Even 25 Years Later, Bill Musselman Left An Impact On His Players
Editor’s Note: The Timberwolves are celebrating their 25th season in the NBA this year, and as part of the commemoration Timbewolves.com is looking back at the early years. In Part II of this three-part series, we focus on the Wolves’ first-ever head coach, Bill Musselman, and the lasting impact he left on the players he coached here during the team’s first two seasons.
Looking back, Eric Musselman admits he never doubted he could one day be a head coach in the NBA. The odds would suggest otherwise. After all, following in your dad’s footsteps in the coaching game isn’t a well-traveled road. He and his dad, Bill Musselman—the Wolves’ first-ever head coach—became the first father-son duo in NBA history to both be head coaches in this league when Eric took the Golden State Warriors position in 2002.
Even today, the Musselmans and Brendan and Michael Malone are the only two father-son combos to be NBA head coaches.
Yet Eric never doubted he could achieve that goal, because his father put so much confidence in him. The way Bill talked to him made it seem as easy as, ‘If you work hard, you’ll be an NBA head coach some day.’
“He was really, really unbelievable at making you think you were Superman,” said Musselman, who is currently the Arizona State men’s basketball associate head coach under Herb Sendek. “I think he did that with the Timberwolves players. He built them up to think they were better than they actually were.”
Eric Musselman spent one season as a Timberwolves assistant coach, which was Bill Musselman’s second and final year in Minnesota. During Bill Musselman’s two years with the organization, he showed his players that same belief while instilling a combination of toughness, attention to detail and defense. He was notorious for late-night phone calls—he rarely slept, Eric said—asking assistant coaches or even players what they thought of his latest idea.
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Taking over an expansion franchise, Musselman had the opportunity to build his team to match his identity. He brought in players like Sam Mitchell and Scott Roth—guys he knew from the Continental Basketball Association—among others, and put them together on his new team.
The Timberwolves would become a squad that was detail-oriented and defensive-minded under Musselman’s guidance. The scoring and big-name talent might not have been there, but they worked to build that foundation.
“They were the type of players he liked,” former Wolves guard Sidney Lowe said, who went on to coach the Timberwolves in 1993-94. “Guys that basically had to fight their way through it. We were a tough team, both physically and mentally. We knew that the guy beside us was going to battle every single second out there on the floor.”
It worked. The Timberwolves joined the NBA at a time when it was exiting the prime of Bird’s Celtics and the Showtime Lakers, while the Bad Boys dominated and the Bulls ascended to a championship level. They didn’t necessarily have the players to compete for an NBA title, but they had the work ethic and the belief of their coach to make things happen.
Minnesota went on to win the fifth most games by an expansion team in NBA history, tying the Buffalo Braves with a 22-60 mark.
The Wolves grinded games out the way their coach envisioned. Musselman was a student of the game, Tony Campbell said, and he was constantly reviewing what the team was doing on the court and trying to figure out through film how to design plays to make them improve. Campbell said he’d be on the receiving end of those late-night phone calls, along with Sidney Lowe, and it rubbed off a lot on the players. If the head coach spent that much time finding ways to help the team improve, why shouldn’t the players?
Everyone on the roster knew that players brought in under Musselman would have that dedication to the team. They’d care about each other. And they’d work hard to try and emulate the passion their coach had on the sideline.
“He always had a lot of toughness,” said current Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, who spent one year playing for Musselman in 1990-91. “He always instilled toughness in us. I thought that was one of his greatest strengths also, was he made us feel that we were tougher than we really were. He got a lot of guys that were overachievers to play together, and we really believed we had chances to win every night.”
Part of Musselman’s charm was his story telling. He had one for every situation. Sometimes, because he was a fan of all sports, he’d cross over and make references to football or baseball. Anything that would get his point across. They’d paint a picture of how to get the upper hand in competition, stretching to the limit of the players’ personal abilities to get the job done.
“He was a coach that came in every day with high intensity, great expectations,” said current Jazz coach Tyron Corbin, who played for Musselman for two seasons in Minnesota. “And he pushed those buttons every day.”
The goal wasn’t to simply run plays. The goal was to be perfect in the play’s execution. Musselman had a special attention to detail, and he made sure his players understood every situation regardless of whether it was learning his hefty playbook or executing on the fly.
“There were times when he would draw up a play for me, and he would say, ‘Take two dribbles to your left, spin and you’ll get a layup with your right hand,’” Mitchell said. “He’d set up the play and he’d actually tell you what to do, and it would work. He was so detailed with the offense and defense that we were executing.”
In the two years Musselman coached the Wolves, a collection of six players and assistant coaches went on to become future NBA head coaches. Lowe, Brooks, Mitchell and Corbin as well as assistant coaches Tom Thibodeau and Eric Musselman. Roth has been an NBA assistant and the head coach of the D-League’s Bakersfield Jam.
In talking with members of that group, you get the sense that Musselman taught them much more than simple Xs and Os on the basketball court. They’re carrying parts of Musselman’s teachings with them every day.
“You could just tell that he cared about his players,” Brooks said. “One of the things I try to take with me is his ability to empower his players. He did a great job of really believing in his players, and we sensed that from him. It was very organized. He was as organized as I’ve been around any other coach.”
Mitchell said Musselman was the best coach and motivator he ever played for. But more than that, he was a guy who was dedicated to them both on and off the court.
“When we [former players] bump into each other, Bill’s name always comes up,” Mitchell said. “We miss him, because when you played for Bill Musselman—when you were one of his guys—then he loved you to the end.”
Even 25 years later those players haven’t forgotten the lessons Musselman taught them or the belief he instilled in them. Neither has Eric Musselman, who is successfully following in his father’s footsteps.
Who knows? Maybe Eric will help pass that torch onto his kids.
“My sons joke all the time that they want to follow in grandpa’s footsteps and make it a threesome,” Eric Musselman said. “But to think that could happen was like, ‘That’s not a problem, just work hard and you’ll be an NBA coach.’ Looking back, I see how amazing that is. But because of that belief, he didn’t make it seem like it was that hard.”
Part III of this three-part series focuses on the impact coach Bill Musselman's coaching tree. Two of his assistants and four of his players from his two seasons in Minnesota eventually went on to be NBA head coaches.