For Bzdelik, Air Force is a smooth landing

Ex-Nugget jumps off NBA roller coaster


Jeff Bzdelik spent last Thanksgiving weekend countering Tim Duncan and Yao Ming.

Now he's readying a seven-man rotation with one guy taller than 6 feet 5 for Navy and the sixth man the Midshipmen will deploy in the form of a full house at Alumni Hall tomorrow (9 p.m.).

Going from being the boss of the Denver Nuggets to directing an anonymous bunch from the U.S. Air Force Academy would appear to be a comedown for a basketball coach, but Bzdelik has no complaints at a time when we're supposed to take stock.

"I've had people say to me, `What are you doing at a service academy?' but I'm grateful for this opportunity," Bzdelik said. "To be honest, this is a pretty timely fit for my family. Air Force has allowed me to have stability in my life at a time when my kids need it the most."

Bzdelik (pronounced buzz-Del-ick) and his wife, Nina, have been together for 30 years and at least eight moves. They were living in Sykesville in 1988, when their son Brett was born and Bzdelik was giving UMBC a sturdy foundation for its transition to Division I.

Wes Unseld then hired Bzdelik as an assistant with the Washington franchise then known as the Bullets. The family was living in Columbia when daughter Courtney came along in 1991.

The vagabond nature of the business was reinforced as Bzdelik joined Pat Riley, for one season with the New York Knicks and then six with the Miami Heat. He spent the 2001-02 season as a scout for Denver, and just before the 2002-03 season, he became the coach of a bargain basement roster, with a contract to match.

The Nuggets struck gold with Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft, and Bzdelik became the first coach in modern NBA history to go to the playoffs a year after winning fewer than 20 games. When the Nuggets stumbled to a six-game losing streak that dropped them below .500, a front office that had never viewed Bzdelik as more than a temporary solution fired him three days after Christmas 2004.

"Riley and Jerry Sloan skew the reality," Bzdelik said. "The average longevity for an NBA coach is 2.3 years, about what I got."

Bzdelik, 52, became a Rocky Mountain gym rat, attending games and practices and becoming a regular at the Air Force Academy, which is in Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of Denver. He was sifting through a half-dozen NBA offers last spring, when a series of dominos created an opening there.

Virginia fired Pete Gillen and hired Dave Leitao away from DePaul, which found its replacement, Jerry Wainwright, at Richmond. The Spiders brought in Chris Mooney, who had just finished his first season at Air Force.

Bzdelik is uncomfortable discussing one of the main reasons he inquired about the Air Force vacancy. Around the time he took the Falcons' job, his daughter Courtney had a benign tumor removed from her brain. The family has not had to change hospitals, let alone homes.

"Courtney is doing well, but her follow-up care is crucial," Bzdelik said Wednesday, as he drove down Interstate 25 to his new office. "She's a freshman in high school and Brett's a senior. We were already living in a suburb south of Denver, so we didn't have to pack up again. It's an easy commute. Pikes Peak is staring me in the face right now."

The last two Air Force coaches played for Princeton, and its eponymous offense helped the Falcons reach the NCAA tournament in 2004, their first trip since 1962. Bzdelik held on to the back doors and high screens, but he doesn't have 6-8 center Nick Welch, whose senior season was delayed by a knee injury.

Two weeks ago, Air Force beat Miami, the academy's first win ever over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. A day later, it put up a stiff challenge before losing to host Washington, a team that earned a No. 1 seed in last season's NCAA tournament.

Antoine Hood, a 6-4 senior from Texas, leads the 4-1 Falcons, who have four players averaging in double figures. They're shooting 41.6 percent from three-point range, and Bzdelik has them primed for what is supposed to be a down season in the Mountain West Conference.

Bzdelik has a different connotation of the draft, which helped him adjust from coaching millionaires obsessed with bling to a service academy. In 1971, the Selective Service was still drafting conscripts while the United States was reducing its presence in Vietnam. Instead of starting college at Illinois-Chicago, Bzdelik, with a high draft number, was doing basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

Bzdelik spent six years in the National Guard. That service to his country and the plaudits he earned for his NBA advance work could make him a candidate to help Mike Krzyzewski with the 2008 Olympic team.

It's about five miles from the Air Force Academy to the headquarters of the U.S. Olympic Committee, so at least part of the job would keep Bzdelik close to home.

Air Force@Navy Tomorrow, 9 p.m., 1430 AM

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