NBA lessons learned in CBA
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

The CBA is dead! Long live the CBA!

The virtually defunct Continental Basketball Association had many aliases: The "Cockroach Basketball Association," the "Crazy Basketball Association" and, for the numerous CBA players whose NBA 10-day contracts were not renewed, "Come Back Again."

However it might be identified, the CBA always teetered on the edge of absurdity: A player traded for a sex act to be named later. A coach grabbing a referee's whistle-lanyard and trying to strangle him. A dispute over playing time resulting in a player trying to drown his coach in a toilet bowl.

Even so, six current NBA head coaches learned their trade or polished their resumes in the CBA: Phil Jackson, Flip Saunders, Terry Stotts, Keith Smart, George Karl and Eric Musselman. Other bench-bound graduates of the CBA include 17 NBA assistant coaches. What exactly did these coaches learn from their respective servitudes in the CBA?

To find out, I connected with the youngest coach in the NBA, 38-year-old Eric Musselman. After toiling for seven years in the CBA, Musselman is now in his rookie season at the helm of the Golden State Warriors.

Eric Musselman
Before taking over the Warriors, Eric Musselman learned his trade in the CBA.

"There were so many constant day-to-day and hour-by-hour distractions in the CBA," says Musselman. "If they didn't burn you out or make you crazy yourself, they could provide a very unique educational experience."

CBA coaches routinely had to deal with agents, negotiating players' salaries, shepherding players and their luggage through airports, distributing meal money, keeping track of player fines and locating AWOL players, and arranging for practice sites. Also on the agenda were 10-hour bus rides; 6 a.m. plane departures; triple-flight travel itineraries that landed in places like La Crosse, Wisconsin, or Wichita Falls, Texas, barely an hour before game time; greasy fast food meals eaten hurriedly; vermin-ridden hotels; miserly, know-it-all owners; and bouncing paychecks. To say nothing of the daily possibility of your top players suddenly being called up to the NBA or leaving to play overseas.

Musselman recalls one particular day when three of his players were summoned to NBA teams -- Fennis Dembo, Shelton Jones and Clint Wheeler. Because Musselman had previously suspended Wes Matthews, his Rapid City Thrillers only had six available players. "The league rule stated that we needed seven players in uniform," Musselman recalls, "so even though Matthews was suspended, he suited up and sat on the bench. Matthews was angry at me, so he sat there with his sneakers untied.

"We were playing in Oklahoma City, and the game went into the third overtime. Nobody fouls out in the CBA, but after the second overtime the six players were exhausted, forcing me to unsuspend Matthews and send him into the game. Out of spite, he didn't bother to tie his sneaker laces, yet he scored 12 points in the third overtime and won the game for us. There he was, running around with his laces flying all over the place, and screaming at me every time he scored. That's the CBA."

From the CBA to the NBA
Current NBA assistant coaches who also coached in the CBA:

Pete Myers and Bob Thornton, Chicago; Ron Ekker, Cleveland; Paul Mokeski, Dallas; Mark Osowski, Golden State; Dennis Johnson and Mo McHone, Clippers; Scott Roth, Memphis; Don Zierden, Minnesota; Mark Hughes, Orlando; Marc Iavaroni, Phoenix; Herb Brown and Dan Panaggio, Portland; Elston Turner, Sacramento; Craig Neal and Walker Russell, Toronto; Kenny Natt, Utah)

Musselman's point is that coaching in the CBA taught him to totally focus on the situation at hand. "No matter what happened," he says, "no matter how crazy things got, I had to concentrate on the next play, the next substitution, the next game. That was the most important skill that I brought with me into the NBA."

That focus was further sharpened by the primitive state of scouting in the CBA. "In the NBA," says Musselman, "every game is televised, so the game tapes are high quality. In addition, every team has a video coordinator who breaks each tape down into offense, defense, out-of-bounds plays, fastbreaks, or whatever categories the coach wants. In the CBA, you were given a game tape that was usually shot with a single camera mounted at the highest point in the highest balcony. I'd always take a VCR with me on the road so that I could watch the tape in my hotel room, but the images were often so blurry and the cameraman so shaky that it was extremely difficult to make much sense of the games.

"If I had enough time, I'd also review the tape of the last game we'd played against an upcoming opponent, but these also had limited value, because there might be four or five new players from one game to the next. The best way to scout was to call up another coach who'd just played the team I was trying to prepare for and pick his brain. There were about five or six coaches who would help each other out this way. Because of this situation, paying attention to the opponents and their tendencies had little value, and games were decided strictly on how well your own team played."

While Musselman understands that NBA scouting reports are essential, he also knows they are not absolute. "I learned that a coach's main focus has to be on his own players," says Musselman. "These are the guys you have to live with for nine months. Ultimately, these are the guys who win or lose games." Because of the constantly changing rosters (CBA teams routinely went through 20 to 30 players every season), Musselman also learned the necessity of being flexible. "In the NBA," he says, "there's enough roster stability so that a coach can bring in the kind of players who can fit his particular system. But in the CBA, coaches have to tailor their systems to fit the available players. So one season in Rapid City, we played up-tempo and averaged 119 points per game. Another season in West Palm Beach, we had to play station-to-station slow-down ball and averaged about 30 less."

Since most of the NBA's referees similarly got their start in the CBA, Musselman was able to develop what he characterizes as an "amiable acquaintance with most of them." For Musselman, this friendliness with referees was certainly not an inherited trait. "Not at all," he says. "Win or lose, my dad always seemed to have a hard time with the CBA's refs."

Bill Musselman
Bill Musselman, here with the Cavaliers in 1981, coached for 29 years.

Like father, like son
Eric's father was the late Bill Musselman, former coach of the ABA's San Diego Sails and Virginia Squires (1975-76), and in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers (1980-81, 1982) and the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves (1989-91). Musselman senior was also the most successful coach in CBA history, winning four consecutive championships (1985-88 with Tampa Bay/Rapid City and Albany). Obsessive, feisty, thorough and resourceful, Bill also possessed an admirable sense of fairness that sometimes got the better of him. For example:

When I was a rookie head coach of the CBA's Savannah Spirits, we were involved in a tight game at Tampa Bay. Late in the fourth quarter, one of the refs called three charging fouls on my best player, Cedric Henderson, and the Thrillers eventually won on a buzzer-beating shot by the late "Fast" Eddie Jordan. Instead of celebrating his victory, Bill followed the refs off the court to their locker room, screaming that they had "screwed Charley out of the win." He continued to kick and pound his fists on the closed locker room door, raging for another 10 minutes.

"Muss," I said when he'd cooled down, "what're you doing?"

"If I can't win a game fairly, then I'd rather lose." He walked a few steps away, then turned, smiled tightly, and said, "Don't worry, Charley, I'll get over it."

Eric ("Mussel-boy" among his CBA peers) certainly appreciates the achievements of his father ("Mussel-person"), yet he views some of Bill's coaching methods as negative examples that he has studiously avoided.

"Everywhere he coached, Dad used a six-man rotation," says Eric the Younger. "He had a great relationship with the guys who played, but never talked with the rest. In the CBA, I developed the habit of having a 10-man rotation, and I do the same thing now. Also, I leave the starters alone and communicate mostly with the guys who don't get as much playing time. They're the ones who need the constant attention and encouragement to hang in, work hard in practice, and be ready when their numbers are called."

When Bill coached the CBA's Rochester (Minn.) Flyers, he was often matched against his son. "We were playing in Rochester one night," Eric recalls, "and Dad was up by 20 at the half. The locker rooms were separated by a thin piece of plywood, and when I yelled at my team, Dad could hear every word. Just before the third quarter, he came over and said, 'Take it easy, Eric. It's just a game.' It was easy for him to be so blasť, because he was winning by 20 points! I also had to laugh, because when I was growing up, Dad's attitude was that every game was life or death."

Eric's team mounted a furious comeback and, with seconds left in the game, trailed by only one. Now it was Bill who was yelling at his team. So Eric shouted down to the home team's bench, " 'Take it easy, Dad. It's just a game.' Dad wound up winning, but that was the only time that we didn't have dinner together after our teams played each other."

It's been a long road from there to here. Since his CBA days, Musselman has been an assistant coach for one season in Minnesota (to his father), three seasons in Orlando (under Chuck Daly), and two in Atlanta (Lon Kruger). "After coaching in the CBA," he notes, "being an NBA assistant is a piece of cake."

And now that he's finally perched on an NBA hot seat, Eric Musselman is just one more proof that there is life after the CBA.

Next: The trials and tribulations of a rookie head coach in the NBA.

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."



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