Hired to revive the University of Nevada men’s basketball team, new coach Eric Musselman advised fans attending Wednesday’s home opener to arrive 20 minutes early to see a team that won only nine games a season ago.
They did so not necessarily to watch the Wolf Pack improve to 4-1 with a victory over Portland State that night but rather to see a memory from Musselman’s childhood — and from Gophers fans of a certain age — realized.
Fifteen years after his father, Bill, died at age 59, Eric Musselman brought back the showy pregame routine with ballhandling and dribbling tricks, as well as juggling and synchronized music that his father popularized while making the Gophers program relevant again in the 1970s.
Entrusted to rebuild a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2007, Musselman showed old warmup video to his players two days after he was hired last March and asked them about perhaps trying it themselves.
The death of Timberwolves coach and executive Flip Saunders — who as a teenager led that Gophers pregame routine by barking out his coach’s commands — last month at age 60 made Wednesday’s re-creation all the more poignant.
Eric Musselman was in grade school when his father brought the routine to Minnesota. “I remember it totally,” he said. “And I scrounged up every bit of video of it I could find.”
Saunders babysat Eric Musselman when he was a boy. In high school, Musselman wore the same uniform No. 14 that Saunders wore as a Gopher.
“The best part of the night, our best execution, was the warmup,” said Musselman, who that night wore a “Flip” lapel pin NBA coaches are wearing this season in Saunders’ memory. “Honest to God, our guys nailed it. I was worried, but it was really, really good. It felt like Flip and my dad were there, watching and smiling.”
His players practiced almost daily for months to duplicate the warmup routine down to every minute detail, except for the guy riding a giraffe unicycle as a fellow named Mike Monson did back in the day.
“We had a guy,” Musselman said. “We were practicing two weeks ago and he came out of the tunnel and fell off the unicycle. ‘Man down,’ we said.”
The student unicyclist went home for the Thanksgiving holiday and missed Wednesday’s game but might make his very own debut Monday when the Wolf Pack plays its next home game.
Musselman discovered his father’s handwritten and typed notes detailing every step of the pregame routine he used to distinguish his Ashland College team in Ohio and brought with him to the University of Minnesota. He found them not long after his father’s death, in an old suitcase hidden in the back of his father’s Florida home.
“I had never seen all that stuff before,” Musselman said. “It had everything: Every player, where he stands, what he does. Obviously, he’s my dad, but what a genius he was to think of it and get a Big Ten champion type of team to do that.”
All of Wednesday’s show was done to a soundtrack Bill Musselman picked out himself, including the 1925 jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” that the Harlem Globetrotters adopted as their theme song and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”
“We went complete and utter old school,” Eric Musselman said, “right off my dad’s script.”
Musselman isn’t certain his players will do the routine at all home games this season. He does know they will do it again for their next home game Monday, with an addition.
“This time,” he said, “hopefully we’ll have the unicyclist.”
The Los Angeles Lakers make their first — and only — visit to Target Center on Wednesday in what very well could be Kobe Bryant’s final time here.
He’s not on an official farewell tour, but it’s enough of one that Lakers coach Byron Scott has reminisced this season about being a witness to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final NBA season in 1989-90.
“It was a circus everywhere we went because everywhere we went it was a farewell tour,” Scott said. “Before every game there were gifts and all this stuff. It was crazy, a little bit of a distraction at times, more for him than us. Everybody was trying to take advantage in a good way of saying how much they appreciated the way that man played all those many years.”
Alike but different
You can call both the Timberwolves and the winless Philadelphia 76ers teams rebuilding. Just don’t call them similar, not with a Wolves team that is miles and miles ahead thanks to the presence of No. 1 overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and point guard Ricky Rubio as well as veterans Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller.
The Sixers and coach Brett Brown have rookie Jahlil Okafor and, well, a bunch of future first-round picks and other assets that won’t help now while they wait for Joel Embiid to get healthy and for Dario Saric to leave Europe for the NBA.
“I don’t even feel like we’re close,” Brown said Monday when the 76ers came to Target Center. “I respect where they’re at. They’re further along than we are. … But we’re comfortable where we’re at.”
Wolves’ Week Ahead
Sunday: 2:30 p.m. at L.A.C.
Tuesday: 7 p.m. vs. Orlando
Saturday: 7 p.m. vs. Portland
Player to watch:
Blake Griffin, Clippers
His game these days is almost as good as his KIA commercials, even if the Clippers have hit a spin.
“That’s KMart. That’s what he does.”
— Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins on getting the ball to Kevin Martin for a slump-busting three-pointer in a home victory over the 76ers