The unpredictable Page 2 of the Star Tribune print edition on Thursday included this brief shot at coach Tom Thibodeau from the Twitter account @mic_marty: “I went to Twolves tonight and was tied for 9th in minutes played.’’
More effort was required from a fan to express an opinion on this issue publicly in February 1991, when Dan Tongen of Brownton, Minn., sent a letter to the sports editor to share these thoughts on the Timberwolves:
“First, why isn’t Bill Musselman playing his rookies, Felton Spencer and Gerald Glass? They are the future of this team … All in all, this is our team, Bill, not yours, and we will be here longer than you. So play these rookies and they will turn out the same way Pooh [Richardson] did.’’
That was Musselman’s second season and his assistants were Tom Thibodeau, who turned 33 that season, and Eric Musselman, Bill’s 26-year-old son.
Eric, now 53, has had the same vagabond existence as his late father since first becoming a head coach with the Rapid City [S.D.] Thrillers in 1989. He’s now in Year 3 as a successful college coach at Nevada (Reno).
How successful? After last season, Eric received a new contract that raised his base pay from $400,000 to $1 million, making him the highest-paid public employee (officially) in the state of Nevada.
A reporter contacted Musselman on Thursday and offered this opening comment: “Your old friend Thibs is getting a lot of heat for playing his starters too many minutes. Where do you suppose he picked up that tendency?’’
Eric laughed slightly and said: “Yeah, we had a lot of 40-minute guys with my dad. If they earned it, he played them.’’
When you look across the history of Timberwolves, from its beginnings to the present, you can’t avoid the connection between Musselman and Thibodeau. To start with, Musselman stood the entire game and tried to coach every trip, defense and offense, and Thibodeau does the same.
One difference is Musselman spent some of his time trying to agitate the opposition. Thibs only rags on his team.
I mean, The Muss used to tell Karl Malone that he didn’t play defense, and Tim Hardaway that he couldn’t shoot. I doubt if you will hear Thibs telling James Harden that he doesn’t play defense and Chris Paul that he can’t shoot when the Rockets come to town in February.
The raging controversy over minutes in the winter of 1990-91 was based on player development for a second-year expansion team. The raging controversy this time is that Thibodeau is wearing out his stars, as he was alleged to have done with the Chicago Bulls.
Musselman received pressure from co-owner Marv Wolfenson and team President Bob Stein to play the young guys. Thibodeau has a lucrative contract and full basketball power, and the hoop-heads and media are whistling into the wind in demands for change.
Eric Musselman was asked this: Would it be fair to say that your dad and Thibodeau are similar in that they won’t listen to anybody?
“Not at all,’’ Eric said. “Where they are the same is that they are going to do whatever they think gives them the best chance to win that night.
“Thibs has a relationship with and talks to dozens of basketball people. He’s open-minded; he’s always interested in learning what other people are doing, how they look at situations.
“He’s a great friend, but he’s also a great coach … one of the best in the world.’’
Bill Musselman also had endless contacts with whom he talked basketball and asked for ideas. What he didn’t have was the ability to take to heart coaching orders from a fan turned owner, Wolfenson, or a former NFL player, Stein.
“The legend is true: Dad was called up to the office on that day [Feb. 26, 1991] we were playing Dallas,’’ Eric said. “When he came back, I asked, ‘What was that about?’ He said, ‘They want me to play Gerald Glass.’ ”
And then Eric asked his father what he was going to do?
“I’m going to play the guys who can win the game for us,’’ Bill said.
Timberwolves 100, Dallas 94. Minutes: Tyrone Corbin 48, Tony Campbell 46, Sam Mitchell 46, Pooh Richardson 43, Felton Spencer 35, bench 22, Gerald Glass 0.
Musselman was fired six weeks later, but he won the game that night, and that’s what always counted for The Muss.
Keep whistling, folks, while Thibodeau keeps using the players that he imagines winning the game that night.