January 12, 2017

Two Bucknellians Power Atlanta Hawks

By Alexander Diegel

Charles Lee '06 and Mike Muscala '13; photo by Gregory Miller
Charles Lee '06 (left) and Mike Muscala '13 help the Hawks fly high.

Mike Muscala '13 is the only Bucknell graduate to ever play in an NBA game. Charles Lee '06 is the only Bucknellian to suit up as an NBA coach. And they both happen to work for the Atlanta Hawks, hardly an also-ran in the NBA. Muscala and Lee helped power the team to three straight playoff appearances, including in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. Bison pride indeed.

Muscala, a key player for the Hawks off the bench, started with the team in 2013, a year before Lee's arrival as an assistant coach. Muscala credits his time at Bucknell for teaching him how to "be a professional — having a good work ethic, looking to improve and being positive. At Bucknell, I learned to converse with my teammates, coaches, owners, fans."

Lee notes Muscala's work ethic as a strength of the power forward's game. Bucknell's game plan often depended on Muscala, a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year.

"It was a high-volume system for him," Lee says. For the nonhoops heads, that means the Bucknell offense pretty much ran through Muscala — to the tune of 19 points per game his senior year. It's a different experience in the NBA, where virtually every player was the star of his college and/or high school program. Even though Muscala does not "get as many touches, I've seen him buy in fully and commit to what the coaches are asking of him," Lee explains. "I've seen that from him in the weight room. I see it when he does agility work. I think this year will be a good year for him to show how he's grown."

Lee's route to the NBA was less direct. After starring at Bucknell — he scored 15 points in the University's legendary upset win over powerhouse program Kansas in 2005 — Lee played professionally in Europe and Israel for four years as a guard. He then took a job on Wall Street doing equity trading at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, but could never shake his yen for basketball. After two years, he returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach under Dave Paulsen. He coached the Bison from 2012 to 2014, then moved on to the Hawks. He credits his experiences and relationships at Bucknell as reasons why he's coaching in the NBA today.

"The things I learned at Bucknell, I'll never forget," Lee says. Pat Flannery '80, coach from 1994 to 2008, "has been a great sounding board. Then working with Coach Paulsen is when my basketball mind started maturing."

For both Muscala and Lee, the journey is ongoing. Muscala still has many years to do what he loves most. But when the time comes for him to lace up his sneakers for his last game, he will be prepared for his next step.

"I think what Bucknell instilled in me, and what I look forward to, is being able to use my business degree," Muscala says. "But for right now, my focus and energy is on basketball."

Lee aims to be a head coach, but he's taking it "season by season." For now, he's still putting those classroom lessons to use in the coaches' meetings. "There are a lot of days where we're sitting as coaches, and everyone sees the game a little bit differently. But we have to get on the same page. Some of the tools I remember learning in the Management 101 group and other classes that I took at Bucknell have carried over and helped me in the real world."