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It was nearing midnight in the East now, and J.B. Bickerstaff, on his drive home, spoke softly so his young daughter wouldn’t awake in the backseat. This had been a long, surreal and sobering day, punctuated with a crazy shot and a magnificent overtime victory.
At the end of a night that had turned out to be an unforgettable beginning to his head-coaching career, John Blair Bickerstaff, 36, found himself thinking about the cruelty of endings.
After all, he’s the son of Bernie Bickerstaff, a gentleman of the coaching craft, a lifer. Coaches’ sons have littered the NBA landscape, but few were NBA coaches’ sons. Some coaches have been around basketball their whole life, but few, if any, had their diapers changed on NBA training tables.
“It isn’t just getting fired in this business, but the ridicule that comes with it, the fans, the kids at school,” J.B. Bickerstaff said late Wednesday night on his drive out of the Toyota Center, out of a 108-103 overtime victory over Portland. “My dad always took over teams, except for Washington, that were rebuilding, and you hear the taunting, the jokes, negative, awful things about the person you love. That hardens you at a young age.
“You learn what it feels like to have to move, change schools and there’s always that stigma that you were fired. Whatever opportunities come next, you were fired. I know what that feels like.
“I know that burn.”
The Rockets needed a transformation on this young season, needed the core of a Western Conference finalist to restore its basketball dignity. The Rockets were 29th in defense and 3-point shooting – two constants a year ago. As much as anything, the Rockets ranked 30th in running back on defense, on busting butt, on giving a bleep. This pushed ownership and the front office to fire Kevin McHale on Wednesday morning and promote Bickerstaff to interim head coach.
“I thought we were going to turn it around together, Mac and the staff,” Bickerstaff told Yahoo Sports.
He’s been fiercely loyal to McHale, the way McHale has been to him. Bernie taught J.B. the value of loyalty because that’s what he had always been in the league. McHale gave J.B. a job with the Rockets 4½ years ago, along with promotions and raises, and bigger and bigger responsibilities. McHale never stopped telling people that the younger Bickerstaff deserved a chance to be a head coach in the NBA.
“He did everything in his power to protect me, to protect my family,” Bickerstaff told Yahoo Sports. “He went out on a limb to support me.”
McHale is a beloved, respected figure in the NBA. In a business of jealousy and pettiness, McHale separated himself with sincerity and good cheer. His strength wasn’t breaking down game film or diagraming plays on the board. He could live with mistakes, forever staying on the bigger picture. The genius wasn’t so much in the details, but the delivery. McHale was a presence.
“Mac is a uniter,” his old Rockets assistant, Kelvin Sampson, told me once.
Only now, the Rockets’ players were getting over on McHale, coasting on that Western Conference finals run. What had been McHale’s greatest strength had become something of a detriment with a team on the skids. Houston needed details and discipline to dig itself out.
McHale allowed Bickerstaff’s voice to grow within the team, because he was never threatened, because it was right for the Rockets. McHale has no ego. With Bickerstaff, the Rockets became an elite defensive team a year ago. Habits changed, schemes solidified and Bickerstaff had played an immense role in the process.
Still, general manager Daryl Morey didn’t believe the Rockets had a roster that could compete with the Golden State Warriors. Morey traded for Ty Lawson in July, believing the reward on his talent outweighed the risk on his past personal demons with alcohol.
Before the Portland victory, the Rockets weren’t just 4-7, but a disturbing 4-7. Blowouts upon blowouts, stunningly sloppy and indifferent. Owner Les Alexander has gone 20 years without a title, and vows that he won’t let this window pass without exhausting the possibilities. He never hesitated on costing himself the $12 million owed to McHale, nor will he hesitate to pass on his interim coach's long-term candidacy should Bickerstaff fail to show that he can make the Rockets contenders again.
This isn’t a franchise willing to wait on the growth of a young coach, and Bickerstaff understands the burden. Around the Rockets, they expect his style to differ. He’ll get on the players harder. He’ll demand discipline, dole out consequences. Bickerstaff walked into a room and told Lawson that he had lost his starting job for now, and that he needed to perform off the bench. Bickerstaff told Harden that he should expect to be pushed and prodded, too.
“In my conversation with each and every one of them, I said, ‘I’m going to coach you,’” Bickerstaff told Yahoo. “We aren’t going to let things slide. We won’t get better unless you allow this staff to coach you.”
The Rockets were dismal for three quarters on Wednesday night, and suddenly, everything changed in the fourth. Harden was Harden again. He had 45 points on the night. The Rockets defended, made 3-pointers and reached overtime on a silly, one-legged heave from Corey Brewer. There was life in the Toyota Center again, and validation of the values that J.B. Bickerstaff preached: stay together and keep coming. Mostly, there was a validation of the talent on the floor, the possibilities.
Bickerstaff knows how it goes for young coaches – never mind young African-American ones. Assistants traditionally get bad teams, with bad odds for staying power.
“Let’s face it,” Bickerstaff told Yahoo, “first-time assistant coaches normally don’t walk into jobs with two perennial All-Stars on a team that just got bounced in the Western finals. Normally, they get a job in the middle of a year, playing for lottery balls. I’m fortunate, very fortunate. You don’t win without talent, but your talent has to have purpose.”
All his life, he’s been surrounded with NBA talent. As a kid growing up in Seattle, he hung out with the Sonics. Shawn Kemp. Dale Ellis. He traveled for Mychal Thompson’s All-Star game in the islands and always got to visit with Magic Johnson and Dr. J.
“My brother and I used to laugh and say, ‘Normal kids went to day care, and we went to the gym,”’ Bickerstaff told Yahoo. Now, he laughs again. “My mom always said the worst thing she ever let happen was us getting raised in an NBA locker room.
“But career-wise, it was the best thing.”
So Wednesday morning, management told the staff and players that McHale had been let go. They hustled Bickerstaff upstairs to the general manager’s office, where Morey and Alexander told him that he would be the interim coach. The season belonged to Bickerstaff and his associate head coach, Chris Finch. When Bickerstaff walked out of the GM’s office, the news was out and over a hundred text messages flooded into his phone, including screen shots of the newsbreak itself on Twitter.
Before J.B. called his wife, he had to call his father. He stood in a corridor of the Toyota Center and heard Bernie tell him that he had put the call on speaker, so his mother could hear all about it too. Bernie Bickerstaff, an old coach, with a history of interim assignments himself, pushed past the pleasantries and asked his kid a question.
“Do you have a plan?”
All his life, John Blair Bickerstaff had been groomed for this moment, this chance, and he told his father what he told the Rockets’ GM and owner, what he told James Harden and Dwight Howard.
“Yes, I do.”
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