|Not another brick in the wall|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
--Paul Brown, coach of the Cleveland Browns
The worst opening-season gambit in the history of the NBA was presented by Roy Rubin, the spectacularly inept coach of the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. Facing his players for the first time, Rubin presented himself as a tough disciplinarian and said he'd accept no excuses for any infractions of the rules. The players would have a strict dress code for road trips. No exceptions. There'd be no beer in the locker room. No exceptions. There'd be no smoking in the locker room. No exceptions.
Then Freddie "Mad Dog" Carter raised his hand and said, "But, coach, I've been smoking in the locker room ever since I've been in the league. That's the only way I can calm down and get ready to play."
Rubin didn't blink. "OK," he said. "You can smoke, Freddie, but you're the only one."
In a flash, the rest of the players realized that Rubin didn't have a clue.
Dubbed "Poor Roy" by the local media, Rubin was fired when the team's record sank to a dismal 4 and 47. The Sixers finished the season at 9-73, a low-water mark that will not likely be matched in the foreseeable future.
Ever since rookie Golden State head coach Eric Musselman can remember, professional basketball was always his frame of reference. Instead of learning his ABC's, he was taught Xs and Os. Mathematics dealt with too small 2s, 4s playing the 5 spot, seven-footers, and the 50 series. His geography lessons emphasized places like San Diego, Richmond, Reno, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Tampa Bay, Rapid City and Rochester -- the various franchises in the various leagues in which his father coached. And his study of hoops history made him acutely aware of Roy Rubin's egregious faux pas.
"The first time I met with my team," says Musselman, "I only talked about defense. Not dress codes, or curfews, or fines, or what would and would not be allowed in the locker rooms. Just defense. I told them that 75 percent of what we'd do in training camp would be geared toward defense. It was a speech that I'd been preparing for about 25 years."
Eric's primary teacher and inspiration was his father, Bill, who coached a total of 11 seasons of college ball (Ashland and Minnesota), one each in the ABA and WBA, five in the CBA, and four in the NBA. "When I was in junior high school," Eric says, "I was a ball boy for whichever team my dad was coaching. Later, when he coached in Cleveland, I was in the locker room for his pregame, halftime and postgame talks. On weekends and holidays, I traveled with the Cavaliers on the road. By no means was I merely a fan or a casual observer. Basketball was my life."
Bill Musselman died of a heart attack just about two years ago, and never enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing his son become a head coach in the NBA. "I was hired by Golden State," says Eric, "because the team had so many young players. Chris Cohan, the owner, and Garry St. Jean, the general manager, wanted to hire a young coach so that the players and the coach could grow together. In every way, it's been a terrific opportunity for me, and I certainly appreciate how fortunate I am. Chris and Garry have also told me that they're not necessarily looking for a quick fix, but are more interested in getting good results three years from now."
While management's three-year plan greatly lessens the pressure on Musselman, the rookie coach also remembers one of his father's lessons: "Dad used to say that the results of every game are recorded in either one of two columns. The column on the left is always right, and the column on the right is always wrong."
Eric has also employed some of his father's unusual strategems to help fashion his own coaching style. "During every preseason game," says Eric, "I diagrammed a brand-new play during every timeout. This was to find out how quickly the players could pick up adjustments on the run. Also to force them to pay attention in the huddles. But by the time the regular season got started, I had run out of plays! This was something that never could have happened to my dad."
During training camp, Eric also exercised his CBA-inspired flexibility when he experimented with the Warriors' game plan: "Would we play up-tempo, or would we take the air out of the ball? It was a basic question. A matter of team identity. Eventually I decided that we had to run to win."
With his opening monologue a success, and his team's identity forged in preseason, Musselman faced another crisis when the Warriors lost six of their first seven games. To gain his players' respect, a rookie coach must demonstrate a highly competitive nature, as well as a firm focus and belief in his own strategies -- especially when the spit hits the fan. "Throughout that early stretch," says Musselman, "I never changed my approach. Shoot-arounds, game preparation, all of our daily routines remained constant. So far this season, we're the only team in the league that's had the same starting five for every single game."
Now that the season is in full-swing, and the Warriors are one of the NBA's surprise teams (having already accumulated three more wins than last season's total of 21), Musselman continues to incorporate several of his father's favorite ploys: "Just like my dad used to do, I add a new play for every team we play. 'Toronto,' or 'Houston,' or whatever. It's just another way to grab the players' attention. And if the play works, we'll keep it in our playbook. If it doesn't, we'll throw it out."
Musselman also makes sure to involve his assistant coaches. "We run stations in practice," he says, "and they're responsible for doing a lot of teaching. Again, this is something that my dad always promoted."
Musselman also listened to his father's advice for getting along with referees. While of the opinion that the NBA's refs do a "good job," Musselman estimates that their calls are only 75 percent accurate. (According to Ed Rush, the supervisor of officials, game tapes prove that refs are actually 93 percent accurate. But how to measure the calls they should make, but don't?) "Like my dad said, don't ride them unless you know they're wrong, and then ride them hard."
After being among the CBA's annual leaders in technical fouls, Eric has been tagged with only a pair this season. "Those two Ts had more to do with me and my team," says Musselman, "than with me and the refs. If one of my guys goes hard to the hoop and doesn't get any calls, then I've got to let my players know that I'm behind them. Actually, I don't have much to say to the refs, especially the veterans. And if some of them treat me like a rookie, well, I am a rookie."
The biggest adjustment between being an NBA assistant and head coach is the never-ending attention of the media. "Assistants are practically anonymous," says Musselman, "while head coaches are always in the spotlight. Here's another area where my CBA background has been helpful. Whether it's a sportswriter from Rockford, Illinois, or a TV journalist from Los Angeles, these people are good at what they do, so it's no use trying to trick them. At the same time, you have to step back, be careful how you phrase things, and avoid saying anything that's too revealing.
"What I try to do is to consciously cool myself down after a ballgame. To let my normal game-time emotionalism subside before I talk to the media. And I also make an effort to make myself available to everybody all of the time. Sure, it's a burden and it cuts into my private time, but it's also part of my job."
Over the course of the longest season in professional sports, Musselman is not afraid to take chances. "It was just before Christmas," he says, "when it became apparent that even though we were very athletic, we weren't moving the ball well enough. So after losing a tough ballgame in Sacramento, I decided to institute an open-motion passing game. This is basically an unstructured offense, which gives the players an unusual degree of freedom. I don't harp on when or from where their shots are taken, or even who takes them, so they get away with shots that other coaches wouldn't tolerate. There is a kicker in the deal, though, and it has to do with me and my coaching staff maintaining a very tight grip on everything that happens at the defensive end. So far, the players have accepted the responsibility without abusing it."
After a recent loss in Minnesota, however, Eric Dampier took exception to Musselman's game plan. Calling his coach "Mussel-head," Dampier mostly complained about his own lack of playing time. In recent weeks, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson have voiced the same complaint. But coaches have to shrug off this kind of criticism, because it really isn't personal. The operative formula is simple: Less daylight eventually equals lower stats equals less salary, fewer endorsements and uglier girlfriends.
And Musselman remembers another pertinent anecdote from his CBA daze: Jeff Sanders, a center for the Albany Patrroons, was playing over 46 minutes per game. Nevertheless, Sanders moaned to the local media that his coach was "messing with my career" by not providing enough game-time. The moral is that players always want to play more than they're playing, and that they all have a bloated opinion of their own value.
Apportioning the available PT is a difficult juggling act for every NBA coach, yet Musselman can identify other problems that are specific to the Warriors. "We're one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league," he notes, "and we usually let everybody go to the glass -- including our point guard, Gilbert Arenas. The problem for us is finding a balance between battling for second shots and getting back on defense. What I think I'm going to do is this: Continue to send the two big men. Keep whichever guard is farthest from the basket at home. And let the small forward read Arenas. If Arenas goes, then the small forward also rotates back. If Arenas decides to back off, then the small forward's free to attack the glass. We'll see how this works out."
Musselman has only a vague roadmap for his team. "In the past," he says, "almost every other team in the league circled their games against Golden State and counted them as sure wins. The Hawks were a bad team when I was an assistant in Atlanta, but we did the same thing. So the Warriors' most immediate goal is to gain the respect of the NBA's players, coaches, general managers, referees and media by always playing hard. Our next step is to consistently win at home. This means to beat the teams we're supposed to beat, and also beat a couple of teams that are supposed to be better than us. After that, we have to strive to play at least .500 ball on the road."
And what of Eric Musselman's personal goals? "When's our next game? That's as far into the future as I can look. It sounds like a cliché, but all cliches have the ring of truth in them."
Eric Musselman is determined to make the most of a difficult apprenticeship, and was fortunate to have had a loving, knowledgeable teacher. Yet despite his modest ambitions, the education of the junior half of the NBA's only father-son parley won't be truly complete until he earns a post-graduate postseason degree.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."