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Steve Aschburner

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All-Star coaches Scott Brooks (left) and Tom Thibodeau both spent time with the Timberwolves.
NBAE via Getty Images

All-Star coaches Brooks, Thibodeau come from same NBA tree


Posted Feb 24 2012 12:43PM

ORLANDO -- Apples don't fall far from the tree, they say, which makes it easy enough to find the apples -- if you know where the tree is.

The NBA has a forest's worth of coaching trees, many obvious and familiar: Red Auerbach and all the coaches he produced out of the Boston Celtics' dynasty. The University of North Carolina guys (Larry Brown, Doug Moe, George Karl and on and on). Pat Riley's in Los Angeles (Byron Scott), New York (Jeff Van Gundy) and Miami (Erik Spoelstra).

Gregg Popovich has a solid tree going. Phil Jackson's so far is surprisingly small, thanks to the veteran assistants he often favored. Some of them overlap or branch off; Pop, for instance, was a Don Nelson guy, who was an Auerbach guy. But one coaching tree largely overlooked will get its day in the sun Sunday at the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando: the Bill Musselman tree.

For all their travels in pro basketball, across franchises, leagues and a hundred different influences and lessons, Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks shared a season together under Musselman that significantly shaped them as successful future NBA head coaches. Successful enough, after all, that Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls and Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder will coach the East and West All-Star teams this weekend at Amway Center.

They are two of the prize apples from Musselman's surprisingly big coaching tree: Thibodeau was named NBA Coach of the Year last spring, winning the award that Brooks claimed in 2010. Three years before that, Sam Mitchell -- who will tell anyone who'll listen that he owes his NBA career to Musselman -- was Coach of the Year with the Toronto Raptors.

That makes it three COY winners, a record that only Auerbach can touch among the tall trees. And then there are others who came from the unlikeliest of sources, the 1990-91 Minnesota Timberwolves squad (or just before or after that season with Musselman). Consider: Tyrone Corbin, a forward on that team, is head coach of the Utah Jazz. Sidney Lowe, a point guard for several seasons under Muss in the NBA and CBA, is a Jazz assistant who worked 307 games as head coach of the Timberwolves and Grizzlies. Eric Musselman, the head coach's son, was an assistant alongside Thibodeau and would coach at Golden State and Sacramento, in the CBA and internationally, before working most recently in the D-League with the L.A. D-Fenders.

Bill Musselman
Former coach Bill Musselman helped lay the foundation for several coaches under him.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Forward Scott Roth is with Toronto now and has been an assistant at other stops. Forward Tod Murphy is in his third season as head coach of the Fighting Scots at Division III Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. Even Tony Campbell, the designated gunner on those early Timberwolves teams, is the unlikely coach at Bay Ridge Preparatory School in Brooklyn, N.Y. Campbell recently had lengthy stories about him and his kids featured in the Wall Street Journal and the N.Y. Daily News.

Musselman's tree doesn't have the same cachet of some others -- he was 78-180 in the NBA with Cleveland and Minnesota, 7-30 briefly in the ABA -- but it's hard to argue with the yield it has produced.

"Three Coaches of the Year. What other coaching tree can say that?" Mitchell said Thursday in a phone interview from his Georgia home. "People talk about Phil Jackson and Pat Riley and these other people, but as far as developing head coaches, look at what Bill Musselman has done.

"Muss liked players who were tough competitors, who were smart and who wouldn't give in. Those are the positives you have to have to be a coach. You can't cave. You have to plant your feet firmly and stand up for what you believe."

Thibodeau got his shot in Chicago after logging 20 seasons as an NBA assistant, ranging from the equivalent of a player-development guy (before they called it that) to valued associate head coach to Doc Rivers in Boston. But he got into the league when Musselman took a shining to the assistant coach from Harvard, inviting him to some practices of his CBA Albany Patroons, then offering him a job when the expansion Timberwolves called in 1988.

"The first time I saw a pro practice, it was Bill's in Albany," Thibodeau said. "I was utterly amazed that first time, just by the number of play that they ran. And by Bill's teaching ability. He liked players who had toughness, who loved to win, who were intelligent. I don't think it's any accident that so many of those players went into coaching."

Brooks was a plugger, like Thibodeau, but from the players' side. He lasted 11 seasons in the NBA, playing in 680 for seven different teams and starting exactly seven games more than non-playing Thibodeau. He averaged 4.9 points and 2.4 assists, hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers and was on the roster of the 1994 Rockets team that won the NBA championship. But Brooks spent as much time on the bench as a lifelong assistant, same as Thibodeau, watching and studying players with far greater skill sets.

"Hardest work and most competitive guy I know," Murphy said of Brooks. "How do you survive in the NBA for 11 years at 5-11 and not [being] the greatest athlete in the world if you don't have those characteristics? The other thing is, he knew how to relate to people and he's done a great job with that. Yes, he has a talented team [in OKC] but how many of those have gone down in flames because they couldn't mesh?"

To the outside world, by the time he got to the pros, Bill Musselman was part Bobby Knight, part Reggie ("Slap Shot") Dunlop, rounding up rosters of castoffs and grunts, then drilling them hard in defense, fundamentals and effort. He had won everywhere he had worked before reaching the NBA, including at Ashland College and the University of Minnesota, where he recruited Flip Saunders -- there's another NBA apple off the tree -- to be his point guard. But he probably was best known for his team's "Globetrotter" style warm-up routines before games, an ugly brawl between Minnesota and Ohio State in 1971-72 and quotes like, "Losing is worse than death because you have to live with losing."

After a forgettable stint with the Cavaliers in the era of owner Ted Stepien and then the CBA grinding, Musselman was pulled back into the NBA by the co-founders of Minnesota's new franchise, Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, who had fond memories of Musselman's Gopher days. Musselman pulled as many of his old players and associates into the NBA as he could employ -- and trust. That included Thibodeau and Brooks.

"The one thing that was really important with my dad was basketball IQ," Eric Musselman said. "The first year I coached -- I was 23 at time -- I asked him for one piece of advice and he said, 'Go get the smartest players you can. Get as many Bobby Knight players as you can get your hands on.'"

Brooks said that outsmarting opponents was a matter of necessity. "We were smart enough to know we weren't skilled enough to go very far as basketball players so we'd better start thinking like coaches," he joked Thursday before his team faced the Lakers in their pre-break finale. "When you have a team like that, you have to figure out ways to win. We had to think our ways through games. We didn't have the talent and sometimes we didn't close out the games, but we were always in there."

That might be the first test of successful coaching, before anyone starts counting up rings and records: Maxing out your club's potential. Musselman won 22 games in Minnesota their first year, then 29 in 1990-91, pushing for each victory at the expense of handing playing time to rookies.

"That's what got him fired there," Murphy said. "Bill would have been much better as their second or third coach, because he was not a developmental guy -- he wanted to win every stinkin' game."

Said Thibodeau: " 'Are you getting the most out of your team?' By that one, Bill was a huge success."

To Brooks, Thibodeau really was that gym rat who helped the team, individual players and himself with that work ethic. "He was always watching tape and he was always there for the players to get better," the Thunder coach said. "You knew he was going to get his shot, it's just crazy it took 20 years for it to happen. He worked me out every day -- in Minnesota and New York -- because he had the last three or four guys coming early. I was always on the early bus."

Thibodeau was with Jeff Van Gundy when Brooks was with the Knicks in 1996-97. "Feisty," the Bulls coach remembered. "And you can't say enough about that guy's intelligence. His passion, his drive. He'd pick you up full-court and do it all game. I think he has a great demeanor as a coach. I never had a doubt he'd be a head coach."

Last season, Thibodeau and Brooks split a pair of showdowns, the Bulls and Thunder each winning their home games. This season, they'll meet just once, April 1 in OKC. That leaves Sunday, when they'll be matched up 50 feet or so apart on the court, apples fallen close to the Musselman tree, though admittedly it's not the type of game -- low on defense, grit and passion, other than for putting on a good show -- their mentor would love.

For that, Thibodeau turned to a different influence. "Doc [Rivers] gave me his game plan: Dole out the minutes and get out of the way," the Bulls coach said, laughing. "And he said: 'Don't forget, the Miami guys like to play a lot of minutes.' "

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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