When T.J. Bickerstaff was in seventh grade, he made a choice.
Despite excelling in football, basketball, and baseball, only one captured his heart. He told his father he wanted to focus on basketball, and the reason was simple.
“Dad, come on ... it’s in the blood,” the youngster told his father, Tim.
His grandfather is Bernie Bickerstaff, who started coaching in the NBA in 1973 and held five NBA head coaching jobs, starting in 1985. Bernie was awarded the NBA’s lifetime achievement award in 2014. He was also a general manager for the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting.
T.J.'s uncle, J.B. Bickerstaff, has coached in the NBA since 2004 and been the head man for the Grizzlies and Rockets. He’s currently an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, T.J. is a 6-foot-9 freshman at Drexel, leading the third basketball generation in the Bickerstaff family. People see the name on the back of his No. 23 jersey and begin to wonder. He occasionally gets asked about his relationship to the family. Since his 16-point debut against Temple, fans have asked the question, but the extra attention doesn’t faze him.
“I feel like I’m thankful for the name, but I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and proving myself,” T.J. said earlier this season.
As a senior basketball adviser for the Cavaliers, Bernie would pop up at T.J.’sgames at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Ga., when he was in town scouting. He would tell T.J.’s father to not tell the younger Bickerstaff that he was coming.
“After the game, we talked, but to me, the message we’ve always tried to convey as a family is have fun,” Bernie said. “We didn’t want to put any additional pressure on him.”
The Bickerstaffs are a tight-knit family. Everyone is busy, but they schedule a family trip every summer.
When J.B. was last in town for a Sixers-Cavs matchup, he went to dinner with T.J. the night before the game.
The talk isn’t exclusively about basketball , but it’s the engine that gets everyone going. J.B., Tim, and their three siblings grew up having classic battles. Tim became a football player at North Carolina Central, so J.B. calls him the roughest one.
“Basketball has been so good to our family,” Bernie said. “The one thing that we always try to instill in them is, hey, respect the game.”
That bruising style is what T.J. shows at Drexel. It’s quite the contrast from his quiet, humble demeanor off the court. On the court, he’s usually attacking the rim.
“We don’t ever have to worry about T.J. being aggressive,” Drexel coach Zach Spiker said.
T.J. was raised by Tim and Detra Bickerstaff. Tim has been a basketball coach at Sandy Creek High for nine years. Both parents have seen the progression that T.J. has made, but it wasn’t always viewed that way.
As a high school recruit, T.J. was gaining steam. Memphis, Georgetown, and UConn each offered him a scholarship. After one summer on the AAU circuit, though, those offers disappeared. Playing time, performance, and coaching changes at the schools all played a role.
“When I was down bad, Drexel came to me, and they still wanted me, and I appreciated that,” T.J. said.
Moments like those have fueled his work ethic. Every morning in high school, T.J. would wake up, read his Bible, and watch basketball videos.
After his sophomore year, his uncle took him to the Grizzlies practice facility for a few days that included basketball workouts. J.B. challenged T.J. with extensive agility, defensive, and ball-handling courses.
And the younger Bickerstaff was ready. In fact, he brought pencil and paper to take notes.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this kid has a chance to be a really good player,’ ” J.B. said.
“His work ethic is really good,” Bernie said. “He was willing to put the time in, and I know when his dad and mom were going to take him out [to practice], I never heard him say anything negative like, ‘No, I don’t feel it today.’ ”
T.J. is averaging 5.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 16 minutes a game. Ask the family, and they’ll tell you that it’s just the beginning. Each Bickerstaff lauds the tools T.J. has, because at 6-foot-9, many opponents can’t run and jump like him.