Mike Muscala, Bucknell’s Only NBA Player, Embarks on New Era in OKC On and Off The Court

Mike Muscala prefers his privacy, particularly during the NBA offseason. He doesn’t have active accounts on Instagram or Twitter and doesn’t welcome many visitors—least of all strangers—to his summer home in Minnesota. When asked to name the small town where he bought his place in early 2017, he demurs, revealing only that it’s roughly 45 minutes from where his mother, Mary Maida, lives in Roseville.

I don't even really like to say that,” Mike tells CloseUp360 over the summer. “But it's south of the Twin Cities. It's on a lake. It's a nice small town, super relaxing.”

In late June, though, Mike made an exception to his relative seclusion, and for good reason.

His agent, Sean Kennedy, called. The Oklahoma City Thunder wanted to speak with Mike by phone on June 30, the first day of NBA free agency. Then, they wanted to meet with him in person. Soon enough, the Thunder requested a meeting in Minneapolis. Finally, they proposed sitting down with Mike at his house—the one whose downstairs he’d spent the entire summer of 2018 renovating.

Mike was pleased that any team would be so hot after him, especially with All-Stars like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, Al Horford, D’Angelo Russell and Nikola Vucevic set to test the market. With Russell Westbrook and Paul George at the team’s epicenter, the Thunder envisioned Mike as the tall shooter they needed, at a price point their salary cap sheet could handle.

As for what hosting NBA executives entailed, Mike wasn’t sure. Neither was his friend who was visiting from Atlanta. So when Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager, and Donnie Strack, the team’s vice president of human and player performance, showed up at Mike’s doorstep on that summer Sunday, they were greeted not by a full spread of food, but rather some bottled water.

Those modest accommodations did little to deter OKC or stifle the mood of the meeting.

“I got a really good vibe from them,” Mike says. “They seemed very down to earth. It was flattering for me to have them that interested in me.”

So much so that, even after the Thunder traded Paul and Russell amid a franchise-changing July, and even after the team offered to release its free agent signings and allow them to seek opportunities elsewhere (as Alec Burks ultimately did, in signing with the Golden State Warriors), Mike ultimately stayed put.

“My commitment was made,” he says, “and it still feels good.”

Now, as a summer of traveling and training his mind and body gives way to the reality of a new team in a new city, Mike turns his full attention to the opportunities at hand. Where once basketball was a childhood pastime that became his daily passion and a path to college, as a career, the game has opened his eyes to a wider world of possibilities for his life.

From playing overseas to becoming the first Bucknell University graduate in the NBA in 2013, Mike now sees a future filled with basketball, business, real estate and possibly even music.

Mike Muscala

Mike Muscala spent some of the early days of his offseason in New York City at Douglas Elliman as part of the NBA's Job Shadow Program. (Fahnon Bennett)

In today’s basketball world, where hype comes early and often to the most precocious prospects, the thought of playing in the NBA can shift from a far-off dream to a realistic possibility before they’ve earned their driving permits. For Mike, that switch didn’t come until his junior year of college.

By then, he was already a star at Bucknell University, a small liberal arts college in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. As a freshman, he averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds while starting 16 of 30 games for the Bison. As a sophomore, he upped the ante to 14.9 points and 5.5 boards while leading Bucknell to its fifth-ever NCAA tournament appearance. That earned him honors as the Patriot League Player of the Year and an AP Honorable Mention All-American. 

Mike’s numbers were even better as a junior (17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds), though they weren’t enough to get the Bison back into March Madness. Despite his burgeoning profile as a skilled, sweet-shooting center, he opted not to leave school early. He had unfinished business at Bucknell.

“I always wanted to get the best education I could while playing basketball. That was always important to me,” he says. “My parents, really, I owe them a lot because they did put that value and emphasis for me growing up. And so I wanted to go to the best academic school I could get a scholarship to, and also a place that really valued basketball, too.”

Mike figured he’d get the best of both worlds when, while starring at Roseville High School, he heard from Dane Fischer, then an assistant coach at Bucknell who was recruiting around Minneapolis.

“He reached out to me. I hadn't really heard of [Bucknell],” Mike says. “It hadn't rung a bell until I looked him up.”

It was only then that he recalled Bucknell upsetting Kansas in the opening round of the 2005 NCAA tournament, then pulling a similar trick against Arkansas in 2006. The school piqued his interest, even more so after he took an official visit to the campus. He got to know then-head coach Dave Paulsen, whose emphasis on academics and athletics continued through his time in the program.

“We'd have practices and he'd kind of raise both of his hands up, and he'd raise one slightly above the other and go, ‘Academics are right here, you know, but basketball is just right below it in terms of importance,’” Mike recalls. “And I always liked how he did that because I think that's how it should be.”

Mike excelled at both throughout his time at Bucknell. During his senior season, he repeated as Patriot League Player of the Year and led the Bison back to the 2013 NCAA tournament. Later that spring, he graduated with degrees in management and Spanish.

“Many times, I wondered what it would be like to just be a student, not be playing basketball as well,” Mike says. “That's always something that I always will value—just trying to learn more. Basketball is so cool, but also it means more than that.”

Mike Muscala

Mike chose to attend Bucknell University as much for academics as athletics. (Fahnon Bennett)

Mike may not have seen himself in an NBA uniform from an early age, but that doesn’t mean he was any less ambitious. 

As a kid, he refused to shoot on nine-foot hoops. Instead, he insisted to his dad, Bob, that he get his looks on a regulation-sized, 10-foot basket at the park.

I didn't want to work my way up, so I started getting super frustrated because I would just keep throwing up airballs,” Mike says. “I think that persisted for a while until my dad was finally, like, ‘Maybe you should just play on a shorter hoop.’”

Mike shot his shot off the court, too. As a teenager, he started rapping and freestyling, going so far as to record a mixtape as “MikeJawz.” And while he insists he has skills on the mic, his lone public demonstration of them—during a talent competition on TNT’s Inside the NBA in 2016—may not have been the most flattering display.

I guarantee you someday it will be known that I’m actually decent,” he says. “For a guy that's not an actual rapper, I can hold my own.”

And before it became all the rage for NBA players to become stars of their own YouTube channels, Mike got his feet wet as a vlogger. With Peter, his friend and manager, handling most of the low-budget production, Mike documented his draft day back in Roseville and his time in Spain on assignment from the Atlanta Hawks, who acquired his rights in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 44 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.

In the series, he shared highlights from his life off the court in Santiago de Compostela, as a member of Obradoiro Clube de Amigos do Baloncesto. From arriving in Spain and learning to drive stick shift, to exploring the city with family and friends, to getting a tattoo on his chest—reading “Cada dia es un regalo/Por eso se llama presente,” which translates to “Every day is a gift/That’s why they call it the present”—he welcomed the outside world into the intimate corners of his life, his tongue planted firmly in cheek all the while.

Those activities aside, Mike redoubled his commitment to basketball while in Santiago. The city was one of the few in Spain that preferred hoops, since it wasn’t home to a soccer club in the country’s famed La Liga. And between Obradoiro’s schedule (i.e. one game a week, practices twice a day), the frequent rain around the region of Galicia and his own lack of personal ties in town, Mike had all the time in the world to work on his game with Peter by his side.

“We were just gym rats,” he says.

But while Santiago de Compostela is the end point for Catholics making the centuries-old pilgrimage along the Way of St. James, for Mike, it was just the beginning of his professional journey.  

The call came in late February 2014. Mike was enjoying life in Spain, persistent precipitation and all. His strong play was fueling Obradoiro’s rise up the standings in Liga ACB. After a slow start to the 2013-14 season, the team seemed to be turning a corner in January and February, with more than a month of nothing but wins.

Mike was having dinner at a teammate’s house when his phone rang. It was Sean, his agent. The Hawks wanted to bring Mike back to the U.S. They had holes to fill up front—after losing Al Horford, Gustavo Ayon and Pero Antic to injuries—and were prepared to offer him a contract to come over to the NBA.

They want to know yes or no,” Sean told him.

Can I have the night to think about it?” Mike asked, his Spanish teammates nearby.

No,” Sean replied, “you have to decide right now."

Wow, Mike thought. I can't believe this. This is crazy. 

The NBA—a dream he hadn’t considered to be a potential reality until he was nearly done with college—wanted him, just as his Spanish club was hitting its stride. He felt a fealty to his teammates in the room, but how could he turn down the opportunity of a lifetime?

Let's do it,” Mike told Sean.

Shortly thereafter, Mike flew to Atlanta. On February 27, 2014, he officially signed with the Hawks. On March 2, he logged four points, five rebounds and two blocks in his NBA debut—a 129-120 road loss to the Phoenix Suns.

With that, Mike became the first Bucknell grad to set foot in the NBA.

Though he became a steady contributor in the league, Mike was hardly immune to phone calls that, in many respects, were far more difficult than the one he’d fielded from Sean in Spain.

There were all the times he was recalled to the D-League and, later, the G League during his tenure with the Hawks. But none was more jarring than the one he received on July 25, 2018. He’d been traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in the same three-team deal that landed Dennis Schroder, his longtime teammate in Atlanta, with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In a flash, his four-and-a-half years with the Hawks were over. And this time, he didn’t have a say in whether he’d go or where.

But at least he had the rest of the summer to steel himself for a move from Atlanta to Philly. There was no such luxury of time when, on February 6, 2019, the Sixers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers in a blockbuster deal that brought Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to Philadelphia. One day later, the Clippers sent him across the hall at Staples Center to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Michael Beasley and Ivica Zubac.

When it rains, it pours, you know?” Mike says. “I got traded three times, so I definitely learned a lot from it. It was tough, but I think it gives more of an understanding and an appreciation for what the NBA is like.”

Mike Muscala

Mike changed teams four times between July 2018 and July 2019. (Fahnon Bennett)

Along the way, Mike fielded at least one friendly (if still unexpected) call. During the 2018-19 season, he heard from Stacey Lovelace and Laura Thomas, both of whom worked in player development at the NBA office in New York City. They wanted to talk to Mike about participating in the league’s Job Shadow Program. He was intrigued, so they sent him a list of options. One, in particular, stood out.

“I saw Douglas Elliman, I saw New York, I saw real estate,” he says. “That sounded like a good trio, so I just went with it.”

In May, a few weeks after the Lakers’ season came to a disappointingly early end, Mike was on his way to NYC to spend two days at the offices of Douglas Elliman, one of the largest real estate brokerage firms in America. 

By then, Mike had shown an interest in the field. Besides becoming a homeowner himself, he had attended the National Basketball Players Association’s Real Estate Symposium in 2017 and spent plenty of time watching Million Dollar Listing on Bravo.

In NYC, Mike and a contingent of NBA and G League players, including veteran big man Zaza Pachulia, got an overview of real estate from one of the industry’s highest perches. They sat in on an information session for new agents, talked with more experienced agents—including one, Jonathan Aka, who had been a professional basketball player in France—and picked the brain of Howard Lorber, the Chairman of Douglas Elliman. They even got to meet Fredrik Eklund, a Swedish broker who starred on Million Dollar Listing.

“That was cool for me,” Mike says.

His biggest takeaway, though, didn’t come from a reality TV star or the company’s Chairman. Instead, it came courtesy of an agent in the aforementioned information session. She was asked about balancing her work with her personal life, to which she responded that she doesn’t. Mike took to heart how she saw her life as a mix of both at all times.

“The biggest thing that I took from it was to not always get so caught up in, like, ‘Okay, now I'm at work or now I'm at home.' Try to make those two things separate,” he says. “It was more, like, go with the flow and you can really meet some cool people through what you do with your career.”

Mike lived that lesson through the rest of his summer. He visited old friends he’d made in Atlanta while with the Hawks, and took a road trip with them up to Charleston, South Carolina. He went to Iceland with other friends, and took his first trip to Germany to attend Dennis Schroder’s wedding.

While there, Mike diverted to Frankfurt to indulge his love of cars on the world-famous Autobahn. He took particular joy pushing the Mercedes-Benz convertible he’d rented in the sections without speed limits—especially after suffering through grueling, hour-plus commutes from his apartment in Marina del Rey to Staples Center in downtown LA during his stint with the Lakers.

“I really enjoyed that time, just kind of geeking out with all the different cars,” he says, “and some of the no-speed-limit zones on the Autobahn are pretty darn cool for a car enthusiast.”

Mike Muscala diorama

Mike followed up his time in NYC this summer with trips to Georgia, South Carolina and Germany. (Fahnon Bennett)

By late July, Mike had left his home in Minnesota to get situated in Oklahoma City. He spent two weeks living at the 21c Museum Hotel before moving into his own place and, upon surveying the seasonal weather in town, was pleasantly surprised by what he saw.

“It really isn't too bad down here either, so I'm lucky,” he says. “It's no LA, but it's not too bad.”

During his first 24 hours, Mike took his team-mandated trip to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, which honors all of the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He contemplated the horrors of that fateful April day and the way it affected the city’s residents. Towards the end of his tour, he saw that the Thunder would be wearing patches on their jerseys to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bombing, and was struck by the connection between team and community.

“I just thought that was really, really cool because that's what sports should be about,” he says. “It's bigger than just the sport itself. It's bringing people together.” 

That visit gave Mike an early introduction to the Thunder’s storied organizational culture. So, too, did reading The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, which Sam, the team’s GM, had given him as a gift when he came in to sign with OKC.

“It's changed kind of the way I look at my career, the way I look at almost everything,” he says.

Mike found appeal in that deeper bond between the team and the people who make it possible. It certainly didn’t hurt that he’d be within driving distance (albeit a 12-hour trek) of his family in Minnesota. And after playing in big cities with multiple major league teams, he saw potential in joining a club that was the only game in town.

“I'm excited to be on an NBA team where there's no other major-market sports team city,” he says. “I think that will be a cool thing to be a part of, and I'm excited to experience that.”

With Russ and PG gone, he’ll have a part to play in establishing a new era in OKC. So long as Chris Paul is running point there, he can look forward to fielding pinpoint passes while spotting up for three-pointers.

All the while, when his schedule allows, Mike will continue to explore his burgeoning interests in business—whether it’s crafting his plans to provide financial advice to other pro athletes, reading up on trends in the market, taking online courses or preparing for the GMAT with an eye towards attending business school whenever his time in the NBA is up.

“Once your playing career is over, it's over, and I want to make the most out of that still,” he says. “But there's a lot of downtime in the NBA and a lot of traveling time, so just ways to keep my mind active and to learn more in a tangible way, I think, was my focus this year.”

As for that career in music, Mike won’t rule that out either. He’s still not inclined to dig up his old mixtapes, much less release them to the public. But maybe, just maybe, he’ll make time during a future offseason to get back in the studio.

“I've got a buddy that we've kind of talked about maybe hunkering down in Minnesota for a weekend or a week to just try to knock out like a full mixtape,” he says. “I have yet to commit to that, but I still might in the future.”

These options, and countless others, are all on the table for Mike. At 28, he may not be an All-Star in the making, but by hanging around the NBA for the better part of a decade, he can parlay his childhood passion into a broader palette of professional possibilities as an adult.

“What I've seen is how it's been able to help me in my life in terms of what I've learned, and then my family and friends and all that,” he says, “I wouldn't trade it for anything.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.