Q&A with J.B. Bickerstaff

Tuesday November 29, 2011 11:07 PM

Getting To Know: J.B. Bickerstaff

Rockets assistant coach discusses his basketball roots and how to get the best out of players

Jason Friedman

HOUSTON - The Rockets introduced a brand new coaching staff this summer, bringing in Head Coach Kevin McHale along with assistants Kelvin Sampson, J.B. Bickerstaff, Chris Finch and Greg Buckner, while promoting former player development director Brett Gunning to the role of assistant as well. To help fans get a better feel for these men both on and off the court, Rockets.com will sit down with each over the coming weeks to discuss their unique backgrounds, philosophies and experiences within the game.

Today, we put J.B. Bickerstaff in the spotlight, giving him a chance to reflect upon what it means to have basketball in the blood and to discuss his working relationship with coach McHale. Click here to read part I of the series in which we interviewed Chris Finch, here for part II for our interview with lead assistant Kelvin Sampson, and here for part III with Brett Gunning.

JCF: Was there a moment or memory in your mind at which point you realized you wanted to spend the rest of your life in basketball? Given your dad’s coaching credentials, I’m guessing this moment might even have occurred while you were still in a cradle.

JBB: There wasn’t a particular moment that stood out, it was just something that felt so natural. My dad traveled so much for work that, when he was home, we always wanted to spend as much time with him as we could, so going to practices and doing stuff like that with him took precedence over Saturday morning cartoons. We’d go to practice with my dad just so we could be a part of it.

It just kind of seeps into you at that point. You love being around your dad, this is his love and his passion, so it all just blends together and it became our passion as a family, too.

JCF: Kelvin Sampson had a similar experience since his dad was a basketball coach as well, saying he felt like becoming a coach was his way of joining the family business. You feel the same way, I assume?

JBB: Yeah, that’s pretty much how it was. Our whole family played basketball, too. It took us to a lot of different places and opened a lot of doors. That’s basically how I ended up getting the job with the Timberwolves was because of my time playing at the University of Minnesota. There were so many things, whether it was traveling overseas with the team or going to Hawaii and playing in different tournaments and things like that, where you just meet so many different people and it was basketball that opened up all those doors for me, so it was kind of hard not to fall in love with it.

There are some negative things that come along with this life – the constant travel, etc. – but the pros of being a part of this game, especially at a high level, are second to none. It gives you the opportunity to take care of your family and you get to go all over the world and see some amazing things. I work at the Euro camp in Treviso, Italy every summer and, if it wasn’t for basketball, I obviously wouldn’t be going to Italy for a week every summer – but that’s just part of what we do. So the doors that are opened thanks to basketball and the opportunities it creates are just something that it’s natural to want to be a part of.

JCF: What are some of things, from a philosophical standpoint, that you’ve taken from your father?

JBB: I think the most important thing is being honest and being truthful with everybody you come in contact with. Whether they want to hear it at the time or they don’t, at the end of the day it’s still the best thing you can do, especially with guys at the level we deal with. They’ve been told certain things their entire life but the most important thing is they want to be coached and told the truth, and I think when you don’t approach them that way they know when they’re being pushed in the wrong direction or when someone’s just blowing smoke. So as much as you possibly can, you tell them the truth. And whether it’s now or five years later in their career, they’ll respect you more for telling them the truth and being honest than if you just tell them what they want to hear at the time.

JCF: So it sounds as if you feel that being an amateur psychologist of sorts is almost as important to being a coach as it is to be well-versed in the art of Xs and Os.

JBB: Yeah, I think so. We’re all smart enough to figure out Xs and Os – it’s basketball, it’s not advanced calculus. But the most important thing is: can you get your message across to players? Do they believe in you and do they want to compete for you? That’s the most important part of coaching basketball and working with grown men who you’re trying to get to work together for one cause.

You have a bunch of guys who have individual ideas and goals, but your responsibility is to make it that the collective goal is more important than the rest, so you have to be able to reach each guy and each guy is different; what pushes one guy’s buttons in the right direction might push another guy in the wrong direction, so you have to spend the time getting to know guys and understand what makes them tick and what makes them go. It’s a mind game. To get the most out of everybody you have to understand each individual and try to put it together so you can get everyone pushing in the same direction for the same common goal.

JCF: Since you’ve, quite literally, been around basketball players your entire life I would think that’s given you a rather unique perspective and insight into the minds of the guys you work with on a day-to-day basis.

JBB: Yeah, that’s the thing about my experience: I started in the NBA when I was 24-years-old as an assistant coach with the Bobcats. I was coaching guys and coaching against guys who I had grown up playing with and against in AAU ball and basketball camps all over the country, so my understanding of that mindset was pretty clear. It helped me because I knew where those guys were coming from so I tried to explain things to them to help push them so that they could see there were ways to achieve both their individual goals and the goals of the team, but that it was important to prioritize those goals as team first and individual second.

If you think about the background of a lot of these guys, this is their way to support their families so there’s a lot of pressure on these guys to be successful and to make it. Especially dealing with young guys, they have to figure out a way to balance both (their team and individual goals). I think the older guys, just through time and experience, have an easier time achieving that balance.

But back then, I was kind of there to serve as a bridge for the generation gap that existed between the old school approach and what the new school guys were thinking. I thought it worked out perfectly and it was easier for me to earn their trust because I already had a pre-existing relationship with them, but it was a difficult thing to separate myself going from buddy to coach. That’s not always easy because a lot of times if you don’t set the tone early for how the relationship is going to be, guys don’t understand when you’re telling them things as coach or as friends. There’s a line that you have to draw. Luckily I worked with really good guys and it never became an issue but you still have to be able to toe that line and it really is delicate.

JCF: Have you found in your experience that it’s easier to work with younger players as opposed to older guys who might be more set in their ways?

JBB: I think there are challenges to both. The younger guys, it’s easier to gain their respect because this is brand new to them and, to them, you know everything. It’s a completely different game, you’ve been there and you’ve seen it, as opposed to the older guys who already have established themselves and already feel strongly about what they believe in, so then it’s your responsibility to prove to them that you know what you’re doing – trying to figure out the balance of all that is the fun part of it. It makes you a better coach when you feel like there’s always something to prove.

As an assistant coach, the wins and losses don’t tally up on your record so you don’t necessarily have that to fall back on, so you have to find smaller games within the bigger picture to play in order to get your victories. So whether it’s a young guy who’s bright-eyed coming into this league trying to figure out where they fit in and where they belong, or if it’s an older guy who has been there, done that and seen it all, earning their respect as an assistant coach is probably the most important thing you can do.

To me, it always goes back to being honest with guys. You can’t be somebody you’re not because guys will smell that out – they’re around you too much to know. If you’re being phony, the guys will figure that out. To me, the most important thing and the easiest way to earn guys’ respect is all a part of your preparation. If you’re well-prepared, whether it’s something as small as doing an individual drill that day, or as big as doing a gameplan for a walkthrough at shootaround for the game that night, if you’re well-prepared guys will look at you, know you’re serious about what you’re doing and will know that they can believe and trust in what you’re doing.

I think when you’re not prepared and there are holes in your schemes and gaps and confusion in what you’re teaching, I think that’s when guys kind of look at you and start to lose that trust. So to me, the more prepared you are and the more ready you are, I think the quicker you’ll earn guys’ respect.

JCF: You’re the only one on the coaching staff who’s worked with Kevin McHale before. What’s he like to work with and what has it been like being reunited with him?

JBB: Kevin is probably the most down to earth guy you’re ever going to meet. He’s one of the top-50 players of all-time but if you sit in a room with him he’s just Kevin – he’s just Mac. He’s not someone who makes you feel like you have to treat him any differently or anything like that.

We were together at different positions when we were in Minnesota. He went to the University of Minnesota and so did I, so I would see him and know who he was through that type of stuff, and then I got to do radio for the Timberwolves for years so we had that relationship where I was doing radio and on the team plane and we’d banter with each other, talk back and forth about different things. Then, when I got hired by the Wolves, he was the GM and I was an assistant coach so we had that relationship which was more of a working basketball relationship. Then he took over and started coaching and I had the opportunity to work directly with and for him. So he and I have been together in a bunch of different ways, but all the while being able to build a relationship and get to know one another.

His strength, to me, is something I believe in as well: He has the ability to make people believe in themselves like I’ve never seen before. He always believes in being positive with guys, but at the same time being truthful. Whatever your strength is, he’ll identify it and try to go to your strength, instead of focusing on what you can’t do. I think guys appreciate that and, just in the brief time that he and I were working together as coach and assistant coach, you saw how guys would compete for him. Guys felt like he would compete for them and try to make them as good as they could possibly be, so guys would run through a wall for Mac. As we were talking about before, I think that’s one of the most important parts of coaching: Can you get guys to believe in you and get guys to fight for you? I think that’s huge.

Being with him, he understands my strengths and he’s one of those guys who lets you work. I think as an assistant coach, all you can ask for is a coach who will give you some responsibilities and lets you do what it is that you do. He’s not a micromanager, he’s not a guy who’s going to say, “This is my team, I’m doing everything.” He lets assistant coaches work which is great for our growth as well.

He’s just fun to be around, too. He cracks jokes, he makes you laugh, and he’s got all those stories he loves to tell about the old days. So it’s been a lot of fun getting back with him and understanding what it is that he needs us as assistant coaches to do. I think that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to talk to the other guys about: just how he works and what he expects of us and how we can help him at his job, too. So those are some of the little things where I kind of have a leg up and I’ve been trying to share that information.

JCF: You’ve been in Houston now for about six months. What’s been your favorite part of the experience so far and what are some of the things you feel like you’ve learned?

JBB: It’s always fun when you get to go somewhere new and you get to meet new people and get new experiences. It was like I was talking before about how many different places the game of basketball has taken us. To me, that’s the most enjoyable thing about it is being able to experience different things – not just being stuck in one place and getting used to that. You have to be prepared to move around and to meet new people and do new things, and that’s been the most enjoyable part of it so far for me is working with this new group of people, getting to know them and getting acclimated to a new city.

The different approaches of organizations is something that’s always intriguing. Being in Charlotte, Minnesota and now here, each place did things a little bit different, so now you get to learn more about what it is you’re trying to do and what it takes to build teams. There are obviously different philosophies about what it takes to do it, so now you get exposed to a lot of different ways.

Obviously here, the statistics and things like that this organization runs on is eye-opening to have never been a part of something like that and to sit down and actually see it. As coaches, we do a lot of things by feel. The stats are there to either support your feel or to tell you that your feel may be a little bit off, so it’s good to have those there – it’s just a different approach to the game of basketball and I think there’s a way to take those numbers and your coaching gut and meld them together and I’m confident you can have a lot of success in doing that.

JCF: Lastly, I can’t let you go without asking you what you think is the best thing about being a father. You’ve got a little girl who’s 9-months-old, so I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with her.

JBB: Just watching her grow up is amazing. You go from this little kind of blob that just lays there and rolls around (laughs), to now she’s crawling and pulling herself up and walking around things. She’s starting to figure things out and she’s starting to remember those things and it’s just unbelievable how quickly kids pick things up. You play little games with them and before long they start initiating the games – it’s those small things, the growth and becoming a person, that are just amazing.

JCF: Does she have a basketball hoop in her crib?

JBB: You know what’s funny? She won’t play basketball.

JCF: Really??? Because you don’t want her to, or …

JBB: Well, I’m pushing her in the direction of tennis and her mom was a soccer player, so maybe soccer or volleyball – I’m kind of pushing her in that direction.

JCF: So the family business ends with you then?

JBB: Oh no, we’re in the process of making some more. My wife is actually pregnant again, so there will be others. And obviously if my daughter wants to play basketball that’s fine. But for now I’m trying to steer her in another direction ...

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