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All Aboard the Muss Bus (Dress Code Flexible)

For the first three years of the Eric Musselman era, Nevada basketball was mostly defined by excited disrobings. With his Wolf Pack coming off a Sweet 16 run, landing a five-star recruit, and earning a preseason top-10 ranking, it’s time to start considering them something other than meme fodder: a budding national power and trendy Final Four pick.

Cody Pearson

When good things happen, Eric Musselman starts to strip. In his first three seasons as the head coach of the University of Nevada men’s basketball team, Musselman has celebrated something via shirtlessness each and every spring, his sinewy, 5-foot-7 frame looking like a cross between a tennis player on a hot court, a frat boy on a Friday, and a toddler who urgently needs you to know that he has a belly button.

There was the time in 2016 when the Wolf Pack won the College Basketball Invitational tournament in overtime—sure, not exactly top-notch March Madness, but this was a team that had finished 9-22 a season before Musselman arrived—and the players hoisted their coach into the air right as he was in the midst of pulling his championship tee over his head. “My abs showed,” Musselman told The Sacramento Bee following the display. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing.” But it was good enough to become a thing. In 2017, when the Wolf Pack won the Mountain West title, he romped bare-chestedly around the court. When they repeated a year later, the postgame festivities involved Musselman’s torso, Musselman’s wife, a blue dry-erase marker, and the words “MW CHAMPS.”

There was also the gesture Musselman made last February, when he surprised a fan-favorite walk-on named Charlie Tooley during practice: One minute Tooley was sprawled on the floor going after the ball during a hustle-or-else drill; the next minute he was being merrily confronted by his coach, who had taped a scholarship offer sheet onto his bare back for Tooley to sign. And a month after that, as the Wolf Pack made their first run to the Sweet 16 in more than a decade and became one of the darlings of the big-dog NCAA tournament in the process, Musselman bounded into the Nevada locker room after a comeback win from down 22 points against no. 2 seed Cincinnati, utterly unencumbered by the stifling constraints of fabric against his upper bod. “Coach Musselman rolled into the locker room with his shirt off because March,” the CBS Sports Twitter account crowed. It could also have just said: because Musselman.

But on a recent Saturday night in late October, when the 53-year-old Musselman begins shedding his garments just a few minutes into the first half of Nevada’s second and final preseason exhibition game against San Francisco State, it is not done out of mirth. The game has been designated the second annual “Throwback Night,” a promotional idea of Musselman’s. It is being held in the old 1,800-seat gym where the Wolf Pack used to play until the ’70s; the cheerleaders all wear vintage skirts and wave ancient pom-poms. A year earlier, Musselman had dressed up for the inaugural occasion in the sort of ’70s-era leisurewear that you often see paired with a metal detector on a Gulf Coast shore. This year, when the team comes out onto the court, he and his coaching staff have opted to harken back to a different bygone era.

One assistant sports a big poofy wig, another is in gold MC Hammer pants. Musselman is decked out in an Adidas tracksuit, a big chain, a bucket hat, and giant Cazal-style glasses. The Wolf Pack’s first exhibition game had been a grim loss to Washington that led Musselman to rant afterward that he planned to go home and ask his dog how the team might play better defense. Throwback Night begins similarly poorly, but this time against obviously inferior competition. And Musselman, whether out of angst or embarrassment or some combination of both, rips off most of his costume within minutes, although he does keep his shirt on. “Because we’re with Adidas, we felt the Run-DMC stuff would be cool,” Musselman explains to reporters after the game, which Nevada has ultimately won handily after regrouping at halftime. “Although it wasn’t real cool in the first half.”

It’s all a reminder that, after several years of Nevada basketball making enormous, Eurostep-length strides on the national stage, this season will be caught somewhere between fun and games. In light of last season’s 29-8 record and the team’s Sweet 16 berth, as well as the decisions of three key players to return for another year of college ball, the Wolf Pack this winter will no longer exist in the happy-go-lucky tier of dark horse NCAA tournament long shots. Instead, the team has established itself as a program to be taken seriously right from the jump. Nevada ranked seventh in the preseason AP poll, its highest rating, preseason or otherwise, in program history. As of this weekend, the college basketball rankings on KenPom have the team fifth. The Wolf Pack are a trendy Final Four pick, cropping up frequently in surveys of college basketball analysts from ESPN to CBS. Small forward Caleb Martin, who along with his identical twin brother Cody transferred from NC State to Nevada in 2016, has been named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press and A Player Who Will Rule College Basketball This Season by The Ringer dot com. The Wolf Pack roster features the school’s highest-rated recruit ever this season—the five-star McDonald’s All American Jordan Brown, who chose Nevada over Arizona and Cal. A recent CBS Sports piece floated Musselman, who is currently the highest-paid public employee in the state of Nevada, as a potential coach of the year. One of the school’s most distinguished basketball talents, JaVale McGee, recently asked an L.A. Lakers trainer to take a photo of him wearing a “MUSS BUS” T-shirt so he could post it on Twitter. For the first three years of the Musselman era, Nevada basketball has been mostly defined by excited disrobings. But this season may be the team’s most nakedly ambitious yet.

On Tuesday, November 6, as the swing state of Nevada waits for all of its Election Day returns to roll in, Musselman stands on the floor of the 11,536-seat Lawlor Events Center during the team’s season opener against BYU and flaps his arms to fire up the home crowd. His is an expressive sideline presence, devoid of any semblance of a poker face: When Musselman is frustrated, he stomps his feet or spins around on his heel to stare with exasperation at his slate of assistant coaches, like a birthday party bowler who has just rolled a gutter ball. He has no problem yelling at his players while looking outwardly anguished; he has no issue reacting to an air ball like a fan who has put good money on the spread. When he stands in the middle of a huddle, a good foot shorter than the majority of his roster, the assortment of humans looks a bit like a volcano, particularly when Musselman is erupting.

“It’s funny,” says Chris Murray, a sportswriter who worked at the Reno Gazette-Journal for 16 years before joining the newly launched Nevada Sports Net this summer. “The previous football coach, Brian Polian, was kind of known for being all red-faced, and the fans absolutely hated him because he couldn’t control his emotions. And he was always just yelling at the refs without ever yelling at his players. But Musselman, you know, he can lose it on a player in front of everybody and the fans don’t care, of course.” Taking over a team coming off a nine-win season and then going 81-29 in the next three years will have that effect on people.

The son of the late Bill Musselman, a fiery coach whose résumé included helming the University of Minnesota as well as stops in the CBA, ABA, and NBA, Eric Musselman played basketball in high school, where he was pelted by hot dogs by opposing fans, and college, where his senior season the Toreros went 24-6 and earned an NCAA tournament berth. But he turned quickly to his father’s profession, and at age 23, Musselman became the youngest coach in the Continental Basketball Association, where he would go on to become the quickest to reach 100 wins.

As an assistant with the Orlando Magic, Musselman was part of the surprising “Heart and Hustle” season in which a Magic team predicted to be a basement dweller wound up finishing one game out of the playoffs. “It was the perfect team for me to coach and the perfect team for Eric to coach,” recalls Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who earned Coach of the Year honors that season, in a phone conversation following a recent Clippers practice. “Players like when their coach is a competitive person. It makes them competitive.” After another assistant job with the Atlanta Hawks, Musselman was hired by the Golden State Warriors and became, at the time, the youngest head coach in the NBA at age 37. Musselman’s rookie NBA season netted him a nomination for Coach of the Year, but he lasted just one more season with the Warriors before spending an ugly year with the Sacramento Kings that ended with his firing in 2007.

All told, Musselman’s coaching career has taken him from the CBA to the USBL, from NBA assistant coach to NBA head coach to fired, from his sons’ AAU teams to the NBA’s D-League to the Dominican and Venezuelan national squads. (In a recent podcast conversation with former college coach Dave Odom, Musselman praised those international stints for teaching him a new skill: how to slow down in order to effectively communicate with players for whom English is not a first language.) But it’s in the college game where he has consolidated the lessons taken from all these motley stops—from the use of NBA free agency in building rosters to the necessity of remaining tactically nimble when coaching ever-changing lineups in development leagues—to put both his career, and Nevada basketball, back on the map.

Since Musselman came to Nevada in 2015, his program has attracted 15 transfer players, including all three of the guys who returned from last year’s winning roster after contemplating going pro. Caleb and Cody Martin, who averaged 18.9 and 14.0 points respectively last season, were invited to the NBA’s pre-draft combine but didn’t have a standout showing, and they struggled with their decision right up until the eleventh hour. Jordan Caroline, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward who was the team’s second-leading scorer and top rebounder last season, also opted for another year in college based on the feedback he received from NBA types. When Caroline announced his return, Musselman and his various colleagues and family members put out an almost unbearably cheesy music video on Twitter, hashtagged #BattleBorn. (The phrase appears on the Nevada state flag.)

In addition to Trey Porter, who graduated from Old Dominion and was eligible to play for the Wolf Pack right away this season, this year’s team also is joined by four newish players who sat out last season, per NCAA rules, after transferring to Nevada. Not that anyone would describe what they did as “sit.” “It’s really important that we work with them,” Musselman says after a recent practice, using Jalen Harris—who averaged 15.5 points at Louisiana Tech last season and is idling until he can compete again next year—as a current example.

“Jalen Harris is as important as anyone in uniform,” says Musselman. “We have gotta do everything we can to work with him this year. Pre-practice, post-practice, his days with games, he’s not just going to come to shoot around and relax. You’re going to have another hour of hard work ahead of him from a skill-development standpoint. We take it really seriously, and that’s why guys have wanted to come here.” Other college basketball programs have successfully leaned on this sort of transfer-heavy philosophy, with Fred Hoiberg’s teams at Iowa State being one high-profile example. But the degree to which Nevada has used transfers to build and manage its roster is noteworthy, and so are the results the program has managed while doing so. “I don’t know if the strategy is necessarily different,” says Evan Daniels, who covers college basketball recruiting for 247Sports. “They’ve just been able to execute it.” It may help that the man responsible for doing so has strong feelings about new beginnings.

“I was talking to an NBA executive the other day,” Musselman told his assistant coach Rex Walters on a podcast the two recorded early this fall, “and I said, if I was a general manager, I would never hire someone who hadn’t been fired, because I know that you respect your job so much more. When you’ve had weeks, years, months without coaching … I’ve been fired twice, and it humbles you to no end.” Perhaps, to some extent, Musselman relates to transfer players. They may not have been unceremoniously dumped in the same manner he was, but there are still similarities in their journeys: the search for a fresh start in a new place, the contemplation of personal priorities and life goals, the time spent away from competition, the stubborn patience required to see it all through, the eventual victories that feel all the more hard-won—or, you might say, all the more battle born. “It’s easier to stoke a fire than start a fire,” says Rivers, who remains in frequent touch with Musselman. “So when you get a guy that already has a fire, you can bring it out even more.”

One of the most intriguing players on this year’s roster, however, came to the team the more traditional way: from high school. Fans and future top-flight recruits alike will be closely watching how Musselman manages Brown, the heralded freshman he nabbed this offseason after a long courtship. Musselman first spotted Brown in a middle-school AAU game Brown played in 2013 against Musselman’s son Matthew, and for years the coach reached out to him daily as Brown’s stock continued to rise. “It might be 7 a.m. on Christmas morning,” Musselman said after Brown committed earlier this year, “and before I said ‘good morning’ to family members, I was texting Jordan Brown.”

Brown’s choice of Reno signified an important step-up in the program’s cachet. “They were able to go out and get a five-star recruit, which, you know, is a big deal,” says Daniels. “There’s not a lot of schools in the Mountain West that can go out and do that. So that was certainly impressive in terms of how they’ve built their brand.” But a large part of that brand is Nevada’s depth—the Wolf Pack currently have nine players on the roster who have averaged more than 13 points in a college basketball season—and Musselman’s ongoing challenge will be figuring out how to best distribute minutes.

In his podcast with Walters, Musselman described this general tension in big league terms. On one shoulder, he said, he has a little voice that is “an NBA GM that’s saying, ‘Play the young guys, you know, look at where you’re going to be in two and three years.’” On the other shoulder is the voice of an NBA coach “going, ‘Win tonight, win tonight, win tonight.’” In the season opener, an 86-70 win over BYU, Brown played just five minutes; in Nevada’s 83-61 Friday night win over Pacific, he made two of seven shots in 21 minutes and added seven rebounds and three blocks. “It’s a team full of seniors, full of veterans,” Brown said after the game. “They’ve been here before, done it, I’m trusting they’ll do what they need to do and I’ll help whatever way I can.”

It’s fitting that Musselman’s son Matthew was part of the story of how the coach first saw Jordan Brown, because it means that all three of the coach’s kids have been involved, in some way, with the Nevada basketball program. (Matthew, a high school senior, is contemplating choosing Nevada for college.) Musselman’s oldest son, Michael, is a graduate assistant for the Wolf Pack this season. Musselman’s daughter, the 8-year-old Mariah, is an absolute ham who gained a bit of celebrity during March Madness when she interviewed the great Sister Jean on TV. (Mariah was later honored in April by the city of Reno in an official proclamation naming her the “Biggest Little Mascot and Future Mayor.”) Eric’s second wife Danyelle, Mariah’s mother, is a former NFL Network and ESPN anchor who has become a familiar face around Reno: During Throwback Night, she wore a pink hotsuit and judged the costume competition.

The family influence stretches back further. Musselman’s father, Bill, may have been an intense coach, but he was also a man who understood the value of showmanship and entertainment and promotion: He pioneered elaborate, Harlem Globetrotter–inspired pregame routines at University of Minnesota games and kept Gopher basketball T-shirts on hand to dole out in places like McDonald’s. Eric is much the same way. He gets involved in the minutia of uniform design. He blogs about how watching Hidden Figures with Danyelle yielded good “motivational footage” to splice into his team’s next film session. He personally walks over to the student section—called the Muss Bus—after games to high-five and pose for selfies with the fans. After the team made the Sweet 16 this spring, the beat writer Murray caught a ride on the team bus between games and figured he’d be able to chat with Musselman at some point during the three-and-a-half-hour trip. But “the guy was literally on his phone the entire time, doing interviews,” Murray says. “There was not a three-minute break.”

Still, despite his knack for PR, Musselman hasn’t yet figured out the most accurate way to describe this year’s team or define its identity. His previous Nevada teams, he tells reporters on Throwback Night, have run the gamut from “nobody got more loose balls” his first year to “cosmetically pleasing” last season. Forward Tre’Shawn Thurman, who sat out last year after transferring from Omaha, tells reporters a few minutes later that ideally this year’s vibe will be described as “Electricity. Bloody mouth. And floor burns.” That night, Musselman says that after the Washington game, frustrated with his team’s defense, he asked his sister to send him their father’s old notebooks about running a zone. He’d never had much use for them before, but he woke up one recent morning at 3:30 a.m. to do some studying up.

“We gotta keep tinkering,” he says. “It’s our job as a staff not just to say ‘We’re playing this one style and that’s it.’” In a press conference following the BYU game, guard Jazz Johnson, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound transfer from Portland, praises Musselman’s willingness to let his players play. “I can honestly say Coach never really tells anyone to not shoot,” says Johnson, who hit three second-half 3s in his first regular-season game for the Wolf Pack. “Muss, before this game, actually told us to play loose and have fun.”

Nevada’s rapid ascent over the past few years, coupled with Musselman’s tantalizing combination of being both frequently shirtless and Extremely Online, has brought enormous interest toward the program at the same time that the city of Reno has been experiencing broader booms in population, housing, and jobs. (One of the media outlets credentialed for games this season is Tahoe Onstage, an online music publication out of South Lake Tahoe that has added coverage of Wolf Pack basketball to its usual album reviews and concert listings because the topic brings so many new eyes to the site.) Season ticket subscriptions have ballooned from fewer than 4,500 or so when Musselman arrived to more than 8,000, and prices have gone up too.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” Murray says. “I mean, my brother is a season-ticket holder. He’s a school teacher. Tickets were around 300 bucks a year when Musselman took over and now it’s like a thousand dollars.” These sorts of growing pains aren’t just being felt by Nevada fans—they extend all the way up to the heart of Nevada’s athletic department. In the past, the university has struggled to retain successful coaches; during a prosperous stretch in the mid-aughts, when the Wolf Pack made it to the NCAA tournament four years in a row, Nevada lost one head coach to Stanford and another to Georgia. In 2015, the year Musselman was hired, a large study commissioned by the Nevada Board of Regents concluded that the school had the lowest overall athletic budget (and second-lowest for basketball specifically) of all the schools in the Mountain West conference. Prior to Musselman, the highest-paid coach at Nevada was the former football coach Polian, whose guaranteed salary was $585,000. After signing a contract extension in 2017, Musselman now makes a guaranteed million per year before any bonuses—a sum funded, in part, by ticket-sale proceeds and by a group of private donors. But he could also likely command higher offers if Nevada were to live up to its expectations this season.

A recent $1 million donation from the NBA’s Ramon Sessions, a Wolf Pack alum, helped finance a new practice facility to enable the university to keep pace with the facilities at competing programs. Musselman has convinced the athletic department to spring for more chartered flights than they did in the past and to spend an estimated $400,000 on maintaining a strong nonconference schedule. (When I ask Musselman for his thoughts on the NBA’s new G League program, designed to attract and pay would-be one-and-done NCAA players, he brings up the air travel situation. “That’s great the G League is paying more money now,” he says. “I didn’t hear anything about charter flights … as long as you’re going to travel like they did in the G League when I was there, you’re better served going to college. I’m pretty doggone sure about that.”) The Wolf Pack may not play in a Power Five conference, but they know that this season brings newly heightened expectations both within the university and around Division I basketball. In a conversation with Andy Katz in early October, Musselman said that “almost on a daily basis” he has reminded his team of all the past top 25 squads that have missed the NCAA tournament.

“There’s going to be a large spotlight on us,” Musselman tells reporters following a recent practice. “It’s new territory for everybody, but it’s great for our university. And it’s great for northern Nevada.” Musselman has been a journeyman for most of his coaching career, but these days, in Reno, he’s just the man, engaging with fans and firing off tweets and throwing tantrums over turnovers and having, he freely admits, zero interests beyond basketball. “Basketball’s been the one thing that I love,” he told Walters. “I don’t golf, I don’t have any extra hobbies, but I love what I’m doing.” This does not go unnoticed. “Everything he does,” Cody Martin tells reporters, “revolves around basketball.” Stripped down to his essence, Musselman is an intense eccentric with a big personality, the very archetype of the college basketball coach. Which works out well, because stripping down to his essence happens to be Musselman’s go-to move.

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