CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Pat Riley still remembers the first time he met Bernie Bickerstaff at a San Diego playground.
``Back in 1967, he used to come up to the park we played at and he'd have on cutoff jeans, old Converse low-cuts with no socks and that was it,'' The Miami Heat coach recalled last week. ``He brought his buddies with him and we played shirts and skins. So we go back a long way.''
While Riley is widely considered one of the top coaches in NBA history, Bickerstaff often has been overlooked for his contribution to the league. But as he prepares for his final game Wednesday as coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, the University of San Diego graduate with questionable basketball attire has earned respect within the league.
``I love Bernie. He's one of the best the NBA's ever had,'' Riley said. ``There isn't anybody in the NBA that knows Bernie Bickerstaff that doesn't care a lot about him. He's one of the class guys around.''
Bickerstaff, who has served as coach and general manager of the expansion Bobcats since their inception, will step down as coach after three seasons. He will likely stay in some role with the team, possibly as GM, but has said his coaching career is over.
``I've had some time to prepare myself. I'm fine,'' Bickerstaff said. ``I know where to go and what I need to do. Life's about being OK with yourself.''
Bickerstaff has refused to discuss next season. Part-owner Michael Jordan, who has final say on all basketball decisions, has said he wants Bickerstaff to have a role in the front office and Bickerstaff has said he wants to stay. His exact title could be decided after the new coach is hired.
In more than 30 years in the NBA as an assistant, head coach and general manager, the 62-year-old Bickerstaff won an NBA title as an assistant in Washington, was selected coach of the year in Seattle and drafted players ranging from Dikembe Mutombo to Emeka Okafor in GM stints with Denver and Charlotte.
While his overall record is just 415-516, he demands, and receives, respect.
``I always heard, 'You'll love him because he's respectful,''' said Bobcats guard Derek Anderson, who signed with Charlotte in November. ``He sometimes swallows his pride just to get what he needs to get done for his team. A lot of coaches want the prime time, they want to make sure I get a contract. But it's obvious he doesn't care about that. He doesn't deviate from what he believes.''
His beliefs center most on hard work and being fair. But he's also tough. Bickerstaff waived guard Kareem Rush last season because he felt he wasn't dedicated. Last month, Bickerstaff challenged forward Sean May to lose weight and get into better shape.
And he's old school. There are no chairs or bleachers in the practice gym because there is no sitting down during practice.
He's been criticized as a bench coach, but Bickerstaff has been credited with creating a core of young talent in Charlotte. He got budding star Gerald Wallace in the expansion draft, traded up to draft Emeka Okafor and signed little-known Walter Herrmann, who is on a tear to end the season.
The Bobcats have also improved from 18 wins in their first season to 26 last year and 33 heading into Wednesday's finale against New York - all without signing a big-name free agent.
``I think he's done an extraordinary job here of building a franchise, bringing in talent,'' said Riley after the Heat lost twice to the Bobcats in three nights. ``He's staying to the budget, obviously, of what they wanted. From the looks of it out there, some of these players are maturing and he's got his fingerprints all over it.''
When asked Tuesday what made him most proud of his final team, Bickerstaff didn't hesitate.
``The professionalism of the young men. Their commitment to effort. The synergism they have in the locker room,'' he said. ``Whatever the circumstances have been, they've found a way to improve each year.''
Anderson, who has played for seven NBA teams, believes it's vital Bickerstaff has an important role with the Bobcats.
``He's one of the rare people and he'll be greatly missed,'' Anderson said. ``I just hope he sticks around. You never had to worry about us. We always played hard.''

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