Bickerstaff To Accept Denver Job -- Ex-Sonic Coach To Become GM
Bernie Bickerstaff's tenure with the Seattle SuperSonics began with a burst of energy that propelled his club a year later to the Western Conference final. It concluded with a stressful season minus a playoff berth, and finally, a new position for him in the front office.
As long as Bickerstaff was an NBA coach in Seattle, five years, there rarely was a boring moment.
His roller coaster of ideas and intensity will start up again next season, but in Denver as general manager. Bickerstaff, who resigned last night as the Sonics' vice president of basketball operations, has before him a task not unlike that which he accepted in 1985 with the Sonics: resuscitate a downtrodden club lacking top talent and fan support.
As a basketball man who often worked best when cast as an underdog, Bickerstaff fits aptly into the Nuggets' opportunity.
``I'm happy for Bernie,'' said K.C. Jones, Sonic coach and Bickerstaff's longtime friend. ``I know this is something he likes.''
Bickerstaff, who has been in talks with the Nuggets since July 3, has not been announced as Nugget general manager. But he met yesterday in Chicago with the Nugget owners, Robert Wussler, Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee, and said late last night that only ``little details'' in his new contract separated the two sides.
Bickerstaff said a news conference was scheduled for this afternoon in the expectation that a deal would be consummated. ``It's not final with me,'' he said last night. ``We have a few more things to work out. But hopefully we'll have that press conference.''
Bickerstaff, who accepted the Sonics' vice president position May 15 when Jones took over as head coach, declined comment on his reasons for resigning after less than two months on the job.
At the time of his move upstairs with the Sonics, Bickerstaff, 46, signed a multiyear contract extension - believed to be for four years at about $400,000 annually - that carried him through the 1994-95 season.
His role in the Sonics' front office, however, largely was undefined. He was active in lobbying for Oregon State guard Gary Payton as the Sonics' first-round pick in the June draft. But beyond personnel matters, his scope appeared to be limited. In explaining the new leadership hierarchy, Sonic President Bob Whitsitt emphasized that he owned the final decision on all club matters.
Jones said Bickerstaff appeared to be happy in his new job. But Jones understood how his friend would be attracted to the Denver job, which apparently is a powerful position.
``If he's a general manager, he'll be in the same position as other general managers around the league,'' Jones said. ``It's that kind of power.''
Whitsitt, in Alaska this week on a fishing trip, said in a prepared statement last night that the club has no immediate plans to replace Bickerstaff.
The Sonics provided little resistance to Bickerstaff's departure, allowing the Nuggets permission to talk with him July 2. Sonic spokesman Jim Rupp said the club made no counter-offer to Bickerstaff after the Nuggets' offer.
``You always hate to see good people leave your organization,'' Whitsitt said. ``This is a great opportunity for Bernie - to be an NBA general manager. We are always happy for our employees when they are recognized and presented with such opportunities.
``We don't stand in their way.''
The Denver position re-opened two weeks ago after Georgetown Coach John Thompson, a friend of Bickerstaff's, turned down a $700,000-a-year offer that also included a 4 percent interest in ownership.
Bickerstaff did not reveal the terms of his proposed contract with the Nuggets, but his deal is not expected to be as lavish as that offered to Thompson.
Bickerstaff likely will be in charge of player trades and personnel decisions for the Nuggets, who were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by San Antonio after fading to a 43-39 record last season. Nugget President Carl Scheer is expected to handle business issues, such as the salary cap.
Retaining that decision-making autonomy, though, may be another issue for Bickerstaff.
Both Bynoe, the managing general partner, and Wussler, who owns 62.5 percent of the franchise, have been active in club decisions. Since buying the Nuggets last summer, they have fired two team presidents, Pete Babcock and Jon Spoelstra, and talked with a number of other candidates about the vacancy.
Concerned about lagging home attendance and a lack of competitiveness, Bynoe announced at the end of the season that at least one-fourth of the Nugget roster will be gone by the start of next season. Last month, the Nugget brain trust made its first move in that direction, trading All-Star guard Lafayette Lever to the Dallas Mavericks.
``I think Carl Scheer and Doug Moe have been doing a good job on an ad hoc basis, but we need someone in there 24 hours a day,'' Bynoe said yesterday.
Bickerstaff, an assistant with the Washington Bullets before compiling a 202-208 record as coach of the Sonics, left his Seattle coaching position after going 41-41 last season and missing the playoffs for the first time in four years. He later acknowledged disputes with players, and called the season his ``most frustrating'' in his 17 years in the NBA.
Since a bleeding ulcer sidelined him briefly in the 1988-89 season, Bickerstaff expressed a desire to move into a top front-office position. With the Nuggets, Bickerstaff appears to have received his chance.
``If you can get a general manager's job, you take it,'' Rupp said. ``Bernie was happy with us. This is just one of those things that comes along once in a blue moon.''
THE BICKERSTAFF ERA
-- JUNE: Hired as head coach, his first top job after 12 years with the Washington Bullets as an assistant under K.C. Jones, Dick Motta and Gene Shue. Replaced Lenny Wilkens, the winningest coach in Sonic history at 478-402.
-- APRIL: Sonics finish his first season at 31-51, the same record as previous season.
-- MAY: After improving to 39-43 in regular season, Sonics achieve conference finals for first time since 1980, defeating Dallas and Houston in playoff series. Bickerstaff named Sporting News Coach of the Year.
-- MAY: Bickerstaff concludes first winning season as head coach, at 44-38, with first-round playoff loss to Denver Nuggets.
-- JUNE: Michael Cage is acquired for two first-round draft choices, and touted as replacement for Tom Chambers, allowed to become a free agent.
-- MARCH: After 16-point loss at Detroit the previous night, Bickerstaff is admitted to Milwaukee hospital for bleeding peptic ulcer and misses six games. Team loses five straight in his absence.
-- APRIL: Counters a seven-game losing streak by inserting Xavier McDaniel back in lineup, and McDaniel prompts eight-game winning streak as Sonics finish with best record during Bickerstaff era (47-35).
-- May: Sonics beat Houston in miniseries of first playoff round, then are swept 4-0 by Lakers.
-- AUGUST: K.C. Jones added as assistant coach and consultant to Sonics, renewing working relationship between former Bullet coaches.
-- JANUARY: Car accident puts leading scorer Dale Ellis out for 27 games, as Sonics fight to stay in playoff race the rest of season.
-- FEBRUARY: Sonics' second-leading scorer, Xavier McDaniel, injures right knee, forcing Bickerstaff to juggle lineup again.
-- APRIL: Sonics fail to make playoffs on final day of season, squandering fourth-quarter lead at Golden State. Team finishes 41-41 for worst record in three years.
-- MAY: Bickerstaff accepts position as vice president of basketball operations and signs contract extension, as Jones takes over as head coach.
-- JULY: Denver Nuggets court Bickerstaff as their general manager.
The career coaching record of Bernie Bickerstaff, who resigned yesterday as the Sonics' vice president of basketball operations:
W L Pct. Fin ;
'85-86 Seattle 31 51 .378 5 ;
'86-87 Seattle 39 43 .476 4 ;
'87-88 Seattle 44 38 .537 3 ;
'88-89 Seattle 47 35 .573 3 ;
'89-90 Seattle 41 41 .500 4 ;
Totals 202 208.493 ;
Playoffs W L Pct. ;
'86-87 Seattle 7 7 .500 ;
'87-88 Seattle 2 3 .400 ;
'88-89 Seattle 3 5 .375 ;
Totals 12 15 .444
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