Saturday, November 17, 2012
Remembering the Bernie Bickerstaff era
By Dave McMenamin
LOS ANGELES -- The exchange had the feeling of one of those commercials you see after a team wins a championship.
"Hey, so and so, you just won the Super Bowl, what are you going to do next?"
So and so: "I'm going to Disney World!"
Only this time, the accomplishment was much more meager and the response, well, classic sarcasm.
Bernie Bickerstaff, you just became the all-time winningest coach in Los Angeles Lakers franchise history, what do you think?
"That'll get me a popsicle," Bickestaff replied, chuckling at the question.
Technically, yes, Bickerstaff finished out his run as Lakers interim coach -- spanning the gap between the fired Mike Brown and the hired Mike D'Antoni -- with a 3-1 record after the Lakers won 114-102 on Friday against the Phoenix Suns, making Bickerstaff's .750 winning percentage tops in Lakers' history.
That's right, better than Pat Riley's .733, Jack McKinney's .714, Paul Westhead's .689 and Phil Jackson's .676.
It's not something the 68-year old will brag about. He knows his three wins are 607 behind Jackson for first on the all-time franchise list. He also knows that his last week at the helm of the most glamorous team in the NBA just proves that when you think you've done it all, you haven't.
This basketball lifer had already been a head coach, assistant coach, scout, president and general manager in the NBA. He'd even been the head coach of the Harlem Globetrotters.
"Maybe some coaches would say, ‘This is my opportunity,’ but Bernie, he’s been around so long, it wasn’t like he was trying to protect turf," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. "He knew what to do. He knew what the guys needed. Give them space, keep things simple. Then, some of his press conferences really defused a little bit of the tension. He had a nice way about him."
Just as Bickerstaff did well for himself in the win-loss column during his time as interim coach, he also owned his press conferences.
Before the Lakers played the Golden State Warriors, he broke out a Herm Edwards impression: "We want to try ... to win ... the game."
After the Lakers lost to the San Antonio Spurs, he went from mimicking a former NFL coach to referring to the most famous playwright of all time: "If I can come as close to quoting Shakespeare as I can, 'The problem lies not within the stars, it lies within ourselves.' "
When I got to shootaround Friday morning, Bickerstaff was already speaking to a couple reporters before I joined the group.
"Sorry, I don’t want to make you repeat something you've already covered," I said.
"You won't, because I won't," Bickerstaff said with a sly grin. "So, take your shot."
"He's got a lot of character and personality," said Gasol. "He's been around for a bit and is a guy that does have a sense of humor and is amusing at times."
Apart from keeping the mood light, Bickerstaff also was effective in keeping the basketball effective while the team was in limbo from one coach's set of Princeton-style marching orders to the next coach's pick-and-roll plan.
"Basically, just keeping it simple and letting us play," Gasol said. "Just setting a simple game plan defensively and offensively and just playing out of pretty simple actions – pick-and-rolls, pin downs, post-ups, drops. Nothing fancy, but enough for us to be productive because we do have the personnel to get stuff out of those actions."
Now the Lakers are faced with the not-so-simple question of what to do with Bickerstaff. He was handpicked by Brown to be his coaching consultant, with the two having ties going back more than 20 years when Bickerstaff gave his fellow University of San Diego alumnus his first job in the league. Bickerstaff knows D'Antoni, they had some overlap to their time with the Denver Nuggets in the late '90s, so it's feasible the old coach will be retained.
"That is going to be Mike's decision, but Bernie has done a wonderful job," Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com, adding that D'Antoni will not add anymore staff this season, outside of his brother, Dan.
"He's going to add his brother and then evaluate the present staff and that may take a little bit of time, so that’s kind of where it is right now," Kupchak said before the Suns game Friday.
If D'Antoni decides to go in another direction, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Bickerstaff, who Bryant described as the "consummate professional," lands on in his feet back in the league somewhere. His son, J.B., is an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets. The 1986-87 NBA Coach of the Year has also worked, by my count, for eight different NBA teams (L.A. Lakers, Portland, Chicago, Charlotte, Seattle, Denver, Washington, San Antonio), so he has connections all around the league.
"He's kind of been a staple for all the coaches," said Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry. "He's somebody I've always looked up to."
And now he's somebody sports trivia nuts will have to look up when they want to find out who is the all-time winningest coach in Lakers history.
"When it's all said and done, it will be a footnote," Bickerstaff said after the game Friday night. "It will be something that's in history that maybe my grandkids can talk about. But, it's all good. It's all fun. That's what’s life is about. Don't take yourself too serious. Enjoy. And enjoy the ride."