Saturday, October 8, 2011
D-Fenders' Musselman, Lakers' Brown share roots
By Dave McMenamin
REDONDO BEACH -- Mike Brown wasn't the only head coach hired by the Lakers this summer.
While Brown was brought in to replace Phil Jackson and bring the Lakers back from a season that ended in disappointment, Eric Musselman was picked as the man to coach the Lakers' D-League franchise after a season that never occurred.
After only one winning season in its four-year existence and a bottoming-out 16-34 campaign in 2009-10, the D-Fenders took a hiatus in 2010-11 and shut down operations for a year to regroup and come back with a better-focused business strategy.
They return with Musselman calling the plays and the team playing its games at the cozy Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, the home of the Lakers' practice facility, rather than at the cavernous Staples Center where it often times seemed like the arena workers outnumbered the fans in attendance.
Brown was hired in May and has yet to go through a full practice with his team because of the NBA lockout, but Musselman -- who was hired in August -- stalked the sidelines for the first time as the D-Fenders coach Saturday.
The D-Fenders conducted an open tryout at Aviation Gym in Redondo Beach, inviting 45 players to showcase their skills in hopes of landing one of the five spots open for its upcoming veterans camp.
They will fill out the rest of the training camp roster from incumbent players who were placed on the Utah Flash last season while the D-Fenders were out of the league as well as from the five picks they have in the eight-round D-League draft.
Musselman, 46, is experienced when it comes to minor league basketball. He was hardly fazed trying to evaluate the hoard of players including Mater Dei product Taylor King (Duke, Villanova), Leuzinger High School standout Donnell Beverly (Connecticut) and Jeremiah Dominguez (Portland State) that he worked out for four hours Saturday.
Half a lifetime ago, Musselman was named the youngest head coach in the history of the Continental Basketball Association when the Rapid City Thrillers (great team name, by the way) hired him as a 23-year-old.
Much has been made about Brown's humble NBA path that started as a video coordinator with the Denver Nuggets in 1992 before finally being named head coach by the Cleveland Cavaliers 13 years later. Musselman, despite having a father, Bill, who coached in the NBA before him, might have had an even longer climb to the top. He toiled in the CBA and United States Basketball League for years before becoming an assistant coach with three NBA teams and then finally broke through as a head coach with the Golden State Warriors in 2002.
Fittingly, it was Brown who Musselman first contacted about the D-Fenders job.
"The way it started was I emailed Mike and Joey [Buss] called," Musselman said, recalling how he leaned on his relationship with the fellow University of San Diego grad Brown to get his foot in the door.
"He interviewed other people and we went through a normal process, which took a little bit of time. He talked to some people about me and some people called on my behalf. It was weird dynamics, because I was overseas trying to do it with the time change, but Joey was awesome. Step by step, he told me exactly what was going on and I enjoy working for him. I look forward to it."
Buss, the team president and son of Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, just turned 27 in June, making him about as young as Musselman was when he started in the CBA.
While Musselman will be working closely with Buss, he'll also report to Brown and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. Last season the Lakers sent rookies Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter for assignment to the Bakersfield Jam, a D-League team that shared affiliation with both the Lakers and the Clippers. This season, with the Lakers having an exclusive affiliation with the D-Fenders, Musselman will be able to use the same offense and defense that the Lakers run when the team sends a player down.
"Whatever Mike would like us to do or not like us to do or experiment; we’ll do whatever he wants," Musselman said. "If they just use it as an evaluation tool for players, whatever Mike wants, whatever Mitch wants."
Musselman was out of coaching for nearly three years after being let go by the Sacramento Kings following a 33-49 season in 2006-07. (That team featured Metta World Peace as its second-leading scorer.) He stayed close to the game by working as a television analyst, appearing regularly on nationally-syndicated sports talk radio shows and even blogging, but it wasn't long before he found another team to hold the clipboard for.
Once he was back coaching, it was full throttle as he went from the Dominican Republic national team, to the Reno Bighorns, to the Venezuela national team to the D-Fenders in quick succession.
"I haven’t had much time off in the last two years," Musselman said. "I’m making up for the time I was doing TV by doing year-round coaching.
"This is a great opportunity for me. I feel really lucky, really fortunate to be back in Southern California. My family lives in San Diego and to be a part of the D-Fenders organization, to me, there’s no better place to be in minor league basketball."