The Transition: J.B. Bickerstaff

Ex-Gophers player J.B. Bickerstaff has been an NBA assistant since ’04.

Houston Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff coaches forward Chandler Parsons during a game.

Bill Baptist, courtesy of the Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff coaches forward Chandler Parsons during a game.

Jace Frederick

Houston Rockets assistant coach John-Blair Bickerstaff remembers drawing up basketball plays in his notebook when he was a little boy.

He’s always known his ultimate goal was to be a head coach.

Bickerstaff grew up around the game. He was ball boy for the Seattle SuperSonics while his father, Bernie Bickerstaff, was head coach. Now he’s close to attaining his own NBA head coaching position.

After nine years as an assistant, Bickerstaff interviewed for three head coaching vacancies this summer.

“I always knew that I wanted to follow [my dad’s] footsteps,” Bickerstaff said.

Bickerstaff’s father said his son was a student of the game at a young age.

“You could just see how he focused in on what was going on,” he said. “His insight … was somewhat astonishing.”

Bickerstaff’s coaching mentality and leadership abilities were evident during his playing career, said former Gophers head coach Dan Monson.

 Bickerstaff, 34, transferred to the University of Minnesota in   the late 1990s after playing two seasons with Oregon State. His two-year career with the Gophers did not follow the path he expected.

Bickerstaff came to the Gophers under the assumption he’d be playing for then-head coach Clem Haskins. But Haskins was let go by the University in June 1999 amid allegations of academic fraud.

“He was a father figure in all of our lives,” Bickerstaff said. “It was a heartbreaking situation, especially for me not being able to play a game for him.”

When the Gophers hired Monson to take over the position a month later, the transition was difficult.

Bickerstaff, who’d already been voted Gophers captain without playing a game, was considering transferring weeks after Monson’s arrival. It took a while for him and Monson to establish trust both on and off the court, he said.

“We’re both pretty set in our ways,” Bickerstaff said. “That took some getting used to.”

Over time, the two hashed out their differences and established a strong bond, Bickerstaff said. During his two-year career, Bickerstaff served as a coach on the floor, Monson said.

“J.B. was a very intelligent student of the game,” he said. “He studied it from maybe a different angle than most players did.”

During his Gophers career, which included a one-year postseason ban stemming from Haskins’ tenure, Bickerstaff averaged 9.4 points and 5.8 rebounds while leading Minnesota to a combined 30-30 record.

Bickerstaff felt it was the team’s responsibility to change the program’s image — the players were viewed as cheaters, he said.

“I think that that’s what we did,” he said. “I think by the time we left, people started thinking of us as competitors — hard-working, disciplined, good human beings.”

Bickerstaff suffered injuries during his time with the Gophers that prevented him from continuing to play professionally. He said he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today had he not started his coaching career at such a young age.

After graduating from the team, Bickerstaff returned to Monson’s staff as Director of Basketball Operations. Monson said Bickerstaff served as a liaison between the players and coaches.

Though Bickerstaff was only 23 at the time, Monson wasn’t concerned by his youth. He said Bickerstaff had the ability to determine the pulse of the team.

“He was young enough to where kids would talk to him,” Monson said. “He [had a] non-threatening, player-type friend relationship.”

Bickerstaff said player relations are his greatest strength as a coach.

“Guys have personal issues that come up that can really affect their performance or their mind on and off the court,” he said. “They need somebody that they can talk to about that. They need somebody that they can trust.”

Bickerstaff helped coach the Gophers for a year before leaving for the professional level.

 He served as a radio color analyst for the Minnesota Timberwolves during the 2003-04 season when the team reached the Western Conference finals.

The position gave him exposure. He appeared on NBA TV and ESPN during the season to discuss the team.

 The following season, Bickerstaff joined his father — then-head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats — for the franchise’s expansion season. At 25, J.B. Bickerstaff was the youngest assistant coach in the league.

 “He had the respect from the players because of the way he carried himself and his knowledge of the game,” Bickerstaff’s father said. “He was very professional for a young man.”

 Bickerstaff spent three seasons with the Bobcats and four seasons with the Timberwolves — all as an assistant coach — before joining the Rockets in 2011.

 Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said Bickerstaff often ran the entire offense in practice last season.

“He’s just getting better all the time,” McHale said. “I give him a lot of responsibility. He’s great. I couldn’t ask for anybody to be any better.”

Bickerstaff has spent time working under McHale, Washington Wizards head coach Randy Wittman and former Timberwolves head coach Kurt Rambis, though he said the time spent under his father was the most valuable. Bickerstaff’s father said the two talk almost daily.

“It’s not just basketball — it’s more personal, I would say,” Bickerstaff said of the relationship with his father.

Bickerstaff is starting to garner attention as a head coaching prospect in the NBA.  He interviewed for openings with the Phoenix Suns, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Detroit Pistons this offseason.

In Detroit, his interview included a conversation with Hall of Famers Phil Jackson and Joe Dumars. He said the interview processes have been valuable.

“They’ve been great experiences as far as how to handle the situations,” he said, “[and] also the opportunity to have basketball conversations with great minds and ask questions and learn from that perspective.”

All three of the head coaching positions were filled by older candidates, with Detroit and Milwaukee hiring former head coaches who had been let go by other teams.

Bickerstaff said his age was brought up as a concern during his interviews, which he found silly.

He said he was interested in the Gophers’ head coaching position after Tubby Smith was fired in March but was never contacted about the position. The Gophers hired Richard Pitino from Florida International in April.

McHale said Bickerstaff’s head coaching opportunity will come.

“He’s typical of a guy who’s going to be a head coach in our league,” he said. “He’s very well- versed. He loves the game. He does a great job with it.”

Bickerstaff said it’s going to take someone special to break the mold and give him an opportunity, though he does expect one.

“Those people that don’t, that’s their out and that’s their mistake,” he said. “I’m OK with that.”