Mike Muscala is, notably, the only graduate of Bucknell in the NBA. A small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania with less than 4,000 students, Bucknell isn’t exactly a Duke or Kentucky-level pro factory, even though the Bison are consistently among the best mid-major programs in all of college basketball. Muscala, back in 2013, became the third player drafted in school history and the first to take the floor in an NBA game.
As someone who graduated from a high school about 15 minutes away from Bucknell and would occasionally go watch their games — especially when they had this 6’10 big man who you could just tell was a cut above most of the competition in the Patriot League — it was only natural for me to ask Muscala his favorite thing about the university. It turns out that his answer was something that inadvertently prepared him to be posted up at the NBA’s bubble league, where he’s situated right now as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“They used to call it the Bucknell Bubble when I was there,” Muscala says over the phone. “I feel like just having everything there on campus, I felt like it was just a good overall experience. So we had everything we needed, there was a good place to focus on basketball and learn it from other people. So it was a great four years.”
While his college years are in the rear view, Muscala has his eyes on the coming days and weeks, as the Thunder are looking to continue their run as perhaps the most surprising team in the league and make some noise on the postseason. The first of the team’s eight seeding games takes place on Saturday afternoon — a 3:30 pm ET tilt against the Utah Jazz on ESPN. For Muscala, it’s a chance to play ball after several months off, but it’s also an opportunity to raise money for charity, as the seven-year veteran will donate money to PeacePlayers International for every three the Thunder make during his stint at Disney.
Before the game tips off, Dime caught up with Muscala to talk charity work, basketball, and the possibility that “Mike Jaws” could use his down time to make some music.
I’d love it if you could start by just explaining PeacePlayers a little bit.
Yeah, for sure. They were founded in 2000 by Brendan [Tuohey] and Sean [Tuohey]. I’ve gotten to know Brendan pretty well. And they started in Northern Ireland, playing and doing some camps out there, and it’s since expanded to other countries throughout the world and in some cities in the United States. And their whole mission is to bring people together through the sport of basketball.
I heard about them a few years ago from a friend who also went to Bucknell, actually, and was involved with them. I just thought it was a really cool mission and got to know Brendan, and I kind of stayed in touch with them, heard about what they’re doing, and just kind of had the idea of matching with the team three-pointers we make the rest of the season, to match with the donation to them just because I feel like there’s so much going into everything in this bubble here in Orlando to make this possible. And there’s a lot of kids that aren’t able to play right now, because of COVID, and PeacePlayers is actively working on ways to try to keep them involved. So I thought it’d be kind of a cool way to give back.
What’s your personal history with this charity and why was it important for you to get on board with it when you got filled in about what it strives to do?
I think it just stemmed from personal experience. I think when I had heard of what their whole mission and goals are and what they’re actually doing to make that happen — holding camps and holding leagues in countries where there were a lot of conflicts, religiously or politically or what have you, and also cities in the United States where there are neighborhoods of people that maybe have some tension there for whatever reason — for me personally, I’ve learned a lot about other people through basketball and PeacePlayers, that’s what they’re all about. I felt like I could relate to that. So I just felt like, especially now in a time of uncertainty, a difficult time in our country, there’s still so much that basketball can [do to] bring us together and help us learn about each other as we try to make changes going forward.
What do you think it is about basketball in particular that makes it such a good way to bring people together and bridge divides that might exist politically, religiously, and however else?
That’s a good question. I think just like any other good team sport, it requires individual focus and sacrifice for the better of the team. It’s a team sport, and you got five people on the court at a time, and you got other players on the bench, and you got coaches, you have staff members. All kinds of working pieces in place, and you have a gym that you’re able to play in and all those things. It’s a human game and I think I’ve heard coach Popovich mention something along those lines, too. So I think that that’s what PeacePlayers is all about. And in a time now where we’re playing for … it’s our jobs and there’s fans who are paying to watch the games. To be able to help out the people who are a little less fortunate, not able to play right now, just seemed kind of like a good thing to do.
Are you generally a big charity guy outside of PeacePlayers or is this one of those things where you feel like you can do your best work by dedicating your time and energy to working with them?
I think it helps when you feel like you know what the charity, what the nonprofit, what they’re really about, and when you’re able to get to meet some people with them as opposed to just making donations without having that personal connection. So there’s some other nonprofits that I work with and I’ve gotten to know some people with, but I just feel like I know basketball quite well, I’ve played it for quite a long time and it’s dear to me. So when I heard about their work with other basketball players and coaches and stuff, it just felt like something that I could relate to and get to know well, and it’s been fun getting to know them.
You’re a veteran, you’re one of the older dudes on a team that has a bunch of young guys on it. Do you ever talk to them about the importance of getting involved in community, getting involved in charity, those sorts of things?
Not necessarily in terms of getting involved with charities. I try to just nurture the idea of learning about causes and learning about people and learning about why certain ideas are being formed or what they really mean. Because I feel like that’s really what basketball, and what team sports, and what sports can do is just create a platform for acceptance and discussion of others, and what they want and what makes them happy or what they’re needing. As a teammate or as a competitor having that platform, I’m just trying to look at the bigger picture. Obviously we love to compete and we love to try to win as competitors and basketball players, but there’s a bigger picture there, too.
I need you to be honest with me: Are you going to be a little more willing to let it fly from deep knowing that it’s going to charity if it goes in?
I was talking with somebody with the Thunder earlier today and they said that they usually say “cha-ching” after the team makes a three-pointer. And so I was like, “I might steal that from you.” That’s a good one.
It’s literally what’s going to be happening, so you might as well. I do want to ask about the bubble a bit, about this season. How was it getting down to Disney and how’s life been now? It’s been, what about three, three and a half weeks for you guys?
Yeah, you’re right. It’s been good. They’ve made a great experience down here. I tip my hat to the NBA and the Players Association for working together to make this happen, because I feel grateful for the opportunity. Obviously there’s a lot of people putting in a lot of time, a lot of resources, a lot of money into this, and things are great. You know it’s pretty much waking up and going off to practice, and on a off day, we can play some golf or go fishing and what not. So things are good. It’s a fun environment to be in.
What’s the general vibe been? I imagine that it just takes a little getting used to, but it’s probably become more and more normal as you’ve been there, no?
Yeah, it is. And I think as NBA players, we’re used being on the road and living out of hotel rooms during the season. The accommodations here are nice and the Disney staff here in the hotels are all really, really nice and have been just awesome. Been very helpful with making great food and everything, all that type of stuff, so things are good. It makes it easy to go out and compete hard on the court.
You’re a guy, you’ve been in the league for a few years now. How do you set an example for those younger dudes — the Darius Bazleys, the Hami Diallos, the Terrance Fergusons — when it’s a situation that’s new for you too?
I think it kind of puts things into perspective. As a young player, I’m sure especially just having something like this happen where it’s … I mean, for me too, being in my seventh year, it seems surreal sometimes that this is happening. But I think it will put things into perspective and show that things are fragile in this world and just how resourceful the NBA is to be able to make this happen. I mean, I think it’s quite impressive.
I have to imagine that having Chris Paul, he was just so central to all of this coming together. That’s had to have helped, no?
For sure. And he’s done a phenomenal job as the president of the PA and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from him just seeing how he leads. And it’s definitely been great having him on the team and being able to learn from him and see the issues that he deals with, as the president, on a daily basis and hearing his take on things. It’s been cool.
I think there was a belief that you guys were going to be a very solid team, but it would be in a bit of a transition year after this past offseason — I know you came in during this offseason. Did you guys hear all this stuff and get motivated by, “Oh, the Thunder should be a nice team, but not a really good team,” or has it been just head down, go to work the entire time?
It’s probably been a little bit of both. I think obviously each NBA season comes with expectations for each team, and coach met with us before the season and pretty much just addressed it head-on and was pretty frank with us that he kind of felt like we had felt that a little bit. As a player, as years go on, you feel how expectations are formed around a team. He challenged us to just, to not have any expectations when it comes to how the season is going to go and just work at things every day and do it together. And I think we’re still in that mindset now, as we head into the regular season here now with eight to go. Saturday should be fun.
It’s a cliche, but it seems like taking a one-game-at-a-time approach has really been good for you guys.
Yeah, for sure. And I think you hit it on the head. It does sound cliche, but I do feel like it has some benefits. It’s kind of how you really form habits and how you can hopefully rid yourself or your team of bad habits as you are able to look yourself in the mirror after game and address what went well and what didn’t. So that’s what you want, going into the playoffs, is you want to have good habits, because then it will not seem like you have to change much going to playoffs. And you’ll make adjustments and what not, but you’ll have those core principles and habits already in place.
There are so many reasons for why this team has been as good as it is, but I want to ask you about is Shai, who, I think everyone knew he was going to be good, but how good he is, how quickly he is, that’s caught a lot of us off guard who aren’t there every day. As someone who sees him every day and works with him every day, what is it about him that makes him such a special young player?
It’s a lot of things. I think he’s a great person, first and foremost. And he’s humble, and he works hard, and he’s driven — you can tell — and he’s competitive and he has a great mentor in Chris as well. I know that they’ve become quite close this season. That’s been really cool to see, so I’m happy for him and he deserves it all.
Two final questions before you go: Just what’s the mindset around the team? I think people are going to be really surprised when they catch up, they look at the standings, they see, “Oh man, if the Thunder get hot, they can get the two-seed in the Western Conference.”
Yeah, I mean, I think I’m going to go with a cliche answer. It’s one game at a time and it’s having fun. I think fans are excited for basketball to be back, I’m sure, I hope. I know we’re excited, so just giving the fans fun games to watch and going out and competing hard, because that’s just what it’s about at the end of the day.
And then my last question. I know Damian Lillard has a little setup in his room to record some music, is Mike Jaws going to be putting some stuff together or are you focused on basketball down there?
It’s funny, actually, we played them two days ago for the last preseason game, and I actually asked if he wanted to collab. He told me to send him some stuff, so the young fellow Darius Bazley, on the team too, he sent me some songs, he can really spit. So, we’ll see. I mean, it’d kind of be fun. We’re going to try to be locked in here and obviously be ready for the games, but I think music is a good outlet for basketball. It goes hand in hand, so maybe something will happen. It’d be fun.