J.B. Bickerstaff keeps working toward a winner
For the vast wealth of both the Timberwolves' coaches and players, winning, at some pre-Minnesota stage in their careers, isn't a wholly distant memory.
But for assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the "I" in "victory" may seem a strange and foreign vowel.
A decade, to be exact. That's how long it's been since Bickerstaff -- the former Gopher and son of longtime NBA coach and exec Bernie Bickerstaff -- was on the bench of a winning team.
That season of yore occurred back in 2000-01, when his Dan Monson-led Maroon & Gold finished 18-14. The year prior to that under Monson, the Gophers were a lowly 12-16. Going back further into the annals, Bickerstaff suffered two losing seasons (prior to his transfer) at Oregon State, where his teams went 7-20 and 13-17 in 1996-97 and 1997-98, respectively.
Since college, Bickerstaff has served as an NBA assistant for seven season. From 2005-07, he worked under his father in Charlotte, where the expansion Bobcats (understandably) never finished better than 33-49 in three seasons. In the four years since, Bickerstaff has been on the Wolves' bench, working for three different head coaches. For the sake of space, let us not delve into the records of this recent history.
But for the sake of sanity, let us present the question: Is J.B. Bickerstaff OK?
"It's tough, to be honest with you," Bickerstaff said from the road, before the Wolves' Wednesday game at Utah. "I've got a lot of friends around the league and get to see their success, and it makes it really, really difficult. But you do what you can every single day, and you just try to do your best at it. It's our responsibility to show up and do our job. Just because you're losing ballgames, you can't come out and not prepare, you can't come out and not work. You have to try and master your craft everyday, and that's the way I look at it."
That's not an act, nor a stock quote. Bickerstaff, despite the travails, has development a rep as a guy that is upbeat, driven and honest, whatever the outcome of the game, month, season or decade that was. When he began working for his father in Charlotte in 2004-05, he was the NBA's youngest assistant at 26, joining Bernie in that distinction; the elder Bickerstaff was the league's bench child as a 29-year-old back in 1973.
Today, the two are rivals. Bernie is an assistant for the Portland Trailblazers, also of the Northwest Division.
"It's a lot of fun. I probably do more of the talking than he does," Bickerstaff continues. "His team has ended up on the positive side more than ours, but we have a lot of fun. He and I talk everyday, every-other-day; about everything. He's been obviously the greatest influence on my coaching style, my decision to become a coach. So I can't say enough about the three years I was able to spend in Charlotte, learning from him, watching him."
The son indeed holds a desire to someday walk in the NBA head coaching sneakers long-donned by the father over parts of 14 seasons. But does the apple bear similar seeds of the tree?
"I think they're very similar," Bickerstaff says of the coaching philosophies shared by the two men. "He's always had an ability to have relationships with his players; his players have wanted to play for him. Just traveling around the league, people always comment on how much they enjoyed being around him, enjoyed working with him or playing for him.
"Treat people with respect, be honest with them and try to help them as much as you can. At the end of the day it will make people respect you for that. It's not a bunch of sugar-coatin', and kissing-up. It's the truth. And that responsibility -- it's heavy sometimes, because sometimes people don't want to hear the truth right away. But at the end of the day they look back and they appreciate and respect the fact that you were honest with them."
Such honesty has translated well to his work with the Wolves, the league's youngest team. Among his charges, Bickerstaff works on player development, game walk-throughs and has taken on additional defensive responsibilities this season.
Bickerstaff is quick to laud the lack of generational gaps between the rest of the staff -- coaches Kurt Rambis, Bill Laimbeer, Reggie Theus are all 53-years old; Dave Wohl is 61 -- and the players, but adds that being a young coach has allowed him to serve in a conduit-capacity with players.
"The relationships -- because of the similar generation I have with players -- it opens doors up for us as a coaching staff," Bickerstaff explains. "It gives me the ability to relate to the guys, but also to be in a position as a coach to demand things from players. I think I can get a lot out of people because I do have that relationship with them. And it's a relationship built on respect, and they understand that my best interest is for them and the team. Because of that, the coaches can come to me and I can go to the guys and get what we need to get done."
Just like his own desire to crack .500, Bickerstaff readily recognizes that there is little sense or motivation created by crying into his stat sheet after a loss. Like he has done his entire career, he arrives each day with a driven attitude and a knowing that, someday, a ray of light will find the Wolves' cave.
"The guys need you to be upbeat, and they need you to be high-spirited, because they feed off you," Bickerstaff concludes. "As a coaching staff I think we do a pretty good job of trying to keep guys up, trying to keep 'em from hanging their heads.
"You have to continue to work through the season, and you're setting the tone for the culture you're going to have with the Timberwolves. You stop working now and players will get that mindset that it's OK to stop working. And we can't allow that to happen. We're pushing as hard today as we did in October."
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