Publish date:

The Man Who Tried Too Hard

Even the son who idolized him found Bill Musselman's obsession with winning difficult to take

I met the son during the middle of this season. I was working on a story about the father, climbing around the infrastructure of the father's life. The son was part of the infrastructure. I talked with him at the Target Center arena in Minneapolis a couple of hours before the Minnesota Timberwolves were to play the New York Knicks.

"My mother wanted me to be a lawyer," Eric Musselman said. "But my father always has been my idol. I've been around basketball all of my life. I low could I do anything else? I want to be a coach. Just like him."

The son resembled the father, but there was a softer quality to his features. He did not have those eyes that looked as if they were trying to stare through a concrete wall. He did not have that perpetual tension about him. The father always seemed to be holding on to some imaginary white-hot iron rod, withstanding the challenge of the pain to prove a point. The son seemed to have a balance the father never had found. The son could smile.

"I was five years old," he said. "That's my first memory of big-time basketball. I had perfected a dribbling routine to perform at halftime. My father was coaching at the University of Minnesota. I did the show at the big game against Indiana. Williams Arena was packed. I wasn't nervous. I don't know why. I went out there and did everything perfect. The whole routine. I was fine until I was leaving the floor. Then I looked up and saw my mother. She was sitting in about the 10th row. I wet my pants. I went running to her and started crying. I never did the routine again."

The son talked about going to high school in a suburb of Cleveland. His father's team then, the NBA Cavaliers, was having troubles. There was a lot of controversy. In his senior year, he was his high school team's high scorer. He was one of those flashy guards, scoring the points and dealing out the assists. The opposing fans yelled at him about his father and threw hot dogs on the court. He did not think he was a hot dog.

His parents divorced when he was in college. His father went off to coach teams in the minor leagues. The son played at the University of San Diego. His mother lived in California. He talked with his father often, visited when he could. His father lived in Florida.

"Here's how he is," the son said. "I went to visit him for a week with one of my friends, a teammate. When we got to the house, one of the first things my father did was put three glasses on the counter. They were NBA glasses, each with the decal of a different team. My father said that each of us would have a glass for the entire week. One glass. I think mine was from the San Antonio Spurs. My father said that when we wanted a drink, each of us should use only his own glass. When we were finished, we should wash the glass immediately, then put it in the freezer. If we wanted another drink, the glass would be waiting in the freezer. There never would be any clutter. That was the rule."

Time passed. The son was 26 years old now. The father was 50. A year earlier, the son had taken the father's basketball theories into the minor leagues and coached the Rapid City (S.Dak.) Thrillers to a 42-14 record. When the father called and asked him if he was interested in being an assistant coach with the Timberwolves, the son jumped at the opportunity. Who could resist? The idea was that the son would live with the father again, a couple of basketball bachelors commuting to the job together. The living arrangement did not work. The son could not keep pace.

"I lasted about a month," he said. "I was exhausted. I wasn't getting any sleep. I had big circles under my eyes. My father is one of those people who comes to life after dark. He doesn't go to bed. Two-thirty, I'd say, would be an early time for him. No matter what time I'd come home, he'd be up. He'd always say, 'Let's look at this game film,' or 'Let's talk about this idea.' I couldn't take it. He'd get up again at 6:30 or 7:00. I was exhausted. I got my own place, and it's better now. I leave the phone off the hook so he can't call me."

The son marveled at his father's ferocity. How did the father do it? He seemed to run on a higher-octane fuel than everyone else. Everything was a competition. There was nothing as simple as a father-son jog. It was always a race. The father demanded to win, extending the race until he did win. The rowing machine in the health club? The father always asked what the son had done during a designated period. The father always did more. Even the Pac-Man machines at a hotel were a challenge. The father stayed at the machine until he broke the listed record.

"How about basketball?" I asked. "Did you play one-on-one against your father in the driveway when you were a kid?"

"Oh, yeah," the son said. "We played every day when I was a kid. He always beat me. Every time. Finally, in ninth grade, I beat him once. That was the end. One game. We've never played one-on-one again."

On April 22, the Timberwolves fired Bill Musselman, their head coach. The team had won six of its last eight games and finished with a 29-53 record, seven wins better than it did in 1989-90, its first season in the NBA. Management said one of the reasons for the firing was that Musselman wanted to "win too much," and did not devote enough effort to developing his younger players. Musselman said he was guilty as charged. He said he always liked to win.