Not long after Bill Musselman’s death in 2000, Eric Musselman visited his father’s Florida home to sort through his belongings.
He came across a worn brown suitcase tucked away in a closet. Figuring it was nothing important, Eric started to discard it. Instead, he opened it just in case.
Inside, he found a meticulous diagram of a prized possession that symbolized Musselman’s ingenuity as a basketball coach.
Eric discovered his father’s quirky pregame routine outlined in painstaking detail.
“I was half-crying and half-laughing,” Eric said, “because I honestly think that he protected that and had it hidden because he didn’t ever want anyone else to do that.”
Gophers fans have long held Williams Arena in reverence because of the Barn’s antiquated charm and home-court advantage that it provides when bursting with noise.
That romanticism can be traced to Musselman and his pregame warmup, which gave the Barn its soul and made Gophers basketball the hottest ticket in town in the early 1970s.
As a new Big Ten season approaches, the current Gophers can only hope to make the old arena shake the way it did when the theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey” would strike and Musselman’s players came bounding up the stairs.
“When you went up on the floor,” former point guard Flip Saunders said, “you were more worried about the pregame than you were about playing Indiana, Michigan and those other teams.”
The routine mimicked a Harlem Globetrotters act, featuring a glorious mix of basketball, big-top flair and circus tricks. Players juggled basketballs. They had fancy ball-handling maneuvers. Everything was scripted and synchronized to music.
One player juggled a ball on his foot like a soccer player and then bounced it off his head to a teammate. Musselman gave a scholarship to a player known as “Crazy George” primarily because he was a ball-handling wizard who could wow the crowd.
One season, Musselman gave a drummer in the pep band a spot on the team after watching him juggle three basketballs while riding a unicycle. Never mind that the drummer hadn’t played basketball since sixth grade.
The warmup became Musselman’s pride and joy, and fans loved it. In the five seasons before Musselman’s arrival, the Gophers averaged 7,202 fans for home games. They averaged 16,004 in Musselman’s four seasons. They crammed 19,121 into the Barn one night, to the chagrin of the fire marshal.
Fans filled Williams Arena an hour before tipoff to make sure they didn’t miss the warmup. Games became so popular that the school moved overflow crowds to the hockey rink adjacent to Williams Arena and showed the game on closed-circuit TV. Some nights fans left immediately after the warmup.
“I still have people come up to me,” said Saunders, current Timberwolves coach and basketball boss. “They might not remember anything about our team, but they remember the pregame warmup.”
Even former opponents couldn’t help but notice. A YouTube video taken before the Indiana game in 1975 reveals a few Hoosiers taking a peek at the Gophers, even though they were instructed to pay no attention.
Hoosiers great Quinn Buckner admits now that he glanced “but I wasn’t taking note.”
“It was basically, ‘What in the heck are they doing?’ ” he said.
• • •
Opinions vary on the genesis of Musselman’s routine. His coach at Wittenberg College, Ray Mears, believed in pregame showmanship. Some say Musselman became fascinated by a group of youth ball-handling whizzes from Ohio called the Dover Basketeers. Or maybe it was his spin-off of the Globetrotters act.
Whatever the case, Musselman debuted his routine at Ashland College in the 1960s.
“I think he truly believed that the showmanship, getting the crowds in the arena, that led to more wins,” said Kris Musselman Platt, who was married to Musselman from 1963-83. “He just felt like it was a psychological advantage.”
As a coach, Musselman was intense and demanding, a rigid disciplinarian. He sent players on long conditioning runs while wearing weighted vests. He himself would dive headfirst in loose-ball drills.
He became a perfectionist with his pregame warmup as well. Players rehearsed it over and over the day before games. One minor slip-up and they had to start over from the beginning.
“We were not allowed out of the arena until we had it perfect,” Saunders said.
Musselman viewed his warmup as important for skill development, especially for post players who performed the intricate ball-handling drills like everyone else.
“We took a lot of pride in it because you don’t want to go out there and be the one fumbling around and getting off rhythm because you’re bumbling with the ball,” star center Mychal Thompson said.
At Ashland, Musselman signed a player named George Schauer, who learned to spin 11 basketballs at one time with the help of a contraption. Schauer also could spin a ball on his finger, toss it over his head and catch it behind his back.
Fans knew him as Crazy George. He found a kindred spirit in Musselman.
“He was the best salesman I’ve ever known,” Schauer said. “He was the master of hyperbole. The guy could sell salt water to the ocean. He could sell milk to a dairy farmer.”
Musselman sold Schauer on the idea of coming to Minnesota with him to perform his act with the Gophers after leaving Ashland College.
• • •
Saunders performed that warmup so many times that he still remembers the order of songs 40 years later. The excitement players felt upon hearing the crowd noise and music blaring while they waited below the court still resonates in their recollections.
“It’s easy to have your stomach up in your throat,” Schauer said. “It would be dark down in that tunnel. That noise would hit you, your eardrums are about to break. Coming up those stairs, it’s like, ‘Oh my god.’ With your adrenaline, your feet never hit the floor.”
Saunders became the show’s “ringleader” who initiated every drill. At one point, he would spin a ball on each pointer finger and then kick both balls to Phil Filer at the free-throw line.
Saunders finished that part of the routine by dribbling to the sideline and then back to Filer, who jumped in the air, allowing Saunders to run underneath him. Filer tossed another ball over his head toward the basket, where Saunders caught it and shot a layup.
Osborne Lockhart performed tricks with his feet. Lockhart was a talented basketball player, but soccer was his best sport. He played on the Bahamas’ national team as a teenager. Musselman loved the soccer flair he provided.
“I fit right in,” Lockhart said.
So did Schauer, who could juggle four basketballs or spin them on his fingers while doing tricks. He said he never flubbed his act in two seasons.
As an actual basketball player, Schauer described himself as a “hustler.” He appeared in seven games in two seasons and scored two points, which made headlines in the newspaper.
“It was one of the great moments in American history,” Schauer said. “Landing on Plymouth Rock, the Alamo and I scored a basketball at Williams Arena. I still have a Big Ten scoring record that may never be broken. Least points in a career.”
Mike Monson didn’t score — or even play — during his one season on the team, 1974-75. He was perfectly fine with that.
Monson was a musician. He taught himself to play a drum set while holding seven sticks with different body parts.
He learned to juggle after watching a marching band baton twirler. He bought a unicycle after seeing a festival performer.
In his first two years of college Monson played in the Gophers pep band. He knew Schauer was graduating, so in September 1974, he went to Musselman’s office and offered to perform some tricks for him in the gym.
Monson hopped on his unicycle and rode around the court while juggling basketballs. He spun a ball on his mom’s old ski pole and balanced it on his chin.
Afterward, Musselman took Monson back to his office and posed a question.
“How would you like to be on the team?” he said.
Monson was floored.
“Sure,” he said, “I’d love to be on the team.”
In practices, Monson did only conditioning drills and warmup rehearsals. He didn’t know the offense and really couldn’t dribble that well.
He made only one mistake during his routine that year. He dropped two balls while juggling and fell off his unicycle.
“Forty years ago Tuesday,” Monson said recently.
Yes, he still remembers the exact date.
“When you make a terrible mistake like that,” he said, “you really concentrate on it.”
Monson got back on his unicycle and finished his routine, drawing the loudest ovation of the season.
Musselman said nothing to him about his mistake. The next day, the Gophers reviewed their warmup routine in a film session. Musselman showed the clip of Monson falling off his unicycle and getting back up. He pushed rewind and showed it again. And again. And again.
He never said a word.
“I’m sinking in my chair,” Monson recalled. “Down, up, down, up. Finally he stopped. That was the only thing he did.”
Musselman even included his son in the warmup one night. Crazy George planned the whole thing. He performed his tricks and then began pointing to the crowd, as if looking for a volunteer.
He finally motioned to Eric, who came running onto the court. He was about 7 years old. Eric spun the ball on his finger and then dribbled two balls.
The place went crazy.
Eric ran back to his mom, tears streaming down his face. She consoled him and asked what was wrong.
“Mom,” he said, “I wet my pants.”
The excitement in the Barn had gotten the best of him.
• • •
Letters arrived at the Musselman home from all over the country from people asking for scholarships. Some actually could play basketball.
“They said they could ride a unicycle and juggle,” Eric recalled.
Eric described his father as “20, 30 years ahead of his time” in terms of understanding the entertainment value of sports. But not everyone appreciated Musselman’s production.
Critics blamed Musselman’s vigor as the root of the infamous brawl with Ohio State in 1972. His pregame warmup and hyper-competitiveness were pilloried as going too far in firing up his players.
“I don’t think that Bill Musselman ever expected to get players to a point where it would be that kind of reaction,” said Platt, his former wife. “I think that was so hurtful to him, not only professionally but personally. He just loved the game so much and he loved the players and the teaching and the fun of it all. That was really something that was very deeply hurtful to him.”
Several of his players say they owe Musselman a debt of gratitude that’s immeasurable. Lockhart became a member of the Globetrotters for 17 years after leaving school.
Musselman encouraged Monson to change majors and become a gym teacher. He’s in his 36th year of teaching, the past 35 as an elementary school gym teacher. He still rides a unicycle and teaches his students his tricks.
Schauer continues to perform his act as an in-game entertainer for the Dallas Mavericks’ Developmental League team. Schauer has held basketball clinics for kids all over the world.
“Every check that I’ve cashed the last 46 years is because of Musselman,” he said.
Saunders loved that warmup routine so much that he said he would have reinstituted it had he taken the Gophers job a few years ago. Eric Musselman, who is now an associate coach at LSU, believes his father’s routine would be a smashing success again four decades later.
“There’s no question that it would absolutely, unequivocally blow the doors off any place that tried it,” he said. “Midnight Madness and all of that stuff is nothing compared to what went on back then.”