Kings opt for 'basketball-a-holic' in hiring Musselman

Eric Musselman's defensive credentials, passion and preparation impressed the Sacramento owners, and that's why he's Ron Artest's next coach, writes Marc Stein.

Updated: June 5, 2006, 3:26 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

You heard Joe and Gavin Maloof say it repeatedly when they traded for Ron Artest back in January.

They're gamblers.

Not this time, though. Not when making the first coaching hire of the Maloof administration.

The Maloofs flirted with a bigger risk than Artest to replace the coach they inherited in 1999.

They strongly considered an unprecedented dice-roll by asking John Whisenant of the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs take over the Sacramento Kings.

But they ultimately couldn't bring themselves to pull the handle.

The Maloofs, as they weighed this gamble, backed away from the boldest possible choice and gravitated to the passion and preparation of Eric Musselman. They loved talking hoops with Muss and that clinched it, after deciding that Rick Adelman -- despite eight trips to the playoffs in eight seasons -- was too aloof and played out to bring back.

"I'll have more to say at [Saturday's] press conference, but the main thing is that this guy is a basketball-a-holic," Joe Maloof said of Musselman in a Friday night phone interview. "He doesn't have any hobbies."

Musselman is also the only candidate of the three Sacramento interviewed who has NBA head coaching experience. I'm told he was so persuasive in his two interviews that his first sitdown with Kings management went on for nearly four hours. One description of Musselman's drive and attention to detail in circulation Friday: "He's Jon Gruden without the scowl."

Yet I have to be honest. He'd have been third on the list had you asked me to bet a week ago.

Whisenant has known the Maloofs for 20-some years and won them a WNBA championship by turning what was a mess, by all accounts, into another local institution. It would have been one of the most controversial coaching hires in NBA history -- putting a coach from the women's game in charge of Artest and Bonzi Wells -- but I know why it appealed to the brothers.

You can imagine why, hiring a coach for the first time, they'd want to go with someone they already know and trust -- someone who would interact with them on a daily basis, unlike Adelman. I'm sure the Maloofs would have fired back at the skeptics leaguewide by saying they know more about Whisenant than anyone outside of Sacramento ... by saying they were convinced they had hired a hidden gem.

Mario Elie also intrigued the Kings, even though he's got the skimpiest coaching resume of the three. Elie thought he had a decent shot, too, as a New Yorker who already has a bit of a relationship with Artest ... and as a former locker-room leader for championship teams in Houston and San Antonio ... and with teams undoubtedly looking for the next fiery fortysomething out there with the potential to be the next Avery Johnson.

Yet it's a serious stretch to expect anyone to live up to the Lil' General's instant success in Dallas. Everyone who knows him says that Avery was born to coach. Elie, while certainly on the rise, is not there yet.

So it had to be Muss if the Kings, as it appears, were determined to make their choice before next week's pre-draft camp in Orlando.

The Maloofs and team president Geoff Petrie -- who did not want Adelman ousted -- are hoping that Musselman, a mere 38 when he took over the Warriors, has grown and learned from his Bay Area experience. They're also hoping that the two seasons he spent in Memphis as an assistant to Mike Fratello can bring some fresh defensive ideas to the Kings. (Defense, of course, is a new obsession for the Maloofs in the Artest era, which is why they decided against giving serious consideration to another good friend: Don Nelson.)

There will inevitably be doubts about the hard-driving Musselman coexisting with Artest, who wanted Adelman back, and with Wells as well. Personality clashes with players and management, remember, ended his Golden State tenure after just two seasons.

But let's face it: Anyone hired by the Kings would have to answer Artest questions.

I'm actually just as curious about Muss and Wells, assuming Wells is retained in free agency. Bonzi, after all, left Memphis in acrimony after clashing with Fratello.

Yet you can't forget that Musselman, with less talent than the Warriors have now, guided them to records of 38-44 and 37-45. Nothing spectacular, obviously, but he certainly got a lot out of those rosters.

He finished a close runner-up to San Antonio's Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year voting in the first season and fell only one win shy of matching that win total after the departures of Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. (Sad it sounds, those are Golden State's two best seasons since it last made the playoffs in 1994.)

What we know for sure about the Musselman selection, risky as it wasn't, is that this was more Maloofs than Petrie.

Perhaps you recall what Joe Maloof told me shortly after Adelman was informed May 9 that he wouldn't be invited back:

"We have to be heavily involved, because this decision is so important for the future of the franchise," Maloof said. "We want to do this as quickly as possible and then leave Geoff and [the new coach] alone."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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