The Story behind 33.9
Choreographed routines complete with musics, lights, brightly painted sideline benches, tennis shoes in school colors, and even the occasional unicycle brought basketball fans in sold out arenas to a forceful frenzy.
It was 1969, and this atmosphere was unheard of until the colorful 25-year old Bill Musselman burst onto the scene. Musselman - part unforgettable showman, part intense disciplinarian- created a climate unlike any other in the arenas of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Musselman fantasized his entire life about achieving the impossible, and he believed there were no limits to what a young person could dream and accomplish. At age 10, Musselman wrote a note to himself that read “I will be an NBA coach.” This yellowed and faded note stayed folded up in his wallet with him through college, reminding him of this dream wherever he went.
Nicole Musselman, Bill’s daughter and co-founder of 33.9, recalls her mom telling her one day, “on one of our first date he pulled out a worn note from his wallet unfolded it, smoothed it flat and laid it on the table, and he looked at me with those crazy steel blue eyes that inevitably caused you to know you had something glorious inside you and that anything could happen if you believed and tried hard enough.” Musselman was, after all, a product of this himself. He became one of basketball’s most colorful and intense coaches. He embodied the American Dream. Musselman’s mother worked the factory line in a potato chips factory in a small town in Ohio, and his father was an auto mechanic who died when Bill was a teenager. He could be found as a young boy in grade school shooting basketballs late into the middle of the night. His neighbors were so inspired by seeing a young Bill Musselman shooting baskets in the dark past midnight that they paid to put lights up for him in their neighborhood.
Musselman believed in the underdog, the idea that no matter what disadvantages you were handed - if you had an unwavering will to overcome, you could beat the odds. Musselman defended this idea ferociously. As a young adult, he taped a quote to his children Nicole and Eric’s bathroom mirrors that read: “2% of people are born with endless talent, the kind of talent that would take a complete fool to mess up. The other 98% are going to succeed because of how much they put into it and how deep they dig into their soul.”
Musselman routinely pulled out a black marker and scrawled three simple letters on his players’ lunch bag: EEE - Energy, Enthusiasm, Effort.
“It was everywhere we looked, this idea that no matter how hard you got pushed down, you always had the choice to get up.” Musselman often asked what the alternative of not trying - not working hard, not believing life wants you to win - could be? There was also this idea of “why not you?”
At age 28, Bill Musselman wrote a small book called 33.9 which focused on his creation of the nation’s number one defense in basketball. In 1966/67 Mussleman’s Ashland College Team set a NCAA record by allowing an average of only 33.9 points a game. 33.9 is a tribute to his unwavering belief that anything is possible. Everything Musselman did reinforced the idea that if you fail, you always have the choice to rise and overcome. Musselman was attracted to people who faced challenges, and he was obsessed with teaching them to prevail. This crazy idea that he could hold a basketball team to a shutout was his way of telling people to believe in beating the odds that people tell you to avoid. As a boy who came from nothing, I imagine this was his version of faith and hope. He made you believe that no matter where you came from, you had something extraordinary inside and your potential is infinitely greater than you could ever imagine. He believed in the longshot.
At his funeral an older man approached Eric and Nicole: “Over 35 years ago I was driving down the two-lane highway on my way to Orville, Ohio. I saw a boy about eleven or twelve years old dribbling a basketball on the side of the road. I pulled overland said, ‘Son, where are you going?’
He kept dribbling and replied, ‘Orville.’
Then I asked him, ‘Do you know Orville is 11 miles away?’
And the boy nodded yes.
Then I asked, ‘What are you going to do when you get there?’
He looked up at me with this strange kind of smile and answered, ‘Dribble back home with my left hand’.
That boy was your father.”
33.9 is a tribute to this boy, to his dreams, and to his belief in others’ dreams. Musselman was a comedian and entertainer. He was a dreamer, a disciplinarian, a disruptor, and a daring defender of dreams.