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January 10, 2005

John-Blair Bickerstaff: Like Father, Like Son

John-Blair Bickerstaff grew up with unspoken thoughts of one day being on the same team as his father, veteran NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff. He didn’t, however, envision anything like the scenario that is playing out for the two with the Charlotte Bobcats.

The elder Bickerstaff, a former head coach and executive with the Seattle SuperSonics, Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards, is General Manager & Head Coach of the expansion Bobcats. John-Blair, 25, is one of his assistant coaches.

“The idea of us doing something one day with the same team never really came up,” said John-Blair. “It wasn’t anything we ever talked about. “In my head, though, I thought about maybe one day being able to play for my dad or something like that. But the idea of sitting on the bench with him never really came up, not until he got the job here. Once he did come here, then it became something that I really wanted to do.”

The father-son pairing on the bench is not new to the NBA. Tuesday’s game will, in fact, feature two such coaching relationships. Cleveland head coach Paul Silas includes among his assistants his son Stephen. They have been together in the head coach-assistant coach roles for several years, including a period in Charlotte with the Hornets.

“It is a double blessing for us,” said Bernie Bickerstaff. “The first thing about it is basketball and making a contribution. That’s the most significant thing. Then the bonus is, you get a chance to work with your son. “It’s been terrific (for father and son in Charlotte). There are some others who have influenced John-Blair around here as much as I have, people like (fellow assistant coaches) Gary Brokaw, John Outlaw, Gary Kloppenburg and Jeff Capel. They impart different knowledge to John-Blair. He needs to hear different stories from mine, from guys who have different approaches to the game.

“My thing with him has always been to say, ‘Gather all the information you can and then use it. But you’ve got to be your own guy and have your own personality. Some things (that father Bickerstaff may like) just may not fit for you.

“In John-Blair’s case, he already knew all the guys (on the staff). He knows all the players. And the (coaches) who see him now knew him when he was a young kid, some back to when he was a ballboy in Seattle. They’ve seen him grow.”

John-Blair is the NBA’s youngest assistant coach. His father had the same distinction when, in 1973 at age 29, he started his coaching career in the league as a Washington assistant.

The irony isn’t lost on father or son. But it wasn’t the motivation for John-Blair in coming to Charlotte after a season of work as color analyst on the Minnesota Timberwolves radio network.

Earlier he had been director of operations for the men’s basketball program at the University of Minnesota, overseeing a variety of administrative functions and also helping with recruiting, scouting and coaching. His playing career ended after college, after two seasons at Oregon State and two at Minnesota.

He describes the Bobcats job as “perfect for me.”

“Getting an opportunity like this, at my age, is a blessing,” John-Blair said. “Getting to work with my dad every day is a blessing.

“It may have been more difficult if my father and I didn’t have the type of relationship that we have. Even when I wasn’t here, we spoke on the phone every day and talked about something. Regardless of what it was, it was something -- we were just always in communication with one another.”

The usual day-to-day frictions of the workplace have helped refine the father-son relationship but have done nothing to diminish their closeness.

“We have a (working) relationship that we understand, that I have no problems with,” said John-Blair. “He can yell at me and say what he wants to say. To an extent, though I won’t go that far, I can say something back to him every now and then and we understand that once that situation is done with, it’s done with and we move on.

“If we have disagreements about work, I’ve got no reason to hold anything against him and he won’t hold anything against me. That’s just the way I was brought up. We were always honest with one another. And the way you were feeling was the way you told it. You got it out there, it was done and it was over with.

“The best part is, I make mistakes doing my job. He corrects me and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s the exact same thing (that his dad would do in correcting anyone else). It’s never personal. To us, the Bobcats organization is the most important thing. And doing what’s right for this team is the most important thing.”

Father and son see each other away from the arena, just as any family members would. John-Blair still goes over for dinner at home with his parents, Bernie and Eugenia.

“It’s great,” said John-Blair. “Growing up, because he was traveling so much as a coach, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with dad. And when I left to go to school, I missed out on time with him. Now we’re getting plenty of time together and we have the right balance. I show up for a meal -- I give some time to my mom, too -- and it works out perfect.”

Father and son discussed some of the peculiarities of John-Blair’s new job before he ever got to work. Among the most significant issues, in John-Blair’s mind, was the message the players might receive from his status as son of the head coach.

“My dad came to me about it,” John-Blair said. “His thing was that you’ve got to be professional. The most important thing that he’s always stressed is being prepared. If you’re prepared, you’re going to get your point across. If you come in there unprepared then you’re guessing and you’re more likely to make mistakes.

“You think about (the perception) but you can’t let it affect what you’re trying to do. You can try too hard. You do that, with the frustration and so much pressure on you, and you can’t do your job the right way. My thing is having the confidence in your ability to understand the game and to teach the game. If you’re confident in those things, it comes across and the players will respect you for that.

“I think that’s the hardest group of people to impress, the players, because they’re the best. This (league) is the elite of the elite as basketball players. So for you to be able to come in and earn their respect is the toughest part about it.”

By all accounts, the young assistant coach - player bonding has gone well. John-Blair and the Bobcats other assistants all work with the players collectively during practice and, frequently, individually afterward. It is all part of a process that John-Blair hopes will eventually take him closer to his ultimate goal.

“To be an assistant coach in the NBA at 25, when my goal is to eventually become a head coach, is great,” said John-Blair. “By the time I’m 30, 35 years old, I will have a lot of experience. This is the perfect place at the perfect time for me.”

Leonard Laye covered the NBA, ABA and college basketball for more than three decades for the Charlotte Observer and the old Charlotte News until his recent retirement from writing sports fulltime. He will provide feature stories for throughout the season.