Posts Tagged ‘Bill Musselman’

Metrodome, Site Of NBA Attendance Mark, Will Crumble Before Record

As a baseball park, the HHH Metrodome in Minneapolis was an affront, its plastic grass and Hefty-bag curtains producing a version of the national pastime that was the equivalent of playing marbles in a bathtub. For football, much of the joint’s lousy public relations came from the likes of Mike Ditka (“the Rollerdome,” he slandered it) and that remote-camera video of the December 2010 roof collapse, the Teflon-covered dome losing its poof from too much snow and ice.

But for one memorable season, the Metrodome was a basketball Mecca, drawing more customers to the NBA than any other arena before or since.

With Target Center under construction for what would be the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves’ second season, the Dome (as it was known in the Twin Cities) became the new team’s temporary digs for its 1989-90 inaugural home schedule. Like other domed stadiums turned into makeshift gyms – the Superdome in New Orleans, the Pontiac Silverdome north of Detroit – the configuration for basketball wasn’t ideal.

The court had to be snugged up to one section of the permanent grandstand, with portable bleachers on the other sides. The vastness and lighting messed with shooters’ backgrounds. Then there were the locker rooms, accessed through the baseball dugouts, followed by a long trek up into the bowels of the concrete structure.

“The hardest thing about it was the walk from the court to the locker room,” said Sam Mitchell, the former NBA forward and coach-turned-analyst who scored the first points in Timberwolves history. “You could pull your hamstring in the time it took. It took us forever.

“They had to give us an extra five minutes to get from the locker room down to the court. That was a pain in the butt. You had about 200 stairs to go up and down. And it was cold in there in the wintertime. But from the standpoint of fan support … it’s just something I’ll never forget.”

Don’t be distracted by the Wolves’ 22-60 record; this was more than just a lousy expansion team’s first season. The NBA once had been hot in Minneapolis, the Lakers establishing the league’s first dynasty by winning five titles with George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, coach John Kundla and the rest. But the franchise was moved to Los Angeles in 1960, so the Wolves’ arrival tapped into a pent-up demand for an NBA that – with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as its stars – had grown into a monster.

The Dome, with cavernous capacity built for the NFL and MLB and large enough to host the NCAA Final Four twice, was more than capable of accommodating that.

A crowd of 35,427 showed up for the Wolves’ home opener, with Jordan scoring 45 points for the yet-to-be-champion Chicago Bulls. Boston, with Bird and state hero Kevin McHale, pulled in a crowd of 35,713. When the Lakers came to town on St. Patrick’s Day and narrowly escaped with a 101-99 victory – with Wolves coach Bill Musselman pestering Johnson with 7-foot-3 center Randy Breuer defensively – there were 43,606 in that building that night.

Musselman’s grinding, physically-and-mentally demanding style won over fans, too, some of whom remembered his work with the University of Minnesota Gophers in the early 1970s. The Wolves were as rag-tag as you’d expect for a squad built off the league’s leftovers – the starting five for the opener in Seattle featured Mitchell, Tony Campbell, Tod Murphy, Brad Lohaus and Sidney Lowe – but they slowed the pace to a crawl, defended up in their opponents’ grills (No. 2 in fewest points allowed, 99.4) and took on their feisty head coach’s personality. Whether they liked it or not.

“The Wolves used the visitors’ [baseball] clubhouse, on the other side of the laundry room,” said Clayton Wilson, the Timberwolves’ longtime equipment manager, who worked for the Twins before switching over with the move to Target Center. “Tom Kelly [Twins manager] could sit in there and listen to Musselman rip into the players. ‘Lohaus, you [bleep]!’ Muss would get in their faces a little bit.”

Kelly was a season-ticket holder, like Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.

“T.K. loved the Xs & Os,” Wilson said, “so he would go in pregame and listen to them, and then [during the game] he’d say, ‘OK, see how the coaches said they were going to deny this guy the ball and get it to that guy? That’s what they’re doing.’ ”

There were more than a few nights, Wilson said, that Kelly – rattling around his Dome office in the middle of a Minnesota winter – would give the regular laundry guy a night off and wash the Wolves’ sweaty uniforms and socks.

With a clubhouse built for 25 players, the Wolves had space but few creature comforts in their ersatz locker room. Not that it mattered.

“Most of us had not played in the NBA,” Mitchell said over the weekend. “And the guys who had been on NBA rosters, hell, they had barely played. So I would have played in a brier patch. It didn’t matter to me. I would have played butt-naked, outside and barefoot. Just give me an NBA jersey.”

The team’s attendance had been strong all season. It went 17-24 at home and outscored visitors by 0.4 points, vs. 5-36 on the road with an 8.8 points deficit. But that huge Lakers crowd put Minnesota within reach of something special. The NBA’s home attendance mark belonged to the Pistons, who drew 1,066,505 fans in 1987-88 – the first Detroit “Bad Boys” club to reach The Finals.

After 38 home dates, the Wolves were at 937,148, averaging 24,662 per game to Detroit’s 26,012. That’s when president Bob Stein, marketing whiz Tim Leiweke (now the Toronto Raptors’ top exec) and the rest of the front office shifted into another sales gear. Targeting the NBA record, the Wolves packed in 45,458 for Orlando’s visit on April 13, 40,415 to see Utah two nights later and finally 49,551 for the home finale against Denver on April 17. More than 135,000 tickets – some at wildly reduced rates, many with horrible upper-deck sightlines – were sold for a team that lost 60 games and eight of its final nine. Their final count: 1,072,572, an average of 26,160.

It’s a record that still stands, even if the building in which it was set – the Vikings played the final Metrodome game there Sunday and demolition already has begun – soon won’t be.

NBA Minds Meeting In The Middle On ‘Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics’

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau uses a mix of advanced statistics and old-school in his coaching style.

Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau mixes advanced statistics and “old-school” in his coaching philosophy.

At one end of the gym the other night in St. Louis you had Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, basketball lifer, a fellow who reveres the old-school mentors he has had and spews the sort of coach-ese (“Don’t skip steps,” “next man up,” “more than enough to win”) that existed even before Doc Naismith hung the peach baskets.

At the other end, an hour or so before an NBA preseason game, you had Memphis Grizzlies VP of basketball operations John Hollinger, one of the league’s “new wave” of advanced-analytics gurus. A former columnist at, Hollinger helped to turn the statistical analysis of basketball not just into a new job but a new way of thinking about, appreciating and ultimately playing the game.

And yet, when it comes to crunching numbers, valuing some and discarding others, the two aren’t as diametrically opposed in philosophies as their backgrounds or personalities might suggest.

“I’ve been big on statistics for a long time,” Thibodeau said. “I like to use Elias [Sports Bureau]. There are a number of things I look at. … I get a stat pack both on our opponent and on us for every game.”

With postseason baseball picking up steam toward the World Series and the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s alive until Thursday night in the American League, the use of advanced stats vs. traditional eye- and gut-evaluations in shaping NBA rosters and devising 2013-14 strategy seemed a timely topic.

What got introduced into baseball over a period of 30 years due in part to “sabermetrician” outsider-turned-insider Bill James has traveled along more recent learning and acceptance curves in basketball. Where the former has gained devotees of OPS and defensive range factors over, say, RBIs or pitchers’ victory totals, the latter is making its case for team pace, player usage rates and individual rebound percentages.

Hollinger – quick to admit he is “biased” – said he’s heartened by how swiftly the NBA, its media and its fans have embraced many of the new tools.

“If basketball had as much initial resistance as baseball, there’s no way in hell I’d be working for a team right now,” Hollinger said, laughing. “I thought it would take a lot longer for a lot of these things to be accepted than it has. Even the simpler stuff, like ‘per 40 minutes’ or ‘offensive and defensive efficiency.’

“It took way longer in baseball,” he said. “I think part of the reason is that Bill James kind of plowed a trail through the snow for the other sports.”

Nowhere near as tradition-bound as baseball, basketball, Hollinger said, “has always been more open to trying new things, changing the rules, changing approaches.”

But before the new breed pats itself on the back too much, Thibodeau noted some early influences on him, coaches such as Pat Riley and Bill Musselman who were regularly seeking and utilizing numbers by the 1980s at least. When Rick Pitino went from a Knicks assistant to Providence College in 1985, the Bulls coach said, he upped the ante in his use of 3-point weaponry long before the competition.

“From a math standpoint, you could figure out how you could offset a talent disadvantage,” Thibodeau said.

The Bulls rely on Steve Weinman to mine a lot of statistical info, Thibodeau said. Many other teams – Boston, Houston, Memphis, Miami among them – go further in what most admit is a copy-cat league. As far as a pendulum effect, Hollinger thinks it hasn’t swung nearly far enough while Thibodeau seems comfortable with where the mix sits right now. He notes that few analytical breakdowns account for every variation, such as home/road or 4-in-5-night schedule quirks, and he’s wary of small sample sizes.

Besides, what was it Mark Twain said? “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Churchill has a great quote, something along the lines of, he didn’t believe in any statistics that he didn’t doctor himself,” Thibodeau said. “There is a place in our league and I think it’s good. It may be getting overplayed some right now. I think the trained eye is very important. But numbers are certainly a big part of the equation.”

Hollinger, meanwhile, concedes that basketball is different from baseball or even football, which allow for easier isolation of measurable events. Think of each sport’s flow: Baseball is a series of individual acts strung together. Football is a sequential activity of participants, from snap to block to drop-back and pass to reception and run.

Then there’s basketball, where the ball can reverse directions, teams have 24 seconds to act, react and counter, defenders switch and switch back, and games can turn on so-called 50/50 balls where best-laid plans vanish.

“You’re trying to break it down into almost baseball-like segments,” Hollinger said courtside, sipping from his ubiquitous cup of coffee. “It gets tricky when, much like football, you’re counting on the interaction of multiple players in any one play. Where in baseball, the left fielder could be doing almost anything and he won’t impact the batter-pitcher confrontation unless the ball’s hit to him.”

So while it is said to be basketball’s wave of the future, the use of advanced statistics also has one foot firmly planted in the game’s essence and past. The best thing is that, in 2013-14, there’s room for both.

Those raised on  Xs & Os and squishy stuff like “effort” and “sacrifice” don’t have to butt heads with the slide-rule set, any more than mainstream news media in their scrambles to survive butt heads these days with the blogosphere. Woe to the old-school coach or GM who scoffs at spreadsheets.

Then again, “Moneyball” hasn’t made it to the World Series yet.

Griner Wouldn’t Be Longest Draft Reach

HANG TIME, Texas — Never underestimate Mark Cuban’s knack for attracting attention. And who could blame him if the idea was to draw it away from his underperforming team that is ironically keeping a team of barbers on hold at the same time they’re about to cut off their string of consecutive playoff appearances at 12 years?

Should the Mavericks draft Brittney Griner?

Let cranky Geno Auriemma be outraged and throw bricks. Let former greats of the women’s game Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers Drysdale offer their words encouragement to the Baylor star. Let Griner give even the most outrageous hope and dreams to any little girl who has ever dribbled a basketball.

Let’s face it. The Mavs selecting Griner wouldn’t be the first unusual pick in the history of the NBA draft. And before you snicker, remember that somebody took Pervis Ellison, Greg Oden, Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi No. 1. Here’s a reminder of a few others off-beat choices down through the years:

JIM BROWN (Syracuse Nationals, 1957 ) — The Nats didn’t have to reach outside the city limits to take a flyer on the guy who would become perhaps the greatest player in NFL history. Brown played four college sports — football, basketball, lacrosse and track — at Syracuse. He even averaged 15 points a game for the basketball team in his sophomore year. But even though there was little doubt that Brown was bound for a career on the gridiron, the Nats made him a ninth-round pick.

Other notables in draft: “Hot Rod” Hundley (No. 1 overall by Cincinnati, traded to Minneapolis); Sam Jones (No. 8 by Boston).

FRANK HOWARD (Philadelphia Warriors, 1958) — It wasn’t just his physical stature at 6-foot-8, 275 pounds that caught the attention of the Warriors in the third round. He could really play and was an All-American in basketball at Ohio State. But baseball was Howard’s first love and he signed with the Dodgers and had a 15-year career in the majors, hitting 382 home runs with 1,119 RBIs.

Other notables in the draft: Elgin Baylor (No. 1 overall by Minneapolis); Hal Greer (No. 13 by Syracuse).

BUBBA SMITH (Baltimore Bullets, 1967) — Long before he became known for playing the role of Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies and starring in Miller Lite commercials, the 6-foot-7 Smith was an All-American defensive end at Michigan State. His height attracted the attention of the Bullets in the 11th round of the NBA draft, but Smith was the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL Colts and a champion in Super Bowl V.

Other notables in the draft: Earl Monroe (No. 2 overall by Baltimore); Walt Frazier (No. 5 by New York).

BOB BEAMON (Phoenix Suns, 1969) — Who could blame the Suns for taking a flying leap? After all, they were coming off a 16-66 record in their expansion season in the league and Beamon had just shattered the world long jump record by more than a foot at the Mexico City Olympics. Beamon had grown up playing street ball in New York, but was strictly a track and field athlete in college at Texas-El Paso. The Suns picked him in the 15th round of the draft, but he went back to school and graduated with a sociology degree from Adelphi University.

DENISE LONG (San Francisco Warriors, 1969) — The 18 year old out of Union-Whitten High in Iowa was the first woman ever drafted in the NBA, taken in the 13th round. She had averaged 69.6 points and had a single game high of 111 points in her senior year. NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick, calling it a publicity stunt by Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli and also noted that high school players weren’t eligible at the time. Mieuli brought Long and other female players in to play before Warriors home games.

Other notables in the draft: Lew Alcindor (No. 1 overall by Milwaukee); JoJo White (No. 9 by Boston); Mack Calvin (187th by L.A. Lakers).

DAVE WINFIELD (Atlanta Hawks, 1973) — It wasn’t just the Hawks who were trying to get their talons on one of the greatest all-around college athletes ever with their fifth-round pick. He was also drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, but went to baseball when the San Diego Padres chose him as a pitcher. In college at Minnesota, Bill Musselman once called him the best rebounder he ever coached. But Winfield did quite well in baseball, a 12-time All-Star with 465 career homers.

Other notables in the draft: Doug Collins (No. 1 overall by Philadelphia); Kermit Washington (No. 5 by L.A. Lakers).

BRUCE JENNER (Kansas City Kings, 1977) — Before face lifts and the Kardashians, there was a time when Jenner was known as the “world’s greatest athlete” after taking the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the Kings made him a seventh-round draft pick. He never played in college and the closest Jenner ever got to basketball stardom was when he sank a shot during the singing of YMCA in the 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music, which starred the Village People.

LUSIA HARRIS (New Orleans Jazz, 1977) — Here’s the real forerunner to Griner. A 6-foot-3 pioneer of the women’s game who led Delta State to three consecutive national titles, Harris was the second female ever drafted by an NBA team when the Jazz made her a seventh-round pick. Just imagine the show if she had been given a chance to team up with Pete Maravich in the backcourt. Harris showed little interest in her selection and declined a tryout invitation from the Jazz. It was later revealed that she was pregnant at the time.

Other notables in the draft: Bernard King (No. 7 overall by New York Nets); Jack Sikma (No. 8 by Seattle).

TONY GWYNN (San Diego Clippers, 1981) — After he set the San Diego State assist records for a game, season and career, he was hardly a reach for the Clippers in the 10th round of the draft. Gwynn said that dribbling strengthened his wrists and helped with bat speed and his on-court quickness made him a better base-runner. It all added up to a Hall of Fame baseball career with 3,141 hits and eight N.L. batting titles.

YASUTAKA OKAYAMA (Golden State Warriors, 1981) — Tallest player ever drafted by an NBA team? Not Yao Ming or Gheorge Muresan or Manute Bol. Try Okayama, who was 7-foot-8. He earned a second degree black belt in judo in his native Japan and began playing basketball at age 18 at Osaka University of Commerce. Okayama attended the University of Portland (Ore.), but did not play there. He was a member of the Japanese national team from 1979 to 1986. He never signed with the Warriors or attended a camp.

Other notables in the draft: Mark Aguirre (No. 1 overall by Dallas); Isiah Thomas (No. 2 by Detroit).

CARL LEWIS (Chicago Bulls, 1984) — It might have been the year when Michael Jordan earned his first gold medal, but Lewis was definitely the biggest star of the L.A. Olympics, tying Jesse Owens’ record of four track and field gold medals. Though he never played basketball in high school or college, a West Coast scout recommended drafting Lewis in the 10th round because he was “the best athlete available.” That same year the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the 12th round as a wide receiver. Lewis stayed with sprinting and the long jump to become arguably the greatest track and field athlete ever.

Other notables in the draft: Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 1 overall by Houston); Michael Jordan (No. 3 by Chicago); Charles Barkley (No. 5 by Philadelphia); John Stockton (No. 16 by Utah).