Buddy Ball

Mike Muscala and Dennis Schröder first formed a bond in 2013 as rookies trying to earn playing time with the Atlanta Hawks. Now, six years later, their talks of one day playing together again are a reality in OKC.


Nick Gallo

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Sideline Reporter and Digital Editor | mailbag@okcthunder.com

IN THE SEVEN games he played to start the 2019-20 season, Thunder forward Mike Muscala made only one of the 19 3-pointers he had attempted. In the eighth game, a matchup against the Golden State Warriors, Muscala was again on the floor with the ball flying in his direction, out on the perimeter, behind the arc where he stood wide open on the wing.


M uscala caught it and set his feet wide as he had on the previous 19 tries. He pressed off of his toes to elevate slightly off the ground, as he’s done hundreds of times in his career. He tucked in his elbow and flicked the ball off his fingers, using the same form he had in every game to start the season.

Based on recent trends, there was no reason to think the shot from the 6-foot-11 center would go in. Dennis Schröder thought differently. Shortly after passing the ball to Muscala, the Thunder guard emerged from under the rim with his arm and index finger raised in the air, confident the shot would fall. It did.

“Dennis is a great friend and supporter of mine, cheering me on,” Muscala said of that night’s extra vote of confidence.

After the game in the locker room, Muscala was surrounded by print and broadcast journalists, television cameras and iPhones. He answered questions about what the Thunder did well to pull out a 114-108 home victory, the team’s 30 assists that night and how he managed to stay resilient and snap out of his slump.

Most teammates half-listen and barely glance over while media interviews occur in their sacred locker room space. This night, though, Schröder stood 15 feet away, peering right at the scene, waiting for his moment to interject.

“Yeah Musky!” Schröder cut in, earning a grin from his big man.

Muscala made three shots from deep in that game and then four the following night against Milwaukee. From there, he was back on track to be the pick-and-pop threat Schröder has grown accustomed to feeding for jumpers over the years.


DIFFERENT BEGINNINGS

IN THE FALL of 2013, Muscala and Schröder were crossing the Atlantic in opposite directions. After both were selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the June draft, they met at their draft press conference. The two skinny twenty-somethings sat at a table, sported flat- bill hats and smiled for a variety of cameras. But after playing a few games in Summer League, it looked like they wouldn’t be teaming up anytime soon.


That fall, instead of a gaggle of cameras in his face in an NBA locker room from the likes of Fox Sports and ESPN, Muscala was being peppered with questions from five Spanish-language television cameras. English wasn’t an option; his major in Spanish at Bucknell University was all the prep he had.

In addition to the cameras, awaiting the then-22-year-old Muscala in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, was the semester abroad he never got to take during his undergraduate experience. Muscala, a second-round pick just clawing to make a living off basketball, dove headfirst into an immersive basketball experience in the province of Galicia, known for its relentless rain – double what falls in the United States’ Pacific Northwest. All there was to do was train, nap and train some more.

Schröder, meanwhile, was in the midst of the complete opposite experience. He had been residing in the town of Braunschweig, Germany – the same place he was born, grew up and played professionally until he was drafted in the first round (17th overall) by the Hawks. At age 20, Schröder was suddenly in one of the largest American cities, a rookie on a club that was clawing for a playoff spot.

Despite his uber-competitive nature, Schröder didn’t see a lot of playing time during long stretches of his first season, but toward the end of the year he was cracking the rotation. The gold patch of hair above his forehead hadn’t arrived yet, but the pesky, lightning quick version of Schröder was on the scene.

He played in 22 of the Hawks’ final 25 games that season, starting with a pair of games when the team was brutally short-handed. In fact, Atlanta was so pressed for bodies that with four days between games in Boston and Phoenix, the Hawks made a long-distance call for help.

On the other line was Muscala, whose rights the Hawks still had from the draft nearly nine months earlier. He was rushed back to the United States, picking up with Schröder and the rest of the team for the start of a five-game West Coast trip. In his first game stateside, Muscala, then sporting a buzz-cut, filled in for an injured Paul Millsap and played 19 minutes.

The rookie forward made an impression with the coaching staff at the same time he reconnected with the feisty young point guard who was showing his mettle, too. Muscala joined Schröder in the rotation for all but five of the remaining regular-season games.


The duo helped the Hawks sneak into the playoffs with a 38-44 record as an eight seed, but both rookies were left on the outside looking in during the seven-game first-round playoff series against the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers in early April. Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer opted for the experience of Shelvin Mack (drafted in 2011) and Mike Scott (drafted in 2012).

Determination set in – two hungry workers resolute to not miss any playoff minutes again. That ensuing offseason, Schröder and Muscala spent nearly every day together, working out, preparing for Summer League and investing in the work that would propel them both to elevated roles with the Hawks.

“They’re playing pick-up games and off-day scrimmages,” recalled Budenholzer, now the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coach. “They’re kind of fighting for their lives together and fighting for minutes together. You just end up kind of bonding.”

With that much time together, in an evolving NBA where shooting at the forward and center positions was becoming more prized, Schröder and Muscala were ideal early career partners to push one another. As a result, their chemistry grew, especially as the duo were paired together in Atlanta’s second unit over the subsequent couple seasons as the Hawks made playoff runs.

“Point guards love it when a guy can pick and pop and make a shot and make threes,” Budenholzer said.

“They are very close,” he added. “Very different personalities and characters, but they get along great. They really respect each other and work well together. It’s kind of fun to see them back together.”

From 2014-2018, Schröder and Muscala began as basketball colleagues and developed a deep friendship in Atlanta. They grabbed food together after practices and games, played cards and video games – mostly FIFA – and talked about their lives. Schröder’s mother immigrated to Germany from the African country of Gambia to give him a better chance. His father passed away during his teenage years, but not before Schröder promised him that he would make the NBA one day.

As unlikely as it would have seemed, Schröder found a brother in a lanky Minnesotan who had spent four years inside the “Bucknell Bubble.”

Yet their paths diverged just as surprisingly and abruptly as they had come together. As a part of a three-team trade in the summer of 2018 with Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, Atlanta sent Muscala to the 76ers and Schröder to the Thunder. Suddenly, their friendship was a long-distance one.


We were talking about it a year ago, how nice it would be if we played again together on one team.
Now, we’re in OKC playing again together.

Dennis Schröder

READY-MADE CONNECTION

MUSCALA PLAYED 47 games for the Sixers and another 17 for the Los Angeles Lakers, while Schröder was a super-sub off the bench for the Thunder, averaging 14.7 points per game, the second most by any bench player in OKC history. What the Thunder lacked in the reserve group to complement the hyper-speed drives by its point guard, however, was a big man who could stretch the floor from the center position.

On the first night of free agency on July 1, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti was in Minneapolis, at Muscala’s home. Presti was there to recruit him to come to Oklahoma, reunite with Schröder and give the Thunder a 3-point shooter and a savvy, well-rounded reserve center for Head Coach Billy Donovan to utilize. It didn’t take long for coaches and staff to recognize the ready-made connection during workouts and downtime alike.

“Besides the basketball piece, they’ve got a very good relationship off the floor,” Donovan said. “There’s a great deal of mutual respect and admiration there. They both genuinely like each other as people.”

The friends spent time together this summer even before coming to Oklahoma for training camp. Muscala attended Schröder’s wedding in Braunschweig, Germany, in late July, making his first trip to the hometown that tested his friend and sharpened him into a point guard prodigy. As a statement of the forging powers of that crucible, the wedding was held in the arena where Schröder used to play as a young pro.

“It was pretty emotional. I was really happy for him,” Muscala said. “He’s like a brother to me.”

In-season, they travel smaller distances to support one another. Instead of going through post-practice shooting with players in the same position groups, Muscala and Schröder make sure to find the same basket to get extra shots up together, mimicking the grueling hours they spent together chasing their common dream.

“He’s my guy,” Schröder said of Muscala. “I know almost everything about him, how he wants to play, how he wants to pick and roll, pick and pop.”

Just as Presti envisioned, Donovan has linked Schröder and Muscala in the Thunder’s second group, giving them an opportunity to play the style that they mastered in Atlanta.

“It’s been pretty great,” Schröder continued. “We were talking about it a year ago, how nice it would be if we played again together on one team. Now, we’re in OKC playing again together.”


The friendship has even taken on a life of its own inside the Thunder Ion. Media relations staffers Laila Wani and Shelby Willingham dressed up as Schröder and Muscala for Halloween, and the two pairs of buddies teamed up for a photoshoot together. Apparently, the bromance now has its own following.

It’s not often that a co-worker becomes a lifelong friend, particularly not the type of friendship that becomes a meme in and of itself. In OKC, though, two players who hail from different parts of the world have the chance to cherish their special bond once again.

“That’s the guy I’ve gotten closest to in my time in the NBA for sure,” Muscala said of Schröder. “I’m really glad to be back playing with him.”


Nick Gallo is the Thunder sideline reporter and digital content editor.


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