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Motta Succeeds Bickerstaff as Nuggets Coach

November 27, 1996 GMT

DENVER (AP) _ His team was going nowhere and the fans were staying home, so Bernie Bickerstaff, president, benched Bernie Bickerstaff, coach.

Bickerstaff, 59-68 in parts of three seasons as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, resigned on Tuesday and turned over the reins to assistant Dick Motta.

Eight hours later, the move paid dividends. Under Motta, the Nuggets defeated the winless Phoenix Suns 117-108.

Bickerstaff, 52, retained his title of team president and also reclaimed the job of general manager, which he had held until last season.


Motta, 65, the longtime NBA coach who last season was with the Dallas Mavericks, said he planned no immediate changes in the Nuggets’ style of play and warned fans to temper their expectations.

``I think to make any changes immediately is foolhardy,″ he said. ``I really am a plodder. I’m not a miracle man. We’re not going to stand in front of you and say that Dr. Wilkerson’s Mud Bath will cure this whole deal.

``In the brief meeting I had with the players, I said all I wanted out of them was a full effort. I’m going to give a full effort in return. I retired twice before and it didn’t work out. I’ve been doing this for 43 or 44 years, and it’s my life. I still have energy.″

Motta said he spent most of the day Sunday trying to talk Bickerstaff out of resigning, but once the decision was made he admitted his elevation to head coach ``was the logical choice if they wanted to stay within the organization and have a smooth transition.″

Motta, who signed a multi-year contract, becomes the sixth Denver coach in this decade and the fourth in three years.

Dan Issel resigned midway through the 1994-95 season and was replaced for 16 games by Gene Littles before Bickerstaff elevated himself to head coach. Bickerstaff went 20-12 the remainder of that season, getting the Nuggets into the playoffs where they were swept in three games by San Antonio. He was 35-47 last season.

Bickerstaff’s resignation came three days after his team scored a franchise-low 65 points in a 40-point loss to Portland.

``In evaluating the situation, hey, it wasn’t working,″ Bickerstaff said. ``I always said I would do what’s best for the organization, and this is the best thing.

``This gives me an opportunity to step back and try to solidify the talent level and the contract situations of this basketball team _ to do the job I was originally hired to do.″

Charlie Lyons, chief executive officer for Ascent Entertainment, which owns the Nuggets, said he and Bickerstaff were ``in complete agreement that the right thing was for him to go to his original job. At the same time, we’re lucky we have Dick Motta here.″

Besides their sometimes lackluster play on the court this season, the Nuggets suffered at the gate. In six home games _ five of them losses _ the Nuggets had averaged 13,004 in attendance, down from 16,474 a year ago.

With Bickerstaff’s resumption of the general manager duties, Todd Eley was demoted to vice president of basketball operations.

Motta, known for building down-and-out teams into contenders, has spent 24 years as an NBA head coach. He has 918 career wins, third on the NBA list behind Lenny Wilkens and Red Auerbach. Motta also has coached Washington and Chicago. He was NBA coach of the year in 1971 and led Washington to the NBA title in 1978. Bickerstaff was an assistant coach under Motta for five seasons in Washington, including the championship year.

``I have totally mixed emotions today,″ Motta said. ``I feel bad that it didn’t work out quite the way we all envisioned it would. I also know Bernie well enough to know this is where he wants to be in his heart. I’m sad for my friend, but I can’t help feel enthusiasm and excitement with this ball club.″

Nuggets forward LaPhonso Ellis, recuperating from minor knee surgery, said players were quiet when they heard the news.

``I’m always leery of change,″ Ellis said. ``We need stability more than anything. But I think Dick can get the job done. The guys have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I feel this is a step in the right direction.″

Before joining the Nuggets as general manager and executive vice president in 1990, Bickerstaff was Seattle’s head coach, leading the SuperSonics to the playoffs three times in five seasons.