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Thibs-Musselman Easy Comparison

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May 8, 2018


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Most everyone who follows hoops in this town knows Tom Thibodeau is a serious guy. I encountered him awhile back at a breakfast gathering and he told me about how he enjoys walking near a city lake. I got the impression that to Thibs this was the equivalent of spending a week at Disney World.

In Thib’s world it’s work and more work. As the Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations he carries a lot of weight on those 60-year-old shoulders. The public has heard about his hours devoted to film study and game preparation. Fans have witnessed and cringed at his barking from the sidelines on what seems like every possession of every game all winter long.

Despite taking the Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, there is a lot of angst surrounding Thibs. He has annoyed part of the fan base with his harsh courtside style, insistence on playing his starters max minutes and not winning enough games. He is faulted, too, for taking on two jobs as coach and top executive in the basketball department. Fuel was added to that criticism yesterday when the Pistons let Stan Van Gundy go, the only other man in the NBA holding two leadership jobs like Thibodeau. There is even speculation insiders in the Wolves organization are critical of their perceived grumpy leader.

All of this is kind of déjà vu to me. I knew Thibs’ mentor, Bill Musselman. It was Musselman who first gave Thibodeau an NBA job, hiring him as an assistant coach for the 1989 expansion Timberwolves. At that time Musselman was 49 and had already lived through a career where he both created and dodged minefields.

Basketball was war to Musselman. He might not win the war but he sure as hell was going to win plenty of battles and make his opponents pay a price. Every possession in every game was almost like life and death to him—maybe more important than that.

I met Musselman after he was named head coach of the Golden Gophers in 1971. At his opening day of practice that fall he and his players took the floor about 30 minutes later than scheduled. The reason, I later learned, was because the 30-year-old coach was giving the players a motivational talk that included war music.

Before that practice he also was hyping the “troops” about how they had to beat Ohio State, the Big Ten favorite, when the two teams met on the court in Minneapolis in January. No one knew back then the Gophers and Buckeyes would tangle in their infamous late game brawl on the Williams Arena floor.

Musselman was basketball wise and passionate but he also was emotionally immature, hypercompetitive, hot tempered and tough. Although he was less than 6-feet tall, Musselman gave the impression he might fight anybody, any time. He used to play basketball in the driveway of his Bloomington home with his assistant coaches and I heard a tale or two of fist fights over a dispute like who knocked the ball out of bounds.

Before the 1971 season Musselman promised fans the Gophers would win the Big Ten title, despite inheriting a program that hadn’t won a conference championship since 1937. The 1970-71 Minnesota team had a 5-9 league record and finished fifth in the standings.

Musselman added junior college players Ron Behagen, Bob Murphy, Bobby Nix and Clyde Turner to his first roster. They combined with others, including a walk-on named Dave Winfield, to produce an 11-3 conference champion with an 18-7 overall record.

Even suspensions of Behagen and Corky Taylor from the Ohio State showdown didn’t slow down the title drive. Musselman’s team relied on the “Iron Five” of starters to play most of the minutes each game (sounds familiar to Thibs followers) while using a troublesome matchup zone defense that held Big Ten opponents to 52 points or less six times from late January to season’s end.

Not only did the Gophers have talent and coaching but they owned a home court advantage that might have been the best in the country. When Musselman came to Minnesota from Ashland College, he brought with him a pregame warm-up featuring Harlem Globetrotters-like ball handling and other gimmicks. Set to contemporary music, the pregame show whipped up crowd enthusiasm and had Williams Arena rocking before the game even started. During the 1971-72 season the only home loss was to Ohio State, 50-44.

Musselman & Olberding (photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications)

Musselman often made Gopher basketball the hottest ticket in town during his four seasons as coach. His teams played defense and rebounded like their lives depended on it—and they probably did. He was hard on players (hello, Thibs) and sometimes they pushed back like when star freshman forward Mark Olberding, the man-child from Melrose, Minnesota threw a towel at the coach during a timeout.

Musselman’s obsession with winning eventually got him and the Gophers in trouble. After he left the Gophers to coach the ABA San Diego Sails, the NCAA charged Minnesota with over 100 rules violations. That was a sad ending to a career at Minnesota where he not only proved he could coach and win, but recruit, too, developing future pro players Behagen, Olberding, Mark Landsberger and Mychal Thompson. He also had a profound influence on Flip Saunders who was his point guard for two seasons before becoming a basketball legend in Minnesota as a coach and front office executive.

The Sails folded soon after Musselman arrived and so, too, did the ABA’s Virginia team he also coached. A seldom take no for an answer salesman, Musselman talked his way into the NBA Cavs organization in the 1980s and had a short stay as the team’s head coach. Anyone who knew Musselman, though, realized that wouldn’t end his coaching career.

Musselman was working on a string of minor league pro basketball coaching jobs before he became head coach of the Timberwolves in 1988. In the 1980s I was involved with promoting NBA exhibition games at the Met Center. During one of those years Musselman crashed a private reception before the game. My friend and uninvited guest knew of the rumors that Minneapolis might soon be home to an NBA expansion franchise and he was in town to find out what was happening, and maybe land a job as head coach.

Musselman’s mind was always turning with ideas. When he wasn’t working, he was often exercising to stay healthy. He almost treated sleep like a disease to be avoided. If you got a phone call at 11 p.m. you considered yourself lucky. Others might hear from him after midnight.

After owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner paid the expansion fee for the Timberwolves, they were attracted to Musselman as their coach because of his work ethic and the popularity he built with the Gophers in the 1970s. In the Wolves’ first season of 1989-90 the club drew a crowd of 49,551 for Fan Appreciation Night in the Metrodome. Their total home season attendance was 1,072,572, an average of 26,160 per game.

Musselman wasn’t the easiest of souls to get along with during his two seasons of coaching the ragtag expansion Timberwolves. Musselman’s first club went 22-60, his second 29-53. Imagine the pain of that on a man once quoted as saying, “Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat.”

On April 22, 1991 Musselman and his young assistant, Thibodeau, were fired by Wolfenson and Ratner. Musselman would go on to coach in college at South Alabama and serve as an NBA assistant with the Trailblazers before dying way too young at age 59.

For Thibodeau, being let go by the Timberwolves was just the beginning. He earned a reputation as one of the NBA’s best assistant coaches helping the Celtics to a championship. As head coach of the Bulls, his clubs were contenders and known for their defense and intensity.

Pau Gasol, a future hall of famer who played for Thibodeau with the Bulls, offered this perspective on the coach to Nick Friedell in a March 18. 2018, story:

“I appreciated how devoted, how much he cared,” Gasol said of Thibodeau. “He brought a certain edge to every game. Sometimes it might have gotten, I won’t say out of hand, he’s just an intense person, right? We know that. But it comes, I think, from a place that he cares so much about what he does. He’s immersed into basketball, and he wants his team to perform.”

Take it from someone who knew Musselman, and knows Thibs. These cats are cut from similar cloth.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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