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MUSSELMAN FLEXES HIS MUSCLE.

Byline: JOE STEVENS

If you follow the NBA long enough, you can become desensitized to the buzzer-beating shot, the 360-degree dunk or the perfect no-look pass. Sometimes, seeing acrobatics night after night, you might start to take the breathtaking athleticism for granted.

But every so often, something huge happens, or someone comes along to give you another reason to keep following this league. There are numerous examples of that affirmation, the most recent being when Kobe Bryant went on his tear, scoring 40 points or more in nine consecutive games.

Though Bryant's streak was the focus for most fans this week, a relatively new gem in the NBA landscape was discovered - Golden State coach Eric Musselman.

Musselman is 38 years old, the youngest coach in the league. In his first season as the Warriors' coach, he has led them to immediate improvement. They are 28-30, already having surpassed their win total last year (21-61). When this season ends, the Warriors will finish as the most improved team in the league by far, and Musselman will get votes for NBA Coach of the Year.

``I don't know if `overachieved' is the word,'' Musselman said. ``But if you were to tell me before the season that at this point, we'd be sitting here at just two games below .500, I'd say there's absolutely no way.''

Musselman is the son of former NBA coach Bill Musselman, who died in May 2000 due to complications from bone-marrow cancer. The younger Musselman has been around basketball his entire life, hanging out in the dressing rooms of his father's teams, taking short trips with them and reading countless books about coaching while a youth.

At 23, he became the youngest coach in CBA history, where he put in seven seasons. Even though he's just 38 now (and looks younger than that), his basketball mind might rival anyone's in the league.

He's also an effective teacher, not just a preacher.

``When we prepare for teams, we don't say, `OK, here's a star player, and this is how to try to stop him,' '' Musselman said. ``We ask the players, `What do you think we should do against this guy?' The players usually have a good answer to what we ask, and if not, we steer them toward what we think they should do.''

Despite his engaging ways, to give Musselman absolute credit for the Warriors' success isn't fair because their roster is loaded with young, up-and-coming players such as Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy and Gilbert Arenas, who are developing around the already-established Antawn Jamison.

Arenas' development is astounding because he always has had his critics. When he decided to attend Arizona after a standout career at Grant High of Van Nuys, he was told he'd play zero minutes. Because of that, Arenas wears the odd-looking No. 0.

When he opted to go pro after two seasons at Arizona, Arenas still had his detractors and wasn't selected until the Warriors' second pick in the second round. This summer, Arenas will be a free agent, and the talk around the Bay Area is whether the Warriors will free up enough salary-cap room to keep him.

``My wife reads stories and sounds worried and says things like, `What are you going to do about this?' '' Musselman said. ``I told her that all the things that happen here happened five times to me in the CBA. The only difference is that here, everybody knows about it.''

As for Musselman's players, they sound as though they feed off the coach's fiery demeanor.

``He brings a different atmosphere to the Warriors than what's been here,'' Richardson said. ``It's just his energy. He's a coach that's always energized, and that energizes us.''

Richardson added, ``We're a feel-good story, but we're still not satisfied.''

The Warriors aren't talking playoffs yet - they're talking .500. If they reach that goal, then the players say they'll start thinking about the postseason.

In the rugged Western Conference, it would be a shock if they made the playoffs this season. But Musselman has the potential to go down as one of this game's great coaches. Sure, he's only been coaching a few months, but he is young enough and already knowledgeable enough to take steps at becoming one of the best.

His father also had a great basketball mind, but year after year, team after team, found himself in situations that didn't work out. He'd find himself in franchises going broke or with owners making ridiculous moves. With Eric, maybe luck and his fate will be a little kinder.

``I can't begin to tell you how much I learned from my dad,'' Eric said. ``One of the things is that he was a great communicator with his top six players. I'm more of a communicator with the bottom six because I've learned that the top six, if they're getting their time and getting their shots, they're happy. I have to make sure to always talk to those other guys.''

CAPTION(S):

3 boxes

Box:

(1) Daily News/CBS 2/KCAL 9 SPORTS CENTRAL POWER RANKINGS

- Vincent Bonsignore

(2) NewsWorthy

(3) OFF THE GLASS
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Mar 2, 2003
Words:852
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