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Musselman's Son is Courting Success Too : Pro basketball: Eric Musselman, son of ex-Timberwolves Coach Bill, was a CBA general manager at 23.

June 17, 1991|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The memory is a decade old, but Kris Musselman has not forgotten any of its revolting details.

As she sat in the stands watching her son, Eric, play a high school basketball game on a visitor's court, she could hardly believe what she was seeing.

While Eric played, fans hurled hot dogs at him and held up signs, viciously displaying their distaste for his father, Bill, who was coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"The whole way home I cried," Kris said. "I thought it was terrible what these people were doing to a 16-year-old kid. I would have told him to walk away from it. But Bill said it was part of athletics. He said it would make Eric into a tougher individual."

Kris now acknowledges that incident and others like it actually strengthened her son.

"Eric thrived on it," said Kris, who is divorced from Bill and lives in La Jolla. "It was probably the real making of Eric."

Eric Musselman, who played basketball at the University of San Diego from 1984-88, has continued to thrive under similar circumstances.

At 23, he was named general manager of the Continental Basketball Assn.'s Rapid City Thrillers. Although he was given the job largely on his father's recommendation, Musselman proved himself immediately.

He made nine trades his first day on the job. By week's end, he had traded the entire 10-man roster. And by season's end, Musselman had transformed the 16-38 Thrillers into a team with a 38-16 record--the league's best.

The next year, Musselman reluctantly took on the additional duties of coaching the South Dakota franchise. With no experience, Musselman, then 24, led Rapid City to a 42-14 record, second best in CBA history.

With only that year of coaching experience, he was hired by his father as one of his assistants with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. Musselman was fired along with his father after last season, but Thrillers owner Pat Hall quickly hired him back as the team's coach and general manager.

At 26, Musselman appears to be far ahead of the game. While most coaches pay their dues at the high school or junior college level, Musselman's training ground was professional basketball.

Most who know him say it has nothing to do with luck or his last name. They believe it has everything to do with his knowledge of the game, his fiery intensity and his ability to relate to people.

People who know Eric and Bill say the first two virtues were acquired from Bill, but the last one sets them apart.

Although Bill has enjoyed his share of successes in nearly 30 years of coaching, he has been criticized throughout his career for being too tough on his players, and at times insensitive to management's wishes.

Kris said she doesn't believe Eric will make the same mistakes.

"Eric knows the competitiveness has to be tempered," she said. "He's very much a people's person. I think he'll be more successful than his dad. His know-how with people will get him far."

Said Barry Hecker, player personnel director of the Los Angeles Clippers, who gave Eric his first job out of USD: "Eric has the same work ethic as Bill, but he has more people skills. He has more empathy."

But on the court, Hall, the Thrillers owner, says the two are incredibly alike.

"They're both as intense as I've ever met," Hall said. "I'd rate them 1 and 2, and I'm not sure Bill is No. 1."

In Eric's rookie year of coaching, he showed that intensity by being among the league leaders in technical fouls.

Hall said he began to recognize Musselman's vigor over the airwaves. During his first season as general manager, Musselman also doubled as a color commentator for the Rapid City radio station.

"He was supposed to be commentating on the game, but sometimes you'd hear some choice words come over the radio that were directed at the officials," Hall said. "I don't think they were supposed to get on the air."

Eric Musselman started overachieving during his high school basketball career. Although he was only 5 feet 7, Musselman averaged 24 points per game his junior year for Brecksville High, finishing fourth in the city of Cleveland in scoring.

He worked hard to achieve what he did, and the extra practice earned him a scholarship to USD, where he played under Jim Brovelli and Hank Egan. But even though his lack of size limited his playing time, Musselman absorbed the wisdom of Egan and Brovelli, and occasionally interjected some of his own knowledge, which he gained from watching his father.

"Sometimes in the huddle, he gave us some pretty good advice," Egan said. "He really understood the game."

Musselman's aptitude convinced Thrillers owner Hall that he better not let this "kid" slip away.

"Everybody in the league laughed at me when I flew him up here for an interview," Hall said. "But right away I could see how sharp he was."

Not only did Musselman turn Rapid City into a winner on the court, he also turned the franchise's financial fortunes around.

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