At first glance, the Timberwolves’ team photos from their first two seasons long ago look like any other typical ones that adorn arena walls or media-guide pages, except for the fade haircuts and short shorts that reveal their historical time and place.
But look more closely and start circling some of those young, smiling faces and you’ll discover an NBA expansion team that doubled as an incubator for future coaches.
Six of those smiling faces — four players and two young assistant coaches — went on to become NBA head coaches, and four others coach or coached as league or college assistants. One of the former players, Scott Brooks, coaches Oklahoma City and will direct the West in Sunday’s All-Star Game.
Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was one of them, a 27-year-old former Harvard assistant who landed his first NBA job on original Wolves coach Bill Musselman’s staff after he regularly drove 150 miles from Boston to Albany, N.Y. to observe Musselman’s meticulous CBA practices.
In the 25 years since he was part of the inaugural Wolves team, Thibodeau won a 2008 NBA title while coordinating the Boston Celtics’ defense, then won 62 games and Coach of the Year honors in his rookie season as an NBA head coach and led the East in the 2012 All-Star Game.
“You look at those photos,” he said recently, “and it’s pretty unbelievable.”
He and Musselman’s son, Eric, were the two assistants on those early Wolves teams who became NBA head coaches. So, too, did players Brooks, Sam Mitchell, Tyrone Corbin and Sidney Lowe. All of them except for Corbin found their way into the NBA by playing in the CBA for the former Gophers coach, who seemingly walked that fine line between genius and madman.
Four other players on those first two Wolves teams — Tony Campbell, Tod Murphy, Doug West and Scott Roth — also coached, at every level from high school to the NBA.
On Sunday in New Orleans, Brooks will coach the West in the All-Star Game for the second time in three years.
It’s partly a perk of the job when you coach superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and partly the product of a lifetime’s dedication for a player who perhaps wasn’t good enough to play in the NBA but lasted for 25 years anyway as a backup point guard and coach, thanks in part to Musselman’s fierce, guiding hand.
“He was one of the most disciplined, tough-minded coaches I ever played for and he put you in situations where you were either going to man up or you were going to crumble and quit,” Brooks said, “He separated you pretty quickly.”
Those first two Wolves teams were short on talent but long on smart, driven players, most of whom Musselman coached in the CBA. Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders calls those players “underdogs” who reminded Musselman of himself.
“He always believed there wasn’t anything you couldn’t accomplish,” Saunders said. “Most of his guys who became coaches probably overachieved in their careers.”
Together, those players were bound by their passion for the game, their uncertain futures and by their athletic limitations.
“If I were to go back 25 years and look around the locker room, all I saw was a bunch of guys who were trying their best to stay alive in the NBA, to keep a job, to feed their families,” said Campbell, the star scorer on that inaugural Wolves team who found NBA success after playing for Musselman in the CBA and who now coaches at a Brooklyn, N.Y., prep school. “To see how guys have endured through whatever means they needed to and end up as coaches is a testament to their hard work and their steadfastness.”
Those first two Wolves teams won 22 and 29 games, probably many more than they should have given their athletic talent. They did so through hard work, by thinking the game and surviving Musselman’s demanding practices in which they’d — five players against none — run a single play out of a thick, 150-item playbook over and over until boredom set in, just so he’d be certain they would execute it under any amount of pressure.
“If you’re judging on running and jumping and dunking, we weren’t a talented group,” Brooks said. “But I always judge talent on your effort, and you can have as much talent as some of the most talented athletes in the league, but if you don’t play with effort, you’re wasting your talent. He never allowed any of us to waste any of our talent.”
Now, Brooks coaches two of the NBA’s greatest talents, yet Musselman’s son sees his father’s philosophies regarding how to exploit individual matchups and attack defenses when he watches the Thunder play.
His father once went into a game that inaugural season determined to give big man Randy Breuer the ball until he forced Golden State coach Don Nelson to double-team the center. Nelson refused, so Bill Musselman called the same play all afternoon, until veteran referee Mike Mathis ran down the court calling out “Five Down” himself and until Breuer scored a career-high 40 points in a Wolves’ loss.
“Watch where he puts Durant in different spots on the floor to exploit mismatches,” said Eric Musselman, who coached Golden State and Sacramento and now is an Arizona State assistant. “I know a lot of what Tom Thibodeau did, he learned in those first two years. I’d like to think my dad was way ahead of his time with a lot of things he didn’t get credit for.”
Thibodeau, Brooks and Corbin are part of a Musselman coaching tree that not only includes that collection from those early Wolves teams but also Saunders and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle as well.
Saunders played for Musselman more than a decade earlier at the University of Minnesota and credits him with convincing him to leave college coaching for a CBA job that paid half the money. Without that move to the pros, Saunders is certain his long NBA coaching career never would have happened.
“People talk about Pop’s tree,” Saunders said, referring to San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, under whom Cleveland’s Mike Brown, Orlando’s Jacque Vaughn, Philadelphia’s Brett Brown and Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer all learned. “Bill had like six guys who were NBA coaches, and how many years did he coach in the NBA?”
Musselman lasted less than four seasons with Cleveland and the Wolves in a nomadic coaching career that took him from colleges and pro’s minor leagues to the NBA and back again. Yet 25 years later and long after he died in May 2000 at age 59, Musselman’s strategies and competitive spirit remain part of those he coached briefly long ago.
“I hope his determination, his work ethic,” Corbin said when asked what part of Musselman might be in him as a coach. “He was a tough, tough guy. He had his way of doing things and that was it. He was going to do it his way regardless. These days, you have to be more inclusive.”
Who else would have provoked an opposing player to challenge him to a fight after a game like Utah’s Bob Hansen did long ago one night in Salt Lake City? Hansen approached the Wolves’ bench enraged after Musselman screamed to one of his players, “You just got beat by the worst offensive player in the league.”
“He was funny in that way, people would tell me, ‘Coach Musselman is crazy,’ ” said Lowe, the Wolves’ original point guard and former head coach. “He’d tell a guy he couldn’t make that shot. But if you came back and made a jumper right in his face and said something back to him, he’d love you forever. He’d admire you for your toughness, that you took everything he said and put it right back in his face.”
Those players from those first two teams took the crazy and the sane things their coach did and said they used it to build lives from the same craft.
“What were the odds of all us guys?” said Roth, an original Wolves forward and longtime NBA assistant. “At the time, you wouldn’t have thought it but now if you think back, it translates that we all went down that path. He was a coach who demanded cerebral players — extremely smart, hard-working guys — not just good basketball players. It all makes sense so many guys went into coaching and are doing pretty well at it.
“If he was alive, he’d probably be smiling, and he probably wouldn’t be too surprised about it, actually.”