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  • There are few transitions as bittersweet as becoming an interim NBA head coach. On one side, your friend and mentor has been fired. On the other, the chance of a lifetime. JB Bickerstaff is the latest to go through the whirlwind transition.
By Jake Fischer
December 08, 2017

J.B. Bickerstaff milled around his backyard, cleaning up the toys and sticks his children had scattered around the lawn, when Grizzlies executive Ed Stefanski called. As Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace simultaneously relieved David Fizdale of his head coaching duties, Stefanski’s message to Bickerstaff felt far more like déjà vu than opportunity: Would you be interested in becoming the Grizzlies’ interim head coach?

The Rockets offered Bickerstaff the same temporary role when Houston fired Kevin McHale just 11 games into the 2015-16 season. Word came minutes before Houston’s morning shootaround, with a game looming just hours later that night. “That one it was just, fly by the seat of your pants, try to get to the game,” Bickerstaff says. Memphis elevated its lead assistant to head coach the morning of an off day. “There was actually some time to prepare for the game and it made it a little easier,” Bickerstaff says.

Yet transforming from assistant to interim leader is never a breeze. It’s not exactly uplifting when a close friend is terminated and you’re promoted as his replacement. “I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had good friends replace me. It’s not a good situation at all,” says P.J. Carlesimo, Brooklyn’s interim head coach in 2012–2013. “In some ways, when you’re the head coach who’s let go, it’s easier.” Bickerstaff and Fizdale first met when the former was just 17 years old. Through a slew of University of San Diego connections, both would-be coaches drilled under renowned trainer Tim Grgurich in Las Vegas each offseason. Fizdale was later in Bickerstaff’s wedding party. They reunited in Memphis last summer to shepherd the next era of Grit ‘N Grind.  

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“They go through a battle together,” says Spencer Breecker, managing partner at Kauffman Sports, a leading agency that represents coaches and executives. “Picture it: You’re on the road everyday with these guys, you’re up late, you’re in the hotel room strategizing. It’s beyond a work life.” Coaches’ families become one. Their wives become dear friends. Their children often attend the same schools. But the interim process pays no mind to context. Do you accept the job? Yes? Ok, rally your team and start winning ball games. 

Bickerstaff utilized the rest of his day off to call each of his players individually, dispensing a theme of greater responsibility and accountability for every member of the Grizzlies’ basketball operations. Memphis was coming off eight straight losses and had fired Fizadale after a reported rift with star center Marc Gasol. Now it was time for Bickerstaff to mend fences and push forward. “Obviously trust and communication are huge for us,” Gasol says. “And I think we have that.” Bickerstaff highlighted individual aspects of players’ skillsets he wanted the team’s offense to better amplify. “He told me he needed me to be more aggressive and to be more of a leader,” says Tyreke Evans. 

It’s challenging to tweak much amid a whirring regular–season schedule. The scope of any schematic alteration also isn’t very large. “There’s no magic formula that makes things change and work,” Gasol says. When the Blazers elevated Kaleb Canales to interim head coach in 2012 after firing Nate McMillan, he polled Portland’s entire staff on what revisions they should institute. “We had some different favorite sets that we implemented,” Canales says. “Maybe not that specific day, but throughout the season, putting LaMarcus at the elbow more. He’s always playing at the blocks, but just kind of trying to move him around. Having Jamal Crawford play a little more pick and roll.”

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Canales received his fateful call while working out Luke Babbit and Nolan Smith during an off day in Portland’s road trip in Chicago. “That first 24, or 48 hours, depending on what the schedule is, it’s definitely a rollercoaster of emotions,” he says. Canales joined the Blazers as an unpaid video intern under Mo Cheeks in 2004. When McMillan left Seattle for Portland a year later, he retained the hardworking youngster and essentially jumpstarted Canales’s career. “Coach McMillan’s one of my mentors,” Canales says, which made knocking on his former boss’s hotel room door all the more bittersweet. McMillan eased his pupil’s bubbling emotions. “Just be you,” he advised. “And attack the preparation and the games and the practices.”

Interims quickly learn the breadth of a head coach’s arrangements. Once abiding by a largely routine schedule—manning assigned game scouts, developing a small group of players, joining staff meetings—the interim head coach must now make every daily basketball ops decision from team breakfast to finalizing the bus departure schedule. “An assistant is sick today, can we cover for him in this? The masseuse wants to talk about this. PR needs you to do a radio spot,” Breecker says. 

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An assistant can emerge from relative anonymity to speaking with the media three times on game days, meeting with season–ticket holders at team functions and appearing at community outreach events. Canales initially resisted his coach’s pregame media availability to keep working out Aldridge and Wesley Matthews on the court. “I didn’t want to lose the feel of the ball,” he countered. For all that greater responsibility, most teams offer the interim coach a significant raise. “You want the guy feeling good,” Breecker says. “He’s representing the organization now.” Lead assistants earn anywhere between $500,000 to a little over $1 million per season. After being elevated to interim head coach, teams typically prorate the salary of a lower-echelon, full-time head coach for the remainder of the season. Being promoted to interim head man before December can double, or even triple, a coach’s wages.​

That’s a significant raise in the aftermath of an ally’s termination. It’s just another added factor in a confluence of emotions and transitions. Being named interim head coach can provide an opportunity of a lifetime in the middle of heartache, a pain that is all too familiar to many around the NBA. “If you coach long enough in the league, it’s probably going to happen to you some type of way,” says Carlesimo. Sure enough, Keith Smart, who has served as an interim coach for both Cleveland and Sacramento, is one of Bickerstaff’s assistants in Memphis. He delivered a rousing a pregame speech before the Grizzlies’ first post-Fizdale win against Minnesota, a victory that ended an 11-game losing streak. Shrouded under a dark cloud, the interim process can sometimes fuse broken teams together. 

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