Michael Musselman thought it was a lost cause, that this was an unsalvageable situation.
At first, he was thrilled when his father, Eric, accepted Nevada’s head-coaching job. In fact, he helped talk him into taking the position. But reality hit both Musselmen men in the form of bricks – metaphorical ones, not literal ones – during Nevada’s first practice under its new coach.
That was in March 2015 and just a few minutes into practice Michael knew the challenge ahead. Players were complaining about sore arms from simply shooting. Balls were ricocheting all over the gym and rarely finding the bottom of the net. The coaches didn’t know the players’ names and vice versa. This didn’t look like a Division I basketball team. It looked like uncontrollable chaos. It looked like a disaster.
“I was so frustrated with it I just walked out and said, ‘This is like a lost cause. This was a terrible decision taking this,’” the younger Musselman said of his first glimpse of the Wolf Pack. “He kind of calmed me down. I think sometimes I get a little more worked up than him. I was really worried about it.”
At the time, Michael Musselmen was a student manager at the University of San Diego, his dad’s alma mater. He attended that first Pack practice but knew he didn’t have to stay and try to fix the mess. That was up to his father, who has done just that, leading Nevada to a CBI title in year one; to the NCAA Tournament in year two; and to the Sweet 16 in year three. The fourth season at Nevada has been even more special, a 15-1 start to the season that peaked with being ranked fifth in the nation. But for the Musselmans – father and son – it has been a special season for a different reason. For the first time, they’re working on the same staff.
Last summer, Michael graduated from USD and joined his father at Nevada as one of the team’s six graduate assistants. He has the same responsibilities as the other GAs, with some perks, of course.
“I buy him lunch every day,” Eric Musselman said with a smile.
Michael is just one of the guys on the Wolf Pack bench. Like the others, he’s trying to create a career in basketball. Unlike the others, his last name is synonymous with the game. His grandpa and dad were the first father-son duo to become NBA head coaches. Both led two NBA teams in addition to wild success in the minor leagues and college levels. Michael doesn’t shy away from the fact he wants to reach those same heights. He wants to lead his own team and is ready to put in the work to make it happen.
“When you’re young and you’re going to work with your dad and sitting in the office for days at a time or going on road trips, it’s all you can really think about,” Michael said. “I couldn’t imagine going and sitting at a desk tomorrow. I’d probably go a little bit stir crazy and freak out or something. It’s something that’s been in my family forever and I’d like to pursue it and see where it goes from here.”
For now, his tunnel-vision is on trying to squeeze everything out of this historic Wolf Pack season as well as spending time with his dad, which was rare when he was growing up and Eric was consumed with building his own career as the head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
But at age 54, and with three children, Eric Musselman is reveling in the fact he gets to see his son every day.
“Words can’t describe it,” Musselman said. “As a father, especially a divorced father, you feel guilty not being around. I didn’t take my son to school every day. I wasn’t there to pick him up. I missed games. All of that stuff hangs with you and it’s in your core, it’s in your heart and you lost it, it’s gone. Now to be able to see him every day and see he’s having fun and we’ve at least opened a door for him to do something for his career, whichever way it goes, we were a part of the beginning stages.”
Born into a basketball family
Michael’s first memory of basketball came when he was 6 years old shooting on a Little Tikes hoop in Orlando when his father was an assistant coach for the Magic, first under Chuck Daly and then Doc Rivers.
Musselman said he was “born with a ball in my hand.” He hung out in the locker room with some of the world’s best players. He traveled on the team’s private planes. His grandpa and father were both basketball encyclopedias, so there was never a doubt where Michael’s future would come. The only question was whether Michael would understand how abnormal his basketball upbringing truly was.
“When I was in high school, I kind of realized it wasn’t normal after the fact,” he said. “I realized traveling on private planes with the team with people playing video games and gambling (wasn’t normal). When you’re that age, you don’t realize it was something special. But I definitely look back and am very grateful I was able to experience that all now.”
The patriarch of this enterprise was Bill Musselman, Michael's grandpa who was defined by his will to win, the man once saying, “Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat.” Michael was young when his grandfather died of heart and kidney failure, but he witnessed his trademark intensity, a trait handed down to Eric and his two sons, Michael being the eldest (Matthew is a high school senior).
“I was 6 years old when he passed, but I remember his intensity around my family and being around him when he watched film and all the stories,” Michael said. “I get a lot of stories. Almost every gym I walk into I hear, ‘He played for your grandpa,' or 'He coached with your grandpa’ or something to that effect. It’s special to get hear things about him and kind of learn through his old players and staff.”
Musselman grew up playing the game, his dad being his first mentor. He’d get pages of notes after every game about what he did well and what he did poorly. Musselman led his team to a state championship in high school but a college career wasn’t in the cards, Michael getting another one of the Musselman traits passed through the family – a lack of height. But after enrolling at USD, Musselman knew he wasn't done with the game. He joined the Toreros as a student manager, a move that thrilled his father.
“I was very excited,” Eric said. “I know my mom, when I wanted to get into coaching, she went through a bout of depression. She wanted me to be a lawyer. She thought I was really good at arguing, but basketball is what I love. With Michael, it’s, ‘Let him try this.’ He’s on course to graduate in one year in a two-year program. He thinks he’s getting a 4.0 (GPA) in this semester, so he’s really working on his studies. He takes academics really, really seriously and to be able to do a two-year program in one year would be really powerful for him. He takes everything as a challenge.”
Given his academic prowess, this is potentially the only season Michael will serve on his father’s staff, so the Musselmans are trying to soak it all in. Michael said his dad is having “a profound impact on my coaching style and what it might be in the future,” not unlike the year Eric spent on his dad’s staff. That came in 1990-91 when Musselman was one of two assistants for his father's Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I only worked for him for one year but it was the best year of my life looking back now that my dad is no longer around,” Musselman said. “It was a life-time experience and something I’ll never forget.”
Musselman said he’s a gentler boss that his dad, who didn’t allow his assistants to talk (the other T'Wolves assistant was future two-time NBA head coach Tom Thibodeau). Bill Musselman was old school, and didn’t mind lighting into his son if needed. While Eric’s intensity is duly noted, he gives everybody on his staff – from his top assistant to his youngest grad assistant – a voice in the team meeting room.
“He’s been the best boss I could ever ask for,” Michael said. “It’s been awesome. I get to spend time with him and make up for a lot of missed time when I was in school, when he was with the Memphis Grizzlies and I was in the Bay Area. I missed out on a lot of time with him, but we’ve got to make it up and it’s been really awesome.”
Sage advice from son
After Eric Musselman was fired by the Sacramento Kings following a year as their coach, he returned to the Bay Area to focus on being a dad. He coached Michael’s AAU team, vowing he would quit as soon as the team lost its first game (it won nearly 60 games before that happened, and he did in fact quit following the first defeat). But as much as Eric enjoyed being around his sons, Michael knew he wasn’t fully satisfied.
Basketball was calling and his dad was ready to return after two seasons away from the game. Michael recalled the time San Francisco State tried to hire his dad and the Musselmans toured the facilities of the Division II school.
“I was with him at one of the first places he went right after the Kings and we went and walked around San Francisco State and he talked about taking that job,” Michael Musselman recalled. “I said, ‘No offense there, but I think you’re better than this. I think you can build up a bigger program.’”
Musselman eventually returned to the game as a G League coach, first in Reno and then in Los Angeles, where he won the league's coach of the year honors. After no NBA offers developed despite huge success, Musselman took a risk, going the college route and spending three years as an assistant before Nevada hired him. Michael’s advice to skip on a low-level program like San Francisco State for a better opportunity in the future proved wise.
“For me, it was whatever program I thought he could build up the most,” Michael said.
That was Nevada, where Musselman has hit his apex. The veteran head coach has been successful at every stop of his career, save for a one-year stint in Sacramento, but he had never truly been recognized as a great coach. Inheriting a program in need of resurrection in Reno, it’s not hyperbole to say Musselman has had one of the best four-year starts in college basketball history, which has been a joy for his sons to see.
“He had moderate success at all of his other places but didn’t really do anything that was exceptional,” Michael said. “I always knew he was a great coach. Being around him all the time, I always knew he had it in him and so to see everything finally pay off and get to be on a big stage and bring a program from nine wins to fifth, sixth in the country is really amazing to see.”
The Musselmans are thrilled they are traveling this season's basketball journey together. Michael doesn’t live with his father. He has his own place, but he’s the first guy Eric says hi to when he walks into the office each morning and they eat lunch together five or six days out of the week. Like his dad, Michael has a passionate edge to him, but he’s also been a calming force for this father.
“We were struggling in the USC game and I looked down at the bench and I couldn’t see him,” Eric said. “The game was going on and I was, like, ‘Where’s my son?' His intensity during the game and his angst is probably worse than mine because I have some control over what’s going on, but I can see it in his face much more so than anybody else on the staff the highs and lows of the game.”
Michael could be off to another basketball job next season, so the father and son are making this a season they'll never forget, both because of what is happening on the court and the time they get to spend off it. Eric said his favorite thing about having his son on staff is getting to see him every day, knowing he’s safe and knowing he’s happy. That’s especially important given the time he missed with his kids during his NBA coaching career.
“Being a dad is the most important thing,” Eric said. “Being a dad is first. Being a husband is tied. But I think being a dad is even more important than being a husband and being a coach is way down here. Obviously, the public only sees one thing and that’s coaching and everything else is behind closed doors. But my mom was awesome, my dad was awesome and I just want my kids to feel like they’re really loved, they’re really supported and you believe in them. Hopefully all three of them feel that way.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.