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Part II: Building a Base

Coach J.B. Bickerstaff Talks Local Assistance, His Famous Father and Kevin Love's Early Days
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Part II: Building a Base

Coach J.B. Bickerstaff Talks Local Assistance, His Famous Father and Kevin Love's Early Days

Just before the Wine & Gold played their last regular season game previous to the league’s coronavirus hiatus, the Cavaliers and J.B. Bickerstaff agreed on a multi-year extension making him the Cavs head coach for the foreseeable future.

Despite a spate of key injuries, Bickerstaff’s feisty young squad has gone 5-6 during his brief tenure – knocking off consecutive Western Conference heavy-hitters, mounting an historic comeback over Miami and notching a tough home win over Philly. The growing pains have been a little less painful.

In Part I of our four-part series to get to know the 23rd head coach in Cavaliers history, we looked at what led Bickerstaff to this point. Today and later this week, we’ll hear from Cleveland’s new bench boss, himself.

In Part II, we ask Coach Bickerstaff about how he’s responded to the coronavirus pandemic on a local level – including his sizeable donation to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank – as well as growing up with an NBA head coach for a father and how J.B. forged a unique relationship with Kevin Love back in their Minnesota days …

J.B. Bickerstaff has kept close with his squad as the NBA's coronavirus hiatus has continued.
Photo by David Liam Kyle/via Getty Images

Along with keeping you and your family safe through these times, as a coach, have you been able to keep in touch with your players?

J.B. Bickerstaff: Yeah, I’ve been reaching out to players and having conversations with them, putting them at ease a little bit and just trying to keep the connection that we were building.

I’ve been having conversations with our medical people, getting as much information and being as well-educated as I can possibly be.

And then obviously talking to our front office about different ideas of ways that we can pass the time and how we continue to prepare ourselves and continue to build in the direction we want to go.

How important is that contact – and the guys keeping in contact with each other?

Bickerstaff: Very important, especially during this time where there's so many people who are so isolated.

Like, how do we make sure that we continue to bond as a team – because that’s what this is about. At the end of the day, we need each other. In order to be a good team, in order to just be the type of people that we want to be, we're going to have to depend on one another. And how do you depend on people when times are tough, that's what speaks volumes.

So I think that's the message to the guys: make sure you keep communicating with one another. Make sure you keep talking to your friends and family. Make sure everybody's safe. But just give people an opportunity to have interaction.

FaceTime and all that stuff is available, so don’t just text. (Let’s) make sure we see each other's faces, see each other laugh.

How much does basketball take a backseat during something like this?

Bickerstaff: I think what we're trying to create is something that's bigger than basketball. And I think that will have a bigger impact on our team.

I think we can build the right culture and environment, where guys are playing for something bigger than themselves and understand the purpose of the team and the fan base. And I think those things go further and they'll help you win more games on the court if those things are connected and you're solid.

So this gives us an opportunity – as crazy as it may sound – to bond over something that's bigger than basketball, which hopefully helps us move forward.

What went behind your recent donation to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank?

Bickerstaff: It's something that is a passion of mine. And it starts with kids – and kids not having enough food.

When school isn’t in session, now the kids that depend on those meals that they were going to get at school, and they don't have the opportunity to get them.

So I had discussions with (Cavaliers Community Relations Director) Holly Yanak and the Cavs and their partners to see who they've worked with in the past, and the Food Bank came up.

And that's what my goal is: just to help kids who are missing out on meals, missing out on the bare essentials that this situation is exposing even more. Not having food is something where, if you don't have it, it can make you do things that you probably wouldn't otherwise do.

"I always tell people: I was fortunate growing up; I didn't have to look outside of my house for a role model."

J.B. Bickerstaff, on his parents' influence

We're also doing something with the Children's Hunger Alliance, working with community centers and rec centers here in Cleveland. They provide meals at rec centers. Now, those rec centers are closed, so we're working to figure out ways to get those kids food as well.

So it's just something that my family and I've been passionate about it for a while now. Just understanding how grateful we are to be in the position we're in and we can't take it for granted.

Sometimes, having a meal on the table is overlooked as just normal. But in a lot of cases, and for some people it's not. And times like these just kind of exasperate the fact that we really need to help one another.

That's why we decided to do what we did.

Even before you became the youngest assistant in the NBA, what was your exposure to the league like as a kid and young man?

Bickerstaff: Well, I mean, my experience growing up was awesome – just being able to be as involved in the game of basketball at such a high level for my whole life basically.

Ever since I can remember, pro basketball is what was done as a family. Going to practices, going the games. My brother and I, we're the closest in age, and we spent a ton of time as, you know, ball boys, and things like that. And it just lets you be in places that a lot of other people didn't have access to.

Then, being able to have conversations with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, Larry Bird. For us, it was like going to work; like ‘this is what we do.’

And then you sit back and think about it now and it's like: Wow, what an amazing opportunity that was for us!

That's kind of where my goals of being a coach stem from.

I always tell people: I was fortunate growing up; I didn't have to look outside of my house for a role model. And that's both my mom and dad.

My mom was a teacher. My dad, obviously was a coach. But coaching, to me, is a combination of those two things. The ability to teach and help people get better at whatever is they're working on. And coaching is a position of leadership that brings people together.

So it was just great to have parents who showed me the way and helped guide me in my choices.

How are you similar to your dad – personally and in coaching style?

Bickerstaff: A lot of what I do comes from how I saw him operate. And the two most important lessons I learned from him, that I try to apply every day are: One, be honest with people. And two, treat everybody with respect and decency.

When I was coaching with him in Charlotte, I just watched it every day and watched how people responded to those two things.

I mean, the players didn't always want to hear the truth – but at the end of the day, they respected you for telling the truth.

And I watched how he treated not only his best player but the equipment guy the same way. Everybody was treated the same with the same amount of respect and same amount of decency. And you see how people responded and how much harder they were willing to do their job, because they knew you cared about them and weren't just moving pieces on a board.

Those things are the foundation of my coaching style.

And as people, we're pretty similar. (laughs) And as I get older, I start to notice some of my mannerisms and think: I used to make fun of him for this!

Now look at myself and I'm like: you ARE your old man!

You and Kevin Love have spoken often of the relationship you had back in his early years in Minnesota. How did that develop?

Bickerstaff: It was obviously his rookie year. And, you know, coaches are assigned to different players – and I was assigned to Kevin.

It was an interesting year. We had some younger/older guys, guys like Al Jefferson, who kind of played the same position as Kevin. And there was a learning curve for Kevin.

But again, the best part about it that we built a great relationship through all the ups and downs. And I think that's where he and I still have that bond: because it wasn't always easy. It wasn't like he came in and it was all sunshine and roses. We had to work together to get through some difficult times and from that point we just always had each other's back.

Sometimes you need some adversity in relationships and team-building because it stands out and you remember people's actions in those tough times.

So Kevin and I, we just always just would go to work. No matter what was happening, the losses were piling up but K. Love would always show up and go to work. You put him on the floor, he'll always be productive.

Obviously, a lot has changed for both of us from the last time that we worked together.

But that's the great part about the NBA. It is difficult at times, sometimes you do have to leave. People get traded, people get fired, move on to other jobs.

But those relationships that you have – because you do spend so much time together – when you do get back together like we have in Cleveland, it's like nothing ever changed.


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