Bickerstaff finished as coach of Wizards

Assistant Brovelli named interim coach

April 06, 1999

WASHINGTON -- When Bernie Bickerstaff put the Washington Bullets in the NBA playoffs two seasons ago, he was credited with leading the team to its only postseason berth since 1988. When the now Washington Wizards failed to respond this season, Bickerstaff was the person to shoulder the blame.

After what amounted to nearly two full seasons as coach, Bickerstaff was fired yesterday. He will be replaced on an interim basis by assistant coach Jim Brovelli, but general manager Wes Unseld said there's a chance the team could have a full-time coach in place by the end of the season.

Bickerstaff could not be reached for comment.

Unseld broke the news to Bickerstaff during a phone call yesterday morning, one day after the Wizards lost to the Miami Heat to fall to 13-19 with 18 games remaining. After that Miami loss, Bickerstaff, an assistant on the 1978 team that won the NBA title, called Miami "a much better basketball team" and suggested that the Wizards did the best they could possibly do in the 11-point loss.

Those comments did not sit well with the players.

"There was no one thing," was Unseld's response, when asked whether Bickerstaff's comments from Sunday had anything to do with his decision. "Bernie and I have had a number of conversations the last few weeks. I was looking for some things to happen, and they didn't."

What the Wizards didn't do this season was finish games in the fourth quarter, a time in which the team has outscored its opponent just seven times. Sunday's game against Miami was an example, as the Wizards connected on just four field goals over the first 11 minutes.

Several of the Wizards blamed their fourth-quarter woes on the team playing "tight" during crunch time. Earlier this season, after a loss at home to Miami, Bickerstaff raised a ruckus when he suggested his team didn't display the necessary physical toughness.

"You have to be loose, relaxed and you have to be able to play through mistakes," said reserve guard Tim Legler. "I think probably some guys felt there wasn't a whole lot of confidence displayed in them.

"There wasn't a lot of tolerance for mistakes, there wasn't a lot of tolerance for errors. And that makes you play tight, because you don't want that to happen."

According to the players, that "tightness" did not exist in the two games that Brovelli coached when Bickerstaff was out with the flu. The Wizards split those games.

"I think when he took over he basically said, `Don't worry about anything, just have some fun,' " Wizards forward Tracy Murray said. "And guys played loose. It was almost like a pick-up game with plays."

Even Bickerstaff, who watched the second game on television, noticed a change in the team.

"[Bickerstaff] said when he came back: `You guys were having fun last night, slapping five, the bench was into it,' " Legler recalled. "He said: `Let's do that again tonight.' I guess guys were a little more enthusiastic."

For Brovelli, this was his second season as Bickerstaff's top assistant. Prior to coming to Washington, Brovelli worked two seasons under Bickerstaff in Denver -- the first season as the director of player development, and the second as an assistant coach.

"Bernie's been great to me and I've been very loyal to him and I've learned a lot from him," Brovelli said. "I'm coming into a situation where we've gotten into close games and have come up short. We have to make sure when we get into these situations again, we won't be denied."

What might help is a change in approach late in the close games. Under Bickerstaff, the Wizards have almost exclusively gone to Mitch Richmond with the game on the line -- to a point where opponents have keyed on him, forcing him into bad shots.

"I would love to be the one with the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter," said Juwan Howard, the team's second-leading scorer. "It's up to the coach to determine who to call upon to win that game for us. A lot of games I haven't had a chance to get off the last shot. That's a coach's move."

Bickerstaff, who finished 77-72 with Washington, was officially hired the day after the 1997 All-Star break. As his name was floated as a possible replacement to Jim Lynam during All-Star weekend, former Washington great Elvin Hayes -- who was in Cleveland being honored as one of the NBA's 50 greatest players -- had this to say about Bickerstaff's hiring:

"It would be a great mistake. Sometimes coaches are past their time and the league is just recycling the same old guys. We need young guys to get the productivity out of the young guys. It's not always talent that's the problem."

The firing of Bickerstaff is the fourth coaching change in the NBA this season. Earlier Del Harris was fired by the Los Angeles Lakers, John Calipari was fired by the New Jersey Nets and Dave Cowens stepped down as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. Bickerstaff was removed with one year left on his three-year, $4.5 million contract.

Bickerstaff's record

Season Team W-L Pct. Fin.

'85-86 Seattle 31-51 .378 5

'86-87 Seattle* 39-43 .476 4

'87-88 Seattle* 44-38 .537 3

'88-89 Seattle* 47-35 .573 3

'89-90 Seattle 41-41 .500 4

'94-95 Denver* 20-12 .625 4

'95-96 Denver 35-47 .427 4

'96-97 Denver 4-9 .308 --

'96-97 Wash.* 22-13 .629 4

'97-98 Wash. 42-40 .512 4

'98-99 Wash. 13-19 .406 --

Totals 338-348 .493

Playoffs 12-21 .364

Overall 350-369 .487

*-Made playoffs

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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