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.”