Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast Episode 33: J. B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers Head Coach

Men’s Journal’s Everyday Warrior With Mike Sarraille is a podcast that inspires individuals to live more fulfilling lives by having conversations with disrupters and high performers in all walks of life. In episode 33, we spoke to J. B. Bickerstaff, head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Listen to the full episode above (scroll down for the transcript) and see more from this series below.

This interview has not been edited for length or clarity.


Mike Sarraille:

Welcome back to the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast. I’m your host, Mike Sarraille. I am joined by coach J. B. Bickerstaff, head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Coach, thank you for, for joining us and, uh, congrats on the undeniable progress of inheriting a, uh, a young team, uh, with what was, you know, two back to back losing seasons and turning that around, especially finishing 44 and 38. That’s, uh, that’s huge.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Yeah, no, I appreciate it. Happy to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.

Mike Sarraille:
Hey, coach, first off, you know, we, we’ll get into it, but I have a huge fascination. You know, we in the military, uh, don’t read books about the military. When we’re in it. We, we usually pick up books about leaders in different industries, and one of those is, it always seems to be athletics. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, There’s just something undeniable about, uh, you know, amazing coaches that build these, these winning cultures, hopefully these healthy winning cultures. Cuz just cuz you have a winning culture does not mean that the actual culture for the, the, the players and everyone else is, uh, is healthy. But I found this article and just allow me to read this cuz this, this, this is what made me excited. And I think it speaks volumes to what you’re trying to build here. Northeast Ohio loves to imagine itself as a gritty and resilient place.

Mike Sarraille:
It is a region where, in the words of LeBron James, it’s most famous native son. Nothing is given. Everything is earned. It’s not that Cleveland’s natives will scorn a flashy dunk, but that performing one will not endear you to them quite like getting tangled up with an opponent enforcing a jump ball. The junkyard dog chain is a way for the team to lean into the Rust Belt City’s self image, a way to reward the toughness in the scrappiness that many of its fans prize in value. And for a franchise that has struggled to identify, uh, to find an identity apart from LeBron James over the past two decades, this could be a way to create and reclaim one. The ca The Cavaliers have been one of the NBA’s most surprising, uh, teams this season, referring to the, to the last season, entering the year with the most projections, uh, expecting them to win between only 25 to 30 games.

Mike Sarraille:
And of course, you guys came out with 44 wins, despite being hampered by injuries and slowing down since their hot start. Cleveland still appears to be one of the most promising young teams in the NBA with Evan Mobley, Darius Garland, and Jarrett Allen looking for a trio of future stars. Cleveland Ceiling appears to be higher than terminal towers. The hope is that team, that, that the team will continue to refine itself, playing a more intentional style that also retains the scrap mentality and intensity that coach bigger staff is rewarding each night with the chain. The junkyard dog chain may not, uh, ensure this happiness, but it does provide an incentive for it to remain throughout the rest of the season and perhaps beyond. That’s, that’s a pretty good damn, uh, article. How does that make you feel, man? Uh,

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Good. Uh, you know, and I’m, you know, getting goosebumps, you know, listening to us. The first, um, that I’ve heard of that I didn’t, you know, read the article in advance or anything like that. Um, and, you know, it’s what we aim for and, you know, whoever wrote that, um, put it beautifully into words that, you know, as a coaching staff, we sit down for hours upon hours, and then we get on the floor with our guys and the relationships we build with our guys to get them pointed in that direction. Um, and, you know, as we think about who we are, so, you know, you take this job, for me, it’s also about, you know, how do we connect with our fan base? And, you know, there’s nothing greater than sport to get people together. And when a team can reflect its fan base, I think you create something really, really special. So as we talk about, you know, our core values and what we want our identity to be, you know, we want our identity to be something that our fan base, which is unique, can identify with and feel like they’re a part of. Uh, and so that’s kind of what we aim to do, and that’s where all this really, really started from.

Mike Sarraille:
So that doesn’t fall in deaf ears that you guys understand. You are very much the pride of the city for, for that that young police officer or that, you know, factory worker that gets off work that is looking to forward to 6:00 PM in that tip off, you guys completely understand that you represent

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Yeah. That, and that’s, that’s what it’s about. You know what I mean? Like we, you know, obviously there are so many things that come with this game, right? And with the sport of basketball, but at the end of the day, we know, you know, how important we can be to our fans. We know you can have an awful day. And, you know, when we tip that ball off, like we can change people’s moods and we do, you know, you watch when you’re, you know, in the building and a crowd, you know, the crowd erupts over, you know, a play, a run, whatever it may be. Like, we understand the impact that we have on others, uh, and that’s why we do what we do. It’s like, and I, and I’m so proud of our guys because they’ve been able to buy in some, to something greater than themselves and sacrifice of themselves to do that. So they understand that, you know, the three point shot that Darius Garland makes Yeah. You know, can change a kid’s <laugh> day, You know what I mean? Like, he can have a terrible day. You know, Darius goes off for 30 points or whatever, and that young fan who’s maybe the first time he ever got to see Darius play, he’s gonna be impacted for a long, long time because of that. So our guys are extremely mindful of that. And like, that’s the reason why we play the way that we play.

Mike Sarraille:
That’s, that’s huge impact. Uh, we talk about impact pretty much on every podcast. It’s, you know, we often say, and my listeners are probably getting tired of hearing it, is that impact is the greatest currency in life. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, you don’t take anything with you when you, you die. Right? But those, those, those memories, uh, stay behind and, and for our listeners, you know, I read that and before we, we started this podcast, JB coach JB said that, uh, I don’t read articles. And, and uh, you also said, cuz you know, we brought up that one critics can be pretty nasty as well as people behind the keyboards who hide behind anonymity. But you just said you guys put on the wall, the man in the arena, uh, sort of speech mm-hmm. <affirmative> from, uh, from Teddy Roosevelt mm-hmm. <affirmative> that, you know, the, the, the man in the arena, uh, is everything, you know, disregard the, the, the critics. That’s, uh, that’s huge. And that, that is a, I mean, help we even had that on the walls Yeah. Of our facilities. Yeah. In the, uh, in the military. Yeah.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Okay. Uh, we, uh, it’s, it’s, you know, again, it’s understanding your purpose <laugh>, you know what I mean? And blocking out all the other things that can impact you in a negative way. And understanding the courage that it takes, like to step on this scene, you know, to be a part of this, to be willing to take the criticism from, you know, those people with Twitter fingers, um, you know, and just show up every single night and then be there in the moment and have the courage, you know, to make the play or take the shot. Like, it’s not easy, you know, like people see the glamour behind these guys and, you know, the lifestyle they’re able to live. But, you know, to be able to handle those moments and to be able to fail in front of everybody and then come back tomorrow and do it again, you know, that’s not an easy thing to do. And that takes, you know, uh, an immense amount of courage from all of these guys.

Mike Sarraille:
Yeah. And it’s unfortunate that we’re in a state where people will pick apart people that accept risk to do something exceptional. And if they fail, it’s almost like they’re there to just keep them down. Right?

J. B. Bickerstaff:
That’s what theyre looking for. That bothers that part. Yeah. I agree with

Mike Sarraille:
You. Uh, when we should, I mean, hell dude, America’s one big underdog story, right? In Cleveland is almost like an underdog story. You just love that, that gritty nature as they said that, you know, the rust Belt city is, is people that just scrap mm-hmm. <affirmative> scrap. Uh, so, you know, one of, one of the things is, uh, coach is one of the most endearing, uh, accolades. The, you know, uh, a title I hold dear, and it’s, it’s earned, It’s not given. And I know you’ve gotta earn that, uh, in front of your guys as well. You’ve gotta build genuine relationships. You’ve gotta show that you genuinely care. Um, I know coaching is in your blood, but, uh, what, what does that title mean to you?

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Um, you know, it, it means a lot. Um, it’s one of those things and you know, I I say this time and time again, like I was extremely fortunate growing up that I never had to look outside my house for a role model. Right? A lot of people can’t say that. Um, you know, my dad was a basketball coach and my mom was a teacher. So, so for me, you know, as I was growing up every single day, I got to watch them do for others. And that’s how, you know, we were raised. It’s like, you know, I would go to class with my mom and I would watch her teach kids and I would watch, you know, her relationships with those kids left a long lasting impact. And she was able to reach kids that other teachers who just went there for the job weren’t able to do because, you know, she would spend extra time with them and build those relationships that you were talking about with them.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
And I watched how much more receptive they were because they actually believed and they genuinely knew that she cared about them, uh, and wanted to see them be successful. Yeah. And there, those, there’s those moments where you see them get it, you know, turns off teach. Yeah. And it’s like, you know, you may spend hours and hours and hours with people and then all of a sudden it clicks. And like, that was one of the things that I remember, you know, watching my mom do. And, you know, her response when they got it and then the kids’ response when they got it, um, is something that I always remember. And then, you know, obviously, uh, my dad was a longtime coach, but what I was, you know, what we learned to do is understand what coaching really is. It’s the same as teaching, you know, and every single day, that’s how we go about what we do is, you know, we are teaching people, but you have to understand how important your role is also.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
And, you know, you talked about, you know, the impact being that currency, but like, we have an op an opportunity to impact people’s lives for a long time. Um, whether you’re working with kids or you’re working with these guys. And, and, and that’s the thing is like people feel like, you know, we get ’em at 19 or even, you know, 25 or 30, whatever it means, and people feel like they’re done. But there’s so much more that we all have to learn. And there’s so much more that we can give, you know, that Kevin Love, for example, right? He and I are gonna have a relationship for the rest of our lives. And it started when he was 19 years old in Minnesota when I was there when we drafted him then. Yep. You know, and then come full circle and now we’re here together. Um, but like we won’t ever stop talking. And you know, I think like as a coach, you know, you have to understand the impact that you can’t have negative or positive, right? Like some of the worst memories that I have growing up is because I had a coach who was an asshole and he thought that, you know, he was more important than what legacy that he was gonna leave for the kids. Um, and you know, you learn from those, those things as well.

Mike Sarraille:
You, you learn from bad leaders as much as you learn from

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Good. Right? Exactly.

Mike Sarraille:
Yeah. But you, the thing I wanna reinforce is that, that that title coach is not just athletics. No. If you are a father or a mother, you are very much a, uh, a coach. Um, you know, I, I do want to ask this cuz you know, as we do research in, in, we know when LeBron left, you know, the, the calves fell in some hard years, they’re rebuilding. So you inherit a team that had back-to-back seasons where they only won 19 games. What I think when percentage, that’s about 0.275. When you take and inherit that situation in your mind, what is that first step you take?

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Uh, it, it’s getting the guys to believe, you know, that we can get out of where we are and then earning their trust, you know, that we can show them the way. Um, and you know, I mean, cuz like, when you are struggling and when you are losing, the hardest thing to do in our business is to teach people how to win. You know, people don’t really understand how difficult winning, you know, in professional sports or anything, whatever you’re facing, Right. To get a win is extremely difficult. To win consistently is even more difficult. Uh, and teaching people how to win in our business because so much as we grow up is focused on the individual. Right? Like, it’s all about the kid who’s the best player. Yeah. So getting people to understand and buy into something bigger than themselves is the first thing that you have to do that’s beautiful.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
And you’ve gotta earn that, you know, every single day. But it’s, it’s by your actions, right? It’s how you walk every single day. It’s how you carry yourself every single day. It’s how you communicate every single day. Like that forms a relationship and a trust that people know that they can depend on you because you’re gonna be the same way every single day. You know, if you’re riding that emotional rollercoaster and you know, you’re up and down, like people won’t be able to depend on you. And that’s what our job is. And guys have to know, like, I can count on him every single day.

Mike Sarraille:
It’s, it’s amazing when, when, you know, I’ve got an amazing job where I could talk to leaders all the time. And, and Mel Tucker said something that I’ve totally, I believe when it comes to leadership, plagiarism is absolutely allowed. <laugh>, um, I mean, hell, I mean you read Teddy Roosevelt and then you, you pull that into your leadership style, right? But he said success leaves bread breadcrumbs. And, and I love how, you know, you’re saying things, you know, a lot of leaders say that their values are baked into every conversation they have. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, in, in in that vein, um, you know, I love that you’re, you’re building in the words this scrap mentality and this intensity. And you guys have adopted, which, you know, Lamar Stevens, one of your young players drove this, this junkyard dog mentality, which is so funny. Cause my dad always used to use that. He always used to say, Hey Ellis, my last name is Sorrelli Uhhuh. Uh, we’re not the smartest, but we worked the hardest. Hardest. Right. We gotta earn everything that, that we do. So behind this junkyard dog, uh, mentality, you’ve attached five core values. And I just want to, I want to have you hit these briefly. They are details together, compete, toughness in one more, just briefly explain these and why you’ve chosen these, uh, these core values behind this junkyard dog mentality.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
So, you know, when you take over a job, right, you know, we talk about what is it gonna take to be a successful team? You know what I mean? Like, what are the things that every single day you focus on that can translate into a successful team? It’s again, part of bringing in, you know, your fan base and how you find that connectedness to your fan base and what they’ll appreciate as well as, you know, how do you build team mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so, you know, you sit down and you think about it and it’s, those are the five, you know, that came to, you know, mind after, you know, uh, you know, thinking about it time and time again. It’s like, you know the details and what, what we do. And I wish, you know, I had it with me, but like, literally go to the dictionary and we’ll go through this with our guys the definition of each of these words.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
You’re kidding. Yeah. And, and so like, the details definition is, it’s like, it’s all the small things that come together that can create a beautiful piece of art. And like when you watch basketball and when things are done the proper way, like it’s a beautiful thing to watch. Yeah. And I’m sure it translates to, you know, everything, football, basketball, business, whatever it is. But like, when you watch all the little things and it creates that beautiful work of art, like you see that on the court. Yeah. You know, and it’s not something that just happened by accident. Yep. It’s something that the five guys on the floor, you know, made conscious decisions to do things a particular way to get you to that point. And so, like, that’s one of the things that stood out, you know, the toughness piece of it. Um, like, you know, it, it’s that grit.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
It’s that, you know, physical force that you can feel. And it’s also the mental piece of it. Yes. Like how do you handle adversity when things are bad? You know, where do you go? Um, you know, do you stay in it? Do you fight or do you run, You know, And, and we try to simplify it to that, like every situation, those are the two choices you have, Right? If I can fight or run. Yeah. You know what I mean? And like, our guys aren’t running. Um, and that’s kind of the, you know, that’s the mentality that we have. You know, at the end of the day, it’s competition. And competition isn’t always just the final, uh, tick on the scoreboard. Right? The competition is every single play, there’s a battle that has to to happen, right? Like, are you going to guard your man?

J. B. Bickerstaff:
Are you gonna fight over a screen, you know, uh, offensively are you gonna work to get to your spot? Like, there’s so many small moments of competition that you need to win in a game in order to be successful. But like, it’s a mindset that you have to have. Like you have to be willing to compete, uh, every single possession. Um, you know, the one more is it, it’s everything. So we use the term on the floor, like to make it extra pass. We use it one more, right? But like, the one more is something bigger for us. It’s one more shot, it’s one more rep, it’s one more rotation. It’s one more effort. Like, if you’re always willing to give the one more, then you give yourself an opportunity to outwork your opponent, which is, you know, something that we take a ton of pride.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
And so, um, you know, trying to put all those things together and every single day, like, you know, we bring it in. Like we only use those words. Uh, and then, you know, it’s pretty, like you’ll watch and you’ll see, and then the guy starts speaking it, and once they start to see it becomes a common language, right? And then now we’re all on the same page, we’re all thinking it. Um, and you know, it, it’s, it helps you hold true to who you are, you know, and what your identity is. And you’re not always searching for something different. Like, you can maintain that focus and stay, you know, stay, stay there. Um, you know, I guess I can now, maybe the time we can, let’s, let’s see it. Yeah. This, we’ve been waiting for this, um, you know, and it’s, it’s, this is, you know, our junkyard dog chain, right?

J. B. Bickerstaff:
And I think it is recognition of, you know, the guy that had it, you know, that night. And the best part about it is like, we don’t give this to the highest score. Yes. You know what I mean? Like, we give this to the guy who scrapped, who scrapped the most, uh, and who personified that scrap. Uh, and you know, the last word, and you know, for us, the, you know, arguably the most important is together, right? Like, we don’t walk the walk as individuals. Every time we walk the walk, we walk it together. And every time we go into a game, like we go in it together. And what we sold our guys on last year was, you know, at the start of the year, nobody knew what we were gonna be. Right? Everybody had written us off, we were going back to the lottery.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
We were, you know, all those things. But our conversation from day one was, we not, we might not be the most talented group on the floor, but what we can control is we can be the best team on the floor. And you watch it and you could see it like, we go back and watch film and you just stare at our bench. You don’t even have to watch the game, just stare at our bench. And you could see that bench pulling for the guys on the floor. You know, we play the same position. It didn’t matter, right? Like Kevin, love, you know, five time All star, world champion Gold medalist was on that bench. And he was cheering for Evan Mobley, who he arguably could have been, you know, drafted to replace him. But Kevin never took that mindset where it was a, you know, uh, a negative competition.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
It was, we are team. And, you know, his sacrifice allowed me to coach this team in a way that if he didn’t, it would’ve made my job more difficult. Um, but that’s the togetherness that we’re talking about. And that’s the only way you can be successful in this thing, is if you all do it together and you know, you already have an opponent, right? And you’ve gotta go fight that opponent. If you’re fighting yourselves, you never give yourself an opportunity to be successful. And so, like all those words together, you know, uh, were, were allowed us, you know, to exceed expectations of others.

Mike Sarraille:
Well, coach, uh, I’ve gotta thank you for your time. I, I know, uh, you know, talking to people in Cleveland, they said, Hey, you people are very kind here. They’re like, What are you doing here? I’m, I’m like, Hey, I’m going to interview, uh, Coach jb, uh, they speak with affection. I know the people of Cleveland, uh, love you and what you’re doing for anyone, uh, a father, a mother leader of a business or, or whatever industry you’re in, Watch Coach JB and the culture you guys are building. Um, you can learn a lot. And, uh, I’m excited to see what you guys do this season and, and continue the street that you’ve built. And, uh, again, congratulations to you and all the boys and, uh, we’ll be in your corner.

J. B. Bickerstaff:
No, I appreciate that. Thank you for having me. Absolutely.

Mike Sarraille:
All right, guys, thanks for joining us. Again, this is the Men’s Journal, Everyday Warrior. I’m your host, Mikes Reley. Until next.

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