guys can't take honesty, there's not much to them anyway as a human being."

He told the team that talent alone was not good enough to win and that the players would have to emphasize defense. He called the team "selfish," when the Bullets lost to the Philadelphia 76ers -- a label that didn't sit well with several players. When the Bullets beat the Boston Celtics on April 6, he called the defense "atrocious."

Even last week, when asked whether he thought of getting Strickland back into a game so he could establish a career high in scoring, Bickerstaff said, "I'm not into individual scoring. Besides, that just gives him something to shoot for next time."

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