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Part IV: Family Affair

Cavs Senior Advisor Bernie Bickerstaff Talks About His Son's Past and Where He's Headed
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Part IV: Family Affair

Cavs Senior Advisor Bernie Bickerstaff Talks About His Son's Past and Where He (and the Team) Are Headed

Father-son relationships can be complicated. It ain’t all playing catch in the backyard and your first brew on a fishing trip.

The stakes probably get raised a little when both father and son are involved in the uber-complicated world of professional sports. And it’s something the Cavaliers family can understand.

Winston Garland, father of Cavs’ current starting point guard Darius Garland, played for five different NBA teams over seven seasons. Kevin Love’s father, Stan, spent four years in the league with the Bullets, Lakers and Spurs. And of course, Larry Nance Jr. is the high-flying scion of Cavaliers legend, Larry Nance.

And just after this year’s All-Star Break – which suddenly seems like a long time ago – the Wine & Gold named J.B. Bickerstaff the team’s 23rd head coach in franchise history, replacing John Beilein, who stepped down 54 games into his first season. Ten games after Bickerstaff took over, he signed a multi-year deal to remain with the club into the foreseeable future.

The Bickerstaff name carries some serious weight around the organization. J.B. has forged a rock-solid reputation at just 41 years of age – now coaching his third team after entering the league as an assistant with the Timberwolves at just 24 years of age.

The younger Bickerstaff was the youngest NBA assistant coach in the league at the time, following in the footsteps of his famous father, Bernie – also the Cavaliers current Cavaliers Senior Basketball Advisor – who joined K.C. Jones’ staff in Washington as a 29-year old in 1973.

Bernie Bickerstaff has seen just about everything and knows about everyone the NBA has had to offer over four decades.

He’s coached NBA teams named the SuperSonics, the Bullets and the Bobcats – taking the former to the Western Conference Finals in 1987 as the latter’s first head coach and general manager in franchise history in 2003.

Bickerstaff – who also coached with Portland and Chicago – was the general manager and head coach of the Nuggets and briefly took over the Lakers post after Mike Brown was let go in 2012.

The following year, Bickerstaff came to Cleveland – where he actually lived back with relatives back in the early 1960s – to join Brown’s staff. The next year, the Kentucky native moved up to the Cavaliers front office. And two years after that, he won his second NBA Championship as the Wine and Gold erased Golden State’s 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals.

These days, he balances his professional advice as a member of the Cavs brass and paternal advice as dad – when his son resumes navigating the waves once the game returns.

As we wrap up our four-part series of getting to know the Cavaliers new head coach, who better than his own flesh and blood to discuss what his son has done, and what lies ahead ….

Combined, Bernie and J.B. Bickerstaff have piled up over 500 NBA regular season and playoff victories.
Photo by Joe Murphy/via Getty Images

How much does it help J.B. today, having been around the pro game his entire life?

Bernie Bickerstaff: Well, I think it all starts when you when you sit back and you observe the game and you start to envision being there. You watch what you think is good, you watch what you think is bad.

J.B. and I, we have conversations about basketball, just because we like to talk basketball. And sometimes you have different opinions, but none of them are wrong. I think that we understand there are a lot of different ways to get it done.

I've worked with guys that were the diametric opposite of each other, but they were very successful. But really, the one commonality that you need is talent.

How much influence did you have on him getting started in the NBA?

Bickerstaff: He got started in Minnesota. I didn't bring him in the league. He got into the league through his own perseverance – in Minnesota, coaching in college, doing radio stuff for the Timberwolves. He did that on his own.

And as a family, we certainly did not push him in any direction. In fact, his mom wanted him go to medical school, and she had that all set up. But he decided he didn't want to do that.

He was a great student, president of his class.

He's just solid. J.B. stays within his personality. What you see is what you get.

What’s J.B.’s strength? What’s he best at?

Bickerstaff: To me, when you look at the NBA, all coaches are good when you talk X's and O's. But building relationships – even more so now than it used to be – is really, really important. Genuine relationships – because NBA players can see through it if it's not. And to get people to buy in.

And I think the two biggest hallmarks for him are: Getting people to give max effort and his team being unselfish.

Philosophically, I think those are the things he's very good at.

And you can sleep at night when you get those two things. Sometimes, teams are just better than you. But you can sleep at night when your guys are committed and they're giving their best.

As a coach who’s done both – taking over a team midseason and starting from Training Camp – how important is for J.B. to take the team into Camp instead of working on the plane in-flight?

Bickerstaff: Well it's a different situation that he's had. He's been in situations where you come in as interim.

But the one thing I really appreciate about him is whatever he's been through -- and he's been through some tough moments -- he never deviated from being who he is.

So, as a coach, time is always important. And I do think what's important here is for JB, Koby, ownership, everyone, to collectively evaluate what's there, what's needed, who fits what situation, what you need to do in terms of X's and O's.

Just to have the opportunity – and again, the time -- to figure all that out is really important.

"The bottom line is that I respect that ‘seat.’ I know how tough it is sitting there and what you have to go through. On the outside, it looks easy and there's a lot of different opinions from a lot of people. But when you're sitting in that seat and the game is going is fast as it is, it's a completely different world. "

Bernie Bickerstaff, on knowing the difficulties and pressure of being an NBA head coach

But one thing about guys in the NBA, they're quick, they're quick learners.

And there's not really a whole hell of a lot of difference in what teams do. You know, it's basketball. You share the ball. You compete. And if you're good enough, you have success.

Do you have to walk a fine line as far giving advice? Do you wait for him to ask? How does that dynamic work?

Bickerstaff: Well, it's like I say, we talk basketball. But there are people all around the league who I enjoy talking basketball with. This is the life; this is what life has been – basketball. And to engage in fruitful conversation about basketball is always good.

So we go into each conversation knowing that people have different opinions, but those aren't wrong.

You have to stay within your framework in how you teach things and how you get it done, but there's no one way of getting it done. That's been proven.

So we just have fun talking basketball. And J.B. certainly has an open mind.

But it's like with your grandkids. They're always asking 'why?' And that's where the answer has to come from: Why.

But the bottom line is that I respect that ‘seat.’ I know how tough it is sitting there and what you have to go through.

On the outside, it looks easy and there's a lot of different opinions from a lot of people. But when you're sitting in that seat and the game is going is fast as it is, it's a completely different world.

As a coach, as an advisor, as a father – what are you seeing in the current Cavaliers?

Bickerstaff: I like what I’m seeing. You get the right people, the right talent. You fit it, you mold it and you go from there.

And it’s young, so we have to be patient.

It’s a big step – talking about one year of college, stepping into the greatest game against the greatest players in the world. There are mountains you have to climb. And every step – from Summer League to exhibition season to regular season to playoffs requires you to go to another level in terms of your game and your intensity. But if you’re used to playing hard and competing, it’s easy.

But I like where we are. I love what the front office is doing. And the ownership is the best ownership I’ve ever been around, in terms of the resources to get things done.

With J.B. signing his multi-year extension, how much does it mean to have a head coach and front office now committed to one another?

Bickerstaff: I think he and Koby and the front office are in lock-step, which is really important.

And again, you don't always have to agree, you can have different opinions. There's the saying: if two people agree on everything, one is useless. But I've always felt that what was important in this business is getting information so that you can make good decisions – information that can make the people around you think.

And in the end, there's only one thing that counts: What's best for the organization and the team.


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