A couple days before the New Orleans Pelicans traveled down to the NBA’s bubble, Zion Williamson and Jeff Bzdelik were chatting after a practice. The 67-year-old associate head coach told the superstar rookie that he wouldn't be joining the team in Florida. Instead Bzdelik, one of the NBA’s most experienced and respected teachers, would fly to his permanent home in Denver, where, for precautionary reasons on the recommendation of several doctors, he’d support the team while being separated from them. (Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Lionel Hollins, 66, will also work from outside the bubble due to an underlying medical condition. Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, 65, were “red-flagged” by the NBA earlier this month, but both are inside the bubble.)
Williamson wished Bzdelik well, then asked a question.
“‘Will you please just stay on top of me. Text me what I need. Stay on top of my defense’,” Bzdelik remembered. Shortly after that, Williamson received his first reminder: Young players have a tendency to relax off the ball. They have a tendency to react instead of anticipate. Have an awareness, be in early when you need to be. Have vision on man and ball, assess the situation.
Since he cracked the NBA in 1988, Bzdelik has developed a reputation as one of the sport’s most meticulous coaches. Occasional further reinforcements have been sent (Bzdelik doesn’t want to overwhelm players who are already receiving instructions inside the bubble), but nothing could prepare him for something like this.
Bzdelik’s choice, supported by the Pelicans, wasn’t easy: “I would have no problem feeling safe and comfortable in the bubble. None whatsoever. But this is not about me. I have one surviving brother. I have two beautiful children and a wife—we’re going to be married 45 years,” Bzdelik said. “I’d like to try and continue working the odds to stick around to enjoy my life with my loved ones. As much as I hate not being there with my fellow coaches and players, I’ll do everything I can from afar to help them.”
Despite being on the outside, Bzdelik keeps himself involved in New Orleans’ day-to-day strategic planning as if he were on the ground. There aren’t daily Zoom calls. He doesn’t participate in film sessions or address the team as a whole like he ordinarily could. Instead, Bzdelik holds a continuous stream of individual phone calls with coaches. “It’s like OK, I’m not there. I’m not in the trenches with them right now,” he said. “But I’m doing everything I can to give my thoughts.”
In some ways, Bzdelik’s relentless workload is no different to what he’d normally do: In addition to watching film of every practice, drill, scrimmage, and game multiple times—“If there’s a lengthy practice sometimes you can have 180 clips to go through,” he said—Bzdelik also spends hours on the phone every week with Gentry, associate head coach Chris Finch, and assistant coach Jamelle McMillan, who Bzdelik calls his “right-hand man.” The vast bulk of his exchanges are with Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson, who’s spearheading the team’s defense in Bzdelik’s place. “I talk to Fred more than I talk to my wife on a daily basis,” he said.
The most obvious difference is felt during actual games. Instead of sitting next to Gentry on New Orleans’ bench, close enough to shout out defensive instructions and reinforce different schemes and habits built in practice, Bzdelik watches the Pelicans at his kitchen table, in front of a laptop, with some fruit, a bowl of nuts, and a glass of water within arm’s reach.
Bzdelik has no desire to text a coach in the middle of a game. He knows they have everything under control. An open notebook beside the laptop, he jots down general thoughts as the game unfolds. About 30 minutes after the final buzzer, he’ll receive film of the game broken down possession by possession, then watch it all over again. Most possessions get tagged with a detailed observation. The process takes between five and six hours.
Bzdelik finds a theme in the clips, marks about 15 of them, and then blends constructive criticism with genuine praise, especially when someone sacrifices their own stats for the good of the team. It’s a lesson learned from when he was associate head coach of the Houston Rockets.
“I remember when we had Nene, we had our end of the year meetings. Someone from the management team says ‘Hey Nene, your defensive rebounding numbers were down.’ And Nene got very upset. I jumped in there real fast before Nene reached across the table,” Bzdelik laughs. “All year long we had great examples of Nene blocking people off, making sure DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard and people like that didn’t grab offensive rebounds.”
Every detail matters for a team that’s only guaranteed eight games inside the bubble. Each one essentially has playoff implications, and despite having a favorable schedule that puts their odds of making the postseason at just below a coin flip, there are several teams with a similar record to the Pelicans that will be battling for the Western Conference’s eight seed.
For Bzdelik, who’s in a different time zone, those stakes all but eliminate an off button. Just like everyone else working from home, sometimes, not being on a set schedule can make the duties feel unending. But in a good way: There’s always more film to learn from, or a call to make and an idea to share. From a distance, there’s a desire to make up for what can’t otherwise be done from inside the bubble.
Bzdelik hasn’t been able to communicate with Zion on a daily basis—although, for the record, “he wants to be coached and that’s a great thing.” But midway through an interview last week, Bzdelik’s phone started to buzz with a question from a Pelicans staffer. “Talk about multi-tasking,” he laughed. “I’m driving, talking to you, and I just got a text.” He then reads it out loud: Was this supposed to be Jrue’s help, then Nico’s X-out. Or was Jrue supposed to stay home?
“There’s constant dialogue. As soon as I hang up with you, I’ve gotta watch this clip then get back and make sure he understands what’s supposed to happen.”
Originally Appeared on GQ