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.”