Mike Muscala’s journey from Bucknell to the pros.
By Patrick Broadwater • Photography by Bill Cardoni
Just getting to one of his final exams took Mike Muscala ’13 (business management; Spanish) longer than it took to finish the exam itself. Six weeks after a loss to Butler in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Muscala spent the morning doing his usual workout, then folded into his 2002 Acura RSX and steeled himself for the four-hour commute from Long Island to Lewisburg. He arrived on campus early enough to get a few hours of studying in before his 7:30 p.m. test, then turned around the next morning and headed back to New York for another mandatory workout.
That out-and-back was one of more than two dozen trips Muscala took in a three-month purgatory period to prepare for and prove himself worthy of a pro basketball career. By the time March Madness had gone dormant, the Minnesota native had moved to Long Island at the behest of his agent to train under the watchful eye of Jay Hernandez at Pro Hoops, Inc., a training academy for elite college players. The goal was to lock down something no Bucknell graduate has ever before held: a roster spot in the NBA.
But first, Muscala had unfinished business at Bucknell. An Academic All-American, Muscala made clear to potential agents and trainers that he was not about to abandon his double major in business management and Spanish. Finishing out the semester and earning his last few credits was important to him, even if it meant he would end up traveling from Long Island to Bucknell to Minnesota to Chicago (for the NBA combine) to Bucknell (for Commencement) and finally back to Long Island during one particularly hectic 11-day stretch.
After May 19, with his degree in hand, Muscala was free to devote himself full time to basketball. He prepared tirelessly for the metrics-happy meat market of the combine, where scouts and team executives gather to grade prospects, then he embarked on a grueling month-long mobile job interview, auditioning for 14 teams in 27 days. He crisscrossed the country — from Philly to Phoenix, Minneapolis to Houston — and subjected himself to the kind of scrutiny befitting a potential multi-million dollar investment.
As he trained and showcased his skills for tight-lipped NBA executives, Muscala, a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year, had no idea how teams truly viewed him. And given the wide range of mock draft predictions, he really didn’t have an inkling how he would fare at the June 27 draft.
“I can’t lie, it’s been kind of stressful,” Muscala said back in April. “Obviously you’re going to have those thoughts about where you might end up playing or what you might be doing and where you might be living, or maybe you’re not even in the NBA at all and you have to go overseas. Those are all possibilities. So I think it’s good to have an idea and to be realistic about things and have plans in place. But you have to balance that by not dwelling on it too much.”
NBA teams face uncertainty too. They have questions of their own. Before an organization commits to a new player, they vet him extensively. They want to learn everything they can about his raw athletic talent and physical limitations, his work ethic and capacity for improvement. They measure everything from hand size and vertical leap to speed and strength. They interview, sometimes in great depth. They poke and prod, scrutinize and judge, all in hope of getting the best possible return on investment.
Draft experts had Muscala pegged as an early second-round pick. But his 15-point, eight-rebound performance at the Reese’s Division I All-Star Game in Atlanta and an impressive showing at the combine, where he led all players in shooting percentage during the standardized drills, fueled speculation that he might be selected late in the first round.
Muscala watched the draft from a hotel near his hometown of Roseville, Minn., surrounded by about 40 family members, friends and former teammates and coaches, including Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen. The first round, infused with drama and photo ops for TV, passed slowly. As the second round began, the picks started coming faster. Finally, Kennedy called to deliver the news that Dallas had selected Muscala with the No. 44 pick and traded his rights to the Atlanta Hawks. When the pick was announced on TV, Muscala turned and hugged his mother, Mary, as the crowd of supporters burst into applause. The next day, he left for Atlanta, and a few days later, he flew to Las Vegas to play in the developmental NBA Summer League, where he would get his first pro experience.
But by late summer, Muscala saw the handwriting on the wall in Atlanta, where the Hawks have a logjam of frontcourt talent. He signed a contract to play this season in Spain for Blusens Monbus Obradoiro of the ACB League. Atlanta will retain his NBA rights while Muscala continues his development in one of the top professional leagues in Europe with hopes of earning another opportunity with the Hawks next year.
Heading overseas to begin a pro career is a far cry from the day four years earlier when Muscala reported to Bucknell for summer camp and looked at Sojka Pavilion with awe. He had never before played in a gym so big. But as the centerpiece of an impressive recruiting class that included point guard Bryson Johnson ’13, forward Joe Willman ’13 and forward Colin Klebon ’13, he quickly become the center of the action on that court. By midseason, the Bison offense revolved around their nearly 7-foot freshman in the middle.
After the season, Paulsen challenged Muscala to play in the paint and get to the foul line more often, and the center responded by becoming a dominant low-post player, setting Bucknell career records for free throws made and attempted. And then Muscala went about improving the rest of his game. Want him to get a rebound every 3 minutes? How’s 2.7 for you? Post a positive assist-to-turnover ratio? Check. Play exceptional defense without getting into foul trouble? Done.
“I used to run from my mistakes. I didn’t want to watch tapes of when I played poorly. I only wanted to watch the games where I played well,” Muscala says. “Whereas before I was really wary of criticism, I just started to have fun with it. I found fun in the game and fun in improvement.”
“I think that may be the thing that separated him from all of the good players to the elite players: that work ethic and competitiveness,” says associate coach Dane Fischer. “One thing we told anyone who asked about him at the next level: He’ll be as good as he can possibly be, that’s for sure. He’s not going to operate at 90 percent capacity.”
Playing through Muscala and the talented first-year class, the Bison saw results immediately, doubling their win total to 14 in 2009-10. Bucknell jumped to 25-9, won the Patriot League championship and returned to the NCAA Tournament the following season, then suffered a disappointing loss in the conference title game in 2011-12. This past year, the Bison set a school record with 28 wins and earned a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Muscala, meanwhile, concluded his Bucknell career as one of the most decorated players in school and league history. He scored a Bucknell-record 2,036 points (fourth in Patriot League history) and ranks second at Bucknell and in the Patriot League in rebounds (1,093) and blocked shots (271). In 2013 he was the first player in league history to sweep the conference’s Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors.
“He just really embraced taking ownership not only of his game and his performance, but everything involved with the way our team conducted itself. That to me is fun to watch. That’s why you coach,” Paulsen says. “I think we rode Mike for the last three years for sure, but we rode him as much from a character and intangible standpoint as we did on the basketball court.”
A few weeks after the NCAA Tournament loss to Butler ended his collegiate playing career, Muscala spotted some of his former teammates playing a pickup game in Sojka. Even though he wanted to join in and his presence certainly would have been welcome, Muscala didn’t play. He sensed it was no longer his place to do so.
“That was hard for me,” Muscala says. “But it’s their time now. It’s their group.”
And that’s when it hit him. That’s when he came to realize he would never again play on the court he had come to dominate. He would never again play with those with whom he had grown so close. All the time spent together, in games and practices, in the locker room and on the road, produced deep bonds and long-lasting relationships that will ultimately prove far more meaningful than the result of any one game or season. Those are the memories of Bucknell that Muscala will cherish.
“What I’ll take most from this is the relationships I’ve built, and I really stand by that,” he says. “We won a good number of games, but I truly believe it’s not going to be about that. It will be about those bus rides and those conversations and the times we had to grind it out together.
“All the players I’ve known here have become like my brothers, especially the senior class. The college experience has been really fun to share with them.”
Patrick Broadwater is a freelance writer, higher ed professional, runner, horse-show dad and laundry mule. Not necessarily in that order.