At center court, invisible man

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ever since he left UMBC more than a decade ago, Jeff Bzdelik has been one of those obscure NBA assistant coaches whose nondescript face was rarely attached to his hard-to-pronounce name.

Not much has changed for Bzdelik (pronounced buzz-Del-ick) in terms of his profile, except now he is taking obscurity to a new level -- as the still unknown first-year head coach of the NBA's most faceless franchise, the Denver Nuggets.

It is a match made in salary cap heaven.

Bzdelik, 50, was named last August to succeed Mike Evans as coach of a team that starts three rookies, lists three others on the NBA's lowest payroll and has only two widely recognizable names -- center Marcus Camby and forward Juwan Howard -- on its roster.

Yet, despite a 10-35 record, the Nuggets have gained respect throughout the league for their hard-nosed defense. Bzdelik has attained something just as important -- the respect of his players.

"Jeff has done a great job. I don't think he gets enough credit because of our record," Howard said earlier this month, after the Nuggets lost to the Washington Wizards at MCI Center. "He's a great teacher, a great motivator. He has a passion for the game. Once we start winning, he's going to get a lot of credit."

That might not be for a while, at least not until the Nuggets are able to pursue more established players on the free-agent market next summer. General manager Kiki Vandeweghe made several moves to clear nearly $20 million in contracts over the past 18 months, but the roster of rookies and retreads was not very attractive to most coaches.

It opened the door for Bzdelik, who had joined the Nuggets as a scout last season after spending the previous seven years with Pat Riley as an assistant in Miami and New York. Bzdelik got the head coaching job after coaching Denver's summer-league team to a 6-0 record.

"It was great because we got to see Jeff in action," said Vandeweghe. "More than the games, I got to see practice sessions. I got to see the respect that he had for how hard his players worked. That's the thing that intrigued all of us. He's done exactly what we wanted. I'm very pleased with the job he's done."

Becoming an NBA head coach wasn't one of Bzdelik's goals, mostly because he knew how difficult getting a job of that magnitude could be.

"To think like that would be wasting energy and emotion," said Bzdelik, who left UMBC in 1988 after coaching the Retrievers in their first two years of Division I. He became an assistant with the Washington Bullets, working under Wes Unseld through 1994.

"In this league, people call you. You don't pursue. That's how it works. I'm very fortunate that I have this opportunity and I'm going to do the very best I can."

In some ways, Bzdelik's situation in Denver is not unlike what he faced in Catonsville all those years ago, except that he's making a lot more money (a reported $2.3 million for three years, among the lowest salaries in the league). The Nuggets are almost the equivalent of a start-up, or at least start-over, program.

"This is UMBC at a different level," Bzdelik said with a smile, recalling teams that went 12-16 and 13-15. "I kind of, in my mind, have the same approach to it. This is a young team and I'm trying to establish professionalism and defense and rebounding and passion and discipline and all those kinds of things.

"Then, as the talent level gets better, as we develop it and acquire it, if those other areas are in place, then we have something special going on. Even though we've lost games this year, we haven't played like losers. These guys are battling and putting themselves in the position to win."

They haven't been winning recently. The Nuggets have lost six in a row after a 4-5 stretch, which included a victory over Portland.

Rookie Junior Harrington, who last season was finishing his career at Division II Wingate (N.C.) University, starts at point. Nene Hilario, a 20-year-old from Brazil who came in a trade for Antonio McDyess after being picked seventh overall by the Knicks, starts at center. Vincent Yarbrough, a rookie from Tennesee, starts at shooting guard. Howard and Ryan Bowen, a second-year player, start at forward.

Harrington might have benefited the most from his coach's grassroots background.

"He came in there with an open mind, not looking at it politically, just seeing what you could do and giving the players an opportunity," said Harrington, who was signed as a free agent after playing well in the summer league. "He's full of enthusiasm, he's positive, he's prepared."

Said veteran point guard John Crotty, who was waived this week after Chris Whitney came off the injured list, "He does a nice mix of teaching and also reinforcing it, which is what you have to do when you have a young group of people who'll make the same mistake over and over again."

The mistakes are mostly at the offensive end of the floor. On defense, the Nuggets are tied for first in the league in forcing turnovers and second in points allowed -- they have twice held Dallas, the NBA's top scoring team, under 90 points.

But Denver is first in turnovers committed and last in both scoring and field-goal percentage.

"The reality is that losing is very difficult," said Bzdelik. "I take losses very hard.

"When we lose games, it starts with me, what I could have done better as a coach. We just can't close them. It's been an emotional roller-coaster in many ways."

Bzdelik is realistic enough to understand that the honeymoon will last only so long before the wins and losses become an issue. Far more obscure assistants have become obscure head coaches (and ex-head coaches) than have become a big name like Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks coach who inherited the team after Riley left for Miami.

"The thing you have to remember is that this is a league of talent," Bzdelik said. "There's a lot of people who can coach. We should never let our egos get in the way and say, 'It's because of me.' It's like being a jockey in the Kentucky Derby. If he's not riding the right horse, that ain't going to happen."

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