Talking shop with Eric Musselman.
When you think of basketball blogs, Henry Abbott, Lang Whitaker or Gilbert Arenas usually come to mind. You might not know that former NBA head coach, Eric Musselman, has been keeping one of the best hoops blogs in the business. His site, Eric Musselman’s Basketball Notebook, is a unique commentary on basketball and the intricacies of teaching sports.
Musselman, son of former long time pro and college coach Bill Musselman, became the youngest coach in CBA history at 23 years old. He was also the general manager of the Rapid City Thrillers of the CBA and hired Flip Saunders to be the team’s bench boss. At 28, he became the youngest coach in pro basketball history to win 100 games. He coached in five CBA All-Star games, won three league titles and won back-to-back championships in the USBL.
After being an Assistant in the NBA in Minnesota, Orlando and Atlanta, Musselman guided the Golden State Warriors to a 75-89 record in two seasons. He joined his father as the first father and son to ever be head coaches in the NBA. In 2002-03, Musselman’s team featured Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Jason Richardson. He registered a 17-win improvement in his first year on the job in Oakland. He helped the Warriors reach the .500 mark for the first time in 10 years and came in second to Gregg Popovich in NBA Coach of the Year votes. After losing Arenas and Jamison to free agency, the Warriors struggled in Musselman’s second season. He was replaced as head coach of the Warriors when Chris Mullin became the General Manager in 2004.
Known for his thorough preparation, energy and attention to detail, Musselman quickly returned to the NBA as an Assistant to Mike Fratello in Memphis. He then coached the Sacramento Kings during the 2006-07 season and has since been gearing up for a return to the sidelines.
SLAM: Tell me coach, what have you been up to since the last time you were in the League?
Eric Musselman: I spent last year really studying the college game as much as possible. I spent a week with Bill Self over in Kansas. I was down in Hattiesburg, Mississippi last year with Larry Eustache, went to Western Illinois, my buddy Derrick Thomas was the head coach there last year. I live in the bay area so I went to a lot of Saint Mary’s practices, probably saw 12 Saint Mary’s games, two University of San Francisco games, about six Cal games, a few Stanford games and about four or five Santa Clara games also. That was last year. This year I went to Lakers training camp, went to a couple NBA games in LA, I went to the UCLA-Miami (OH) game followed up by the USC game and right now I’m about to head down to San Diego to see Reno play U of San Diego tomorrow night.
SLAM: So you’ve been getting around a lot lately?
EM: Yeah, I’ve been trying to watch teams practice and pick different coaches’ brains. This summer, I did a clinic over in Athens, Greece. I took my son over there, and I plan on going to Brazil in February.
SLAM: How did you get into the blogging that you’ve been doing?
EM: Well, it started off from a mass coaching email that I’ve sent out over the last seven or eight years that went out to 100 to 200 coaches from all range. Anyone from a UCLA baseball coach to Rutgers football to NFL executives to MLB executives and scouts. It was kind of a leadership/motivational email. That was easy to do when I was with the team, but when I started doing it on my own through Yahoo! emails, I kept getting shut down because of the mass mailings, spam and stuff. So I came up with the idea to try and share those thoughts on a blog and that’s basically what I’ve done.
SLAM: Do you read a lot of blogs?
EM: I don’t really read blogs or what is on the internet. I read as many newspapers as I possibly can. I think everybody in the NBA reads certain websites like HoopsHype and ESPN, but I’m not necessarily a blog reader. I’ve met a lot of people and picked up new ideas from doing it and made new contacts so it has been fun.
SLAM: I guess you don’t read your former player Gilbert Arenas’ blog?
EM: No, I mean I check out Gilbert’s every once in a while simply because he is a guy that I coached and I know him so well and love him. Plus, he is really entertaining.
SLAM: Do you ever feel like a reporter sometimes since you are always quoting other coaches, or do you feel like it’s all a part of your coaching experience?
EM: This is all about coaching. Make no mistake, I don’t want to be a blogger, I want to be a coach. I am a coach, that’s my life. In today’s USA Today, I read the article on Mike Montgomery; he’s got a great quote in there saying something like he felt as if he didn’t have a purpose when he woke up in the morning when he wasn’t coaching. Well I have a purpose, I have a purpose to share with other coaches, and I’m teaching myself, I’m not doing this just to give to other people, I wake up in the morning because I want to learn to be a better coach and that’s why I don’t do strictly basketball stuff. I study football coaches, soccer, lacrosse or whatever.
SLAM: Is writing and commentary something you might want to get into at all at some point?
EM: When I did the ESPN Radio game of the week and when I got let go by Golden State, I learned a little bit about the media. This is some type of the media, but that’s not what I am or what I want to get into. I want to coach again with the right opportunity.
SLAM: You were one of the youngest coaches ever in pro basketball at age 24. Was that a tough transition for you to go from being a college player to a GM and coaching grown men?
EM: I learned so many things in that first year. Number one, I was lucky enough to have my dad as a coach who basically told me that I didn’t know hardly anything about coaching at that age so I better get players that are smarter than I am. So, I went out and tried to get as many players that had played for great college coaches. I think that year I had two or three guys from the University of Indiana because I knew that they had learned things playing for Coach Knight. I got Connor Henry and really it was like a well-oiled machine because I really didn’t take any bad character, I put a high premium on work-ethic character and knowledge of the game. That season was my highest winning percentage ever, it didn’t have anything to do with X and Os, it had to do with the make up and quality of people that we had on the roster.
SLAM: Was it tough to learn in the CBA with all the travel and the conditions?
EM: No, the CBA was the greatest learning experience ever. You are coaching against great coaches every night. If you look at the history of the CBA, there are guys like Phil Jackson, George Karl, my father, Bob Hill, Flip Saunders, Henry Bibby. When I was in it, there was Henry Bibby and Flip—I thought it was great coaching. Since your roster constantly changes, I don’t think there is a better place to learn how to become a coach.
SLAM: There’s a section in Phil Jackson’s book about how you or one of the other coaches called out about a team running up the score, was that how it was in the CBA back then?
EM: I think the way the CBA was, in general, back then was that, if you were soft, you were not going to survive. When you were making a trade in the CBA, it was to make your team and organization better and that’s all you were concerned about. It was a league of survival. It was a league of survival for players trying to get to the next level, coaches trying to get to the next level, referees trying to get to the next level, and then every owner trying to financially survive.
SLAM: In those years from 1990-1997 you placed 24 guys in the NBA. Looking back to the CBA or USBL, were there some guys you can think of that you feel really got robbed of a chance to be in NBA?
EM: There are so many guys. What happens is a lot of guys get drafted into the NBA and because of where they were drafted, they end up being on a roster for four or five years without getting much of a chance. It’s gut-wrenching and makes me want to vomit sometimes when I think about some of the guys that put up 20 points a night in the CBA and never got called up. There is more than a handful a guys. There’s Tony Dawson that played at Florida State, who is Jerry Stackhouse’s half-brother; I think Tony is a guy that, if given the right opportunity, would have not only been on an NBA roster but would have put points on the board. Tony wasn’t a very good defender and that’s why he didn’t get called up. What happened was teams would come watch and look for the things he can’t do instead of what he can do.
SLAM: You coached Keith Smart, do you think he could have lasted a little longer in the NBA?
EM: Keith Smart should have been a 15-year NBA player. It’s a disgrace that Keith didn’t make 15 years of NBA money because he works harder than anybody and his teammates loved him; I could go on and on. He would have made any NBA practice better, you could have thrown him in a game because of his work-ethic and the way he defended, so it’s a travesty he didn’t play in the NBA. Not for five or six years, he should have been a 12-15 veteran, if nothing else the 12th man on your team. Jarvis Bathnight is another guy. He had NBA All-Star talent, but Jarvis didn’t make the NBA because he didn’t have a good enough work ethic. He was a kid who had a good heart if you got to know him, but he just never understood how to push himself. He was actually afraid of pushing himself and then failing.
SLAM: Any crazy stories from your days in the CBA?
EM: In the USBL, we played a game in Sarasota, then bussed from Sarasota to Jacksonville, played in Jacksonville—Roy Jones, Jr. was actually on their team—then that night we were going to Winston-Salem. We thought the game was the next night at seven. We got about 40 minutes outside of Winston-Salem and the guys were starving so we went to McDonalds and then Charles Smith came to me with a newspaper and goes, Hey, Coach, we play in an hour and 20 minutes. I said, No, that can’t be. We called the team we were playing and they said that they thought they told us that the game needed to be moved up because there was a minor league baseball game that needed to be played and they shared parking lots. So, I told the guys to take the food and get on the bus. We went in the locker room and everyone was so mad, they told me not to call a timeout all game because they just wanted to get out of there. We ended up winning by about 40. I let them sub themselves in and out, they called their own plays.
SLAM: Do you think that minor league basketball still valuable to the NBA?
EM: I believe it holds value for a lot of different reasons. It develops coaches, front office people, broadcasters and certainly referees.
SLAM: Of course, your father was a great coach, but were there other coaches that had a big impact on you?
EM: Chuck Daly had as big an influence on me as anybody. Lon Kruger, too. I think that anybody you work for, you should pick something special up from them. It didn’t matter what walk of life someone was in, Lon Kruger knew everybody’s name. That was a quality that I’ve never seen anyone possess like he did; he was a great listener. Chuck Daly was the greatest predictor of the future of anyone that I ever knew. He could tell what was going to happen with a team and he could put a fire out before there was a problem because he could see it coming. I was with Hubie Brown and we took a team over to France and in two weeks, his Xs and Os, I’ve never been exposed to anything like that in my life.
SLAM: Do you have any players that you got particularly close to or loved working with?
EM: Almost every team I’ve been with, there’s been one or two guys that I’ve loved. When I was with Golden State, I really loved coaching Troy Murphy and Gilbert Arenas. There have been so many stories about Gil. One game, he showered with his uniform on at halftime and then went out and basically won the game dripping wet. Everyday was an adventure with Gilbert but, at the same time, everyday he was competitive, and I felt like he and I were in the foxhole together. He’s one guy that if I haven’t talked to him in a long time and then see him again, it feels like you’ve been with him everyday.
SLAM: I read that when you became coach of the Warriors, you reached out to Rick Barry. Why did you feel that it was important?
EM: I thought it was important to bring back the history of the team. That wasn’t the only thing we did. We put up their championship banner, put up retired jerseys in the practice facility, old logos, too. Rick Barry was one of, if not the greatest Warrior of all time. He is a basketball genius, and we had him work with our guys for a couple days individually both because I thought he had things to offer and because I wanted to bring him back into the Warrior family.
SLAM: You helped improve the Warriors while you were there and got them in a better position, but do you feel like with one more year you could have done more?
EM: The first year in Golden State we were the most improved team in the NBA—I think we had a 17-game improvement. We had a goal to try to lead the NBA in scoring and we ended up second, which I was pleased with. As the summer came after that season, we felt that the team needed to improve defensively, and we became the most improved team defensively in terms of point differential. Having said that, I would have loved to have gotten more of an opportunity. We felt that the team improved, especially the young guys—Murphy, Richardson, Arenas all had great years—but the direction of the team took a turn after the first year. You have a 17-game improvement and then Gilbert walks during free agency over the summer and the team makes trades for aging veterans like Avery Johnson and Nick Van Exel which made the makeup of the team completely different. Not only did we have Avery and Nick but also Cliff Robinson. Then we had a bunch of injuries in that second year as well as management changes. I look back at my time in Golden State and feel fortunate that I was able to get an opportunity at a young age. I really feel that our team improved and, another thing that our coaching staff was really proud of was that our players all got good contracts. Brian Cardinal, Earl Boykins, Troy Murphy, Erik Dampier all got good contracts, so my relationship with these guys goes beyond coaching because they were all able to get set up financially.
SLAM: After those two years in Golden State, did your approach to coaching change as you came in to Sacramento?
EM: I learned a lot in my two years in Memphis. Coach Fratello is one of the best X and O coaches that there is so I certainly learned a ton from him. I learned a lot from Jerry West, as well. Those two years in Memphis were probably as great as I could ever have from a learning standpoint. Obviously, the one-year in Sacramento didn’t work out, but it is what it is.
SLAM: Who are some of the players that you are still in touch with today?
EM: I loved coaching Shane Battier and Mike Miller while I was in Memphis; those guys were awesome to be around. I love exchanging e-mails with Keith Smart. Charles Smith, who played at Georgetown, is another guy that I’m extremely close with. Manute Bol was a really fun guy to be around, great personality.
SLAM: What’s the hardest part of being out of coaching for the time being?
EM: From the time I was a little kid, I’ve done nothing but wake up and be involved in a team. Even when I was 6 years old, I was going to practices and games with my dad. All of a sudden, that just stops. You start to find out that there’s more to life than basketball. Up until now, that’s all I’ve known. You get to spend time with your family now.
SLAM: Do you feel like coaches can be consumed by their work?
EM: Yeah, because a lot of times you think that everybody in the world is paying as much attention to it as you are. Well, guess what? The rest of the world really doesn’t care. When you’re a player or a coach you think that everything you do is being watched. Until you’re out of it, you don’t realize that what really matters are the relationships you develop when you were in it.
SLAM: Is there an ideal situation for you?
EM: The experiences that I’ve liked in the NBA have been when I’m working with a great organization and a great GM. I loved working in Orlando because of John Gabriel and Chuck Daly. I loved working in Atlanta because of the relationships I had with Coach Kruger and with Pete Babcock. I couldn’t wait to get into work when I was working for Jerry West in Memphis. So, if I go back as an assistant in the NBA, I hope that I work for a great coach and a great GM that I can learn from. To this day I talk to those guys that I worked for all the time and they’re going to be lifetime friends. I’d also love to coach at the college level in the right situation and impact the lives of young people.
SLAM: Is there anything that would be different in your approach next time than it had been in your previous two in the NBA?
EM: As a young coach, you’re always striving to elevate—maybe within an organization, maybe to another job. As you get older, the key is to be in the right situation. Your personality and coaching style needs to fit the piece of the puzzle that goes with the organization.