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The Rapid City Thrillers (1987-95)


Rapid City Thrillers' Pearl Washington

Credit: Fotki


The Rapid City Thrillers played in the Continental Basketball Association from 1987-95. The team was initially based in Tampa Bay, but in January 1987, the team moved to Rapid City, South Dakota, as the team wasn't making enough money.


Attendance for Thrillers' games was as low as 295! To put how small that amount is in perspective, the average per game attendance in the 2019-2020 NBA season was 17,750! For some reason, then owner, John Tuschman, thought relocating to a city with a population that was almost 5.5x smaller would be a good resolution for fan attendance:

  • Tampa: 390,000

  • Rapid City: 70,000

Somehow, the move worked! The Thrillers would stay in Rapid City for eight seasons compared to their two seasons in Tampa. Even though Rapid City's population is way less, two Floridian NBA teams were on the horizon (Miami Heat and Orlando Magic), so the local competition for fans was probably going to be too much for the Thrillers.


According to Tuschman, their negative profit margins are attributed to the St. Petersburg Times newspaper. Tuschman blamed the newspaper for not featuring the Thrillers in cover stories on the sports section.


Besides low attendance and the newspaper fiasco, the team wasn't spending enough money on advertising. The advertising budget was only $30,000.

Even though they'd eventually move to a different city, in the two seasons in Tampa, the Thrillers won the Championship in both seasons! In their first season (1984-85), they went 35-13 and beat the Detroit Spirits in the Finals, 4-3. In the following season (1985-86), they went 34-14 and beat the La Crosse Catbirds, 4-1.


In their third season, while relocating to Rapid City, they also won the Championship! It seems like the Championship is more attributed towards the Tampa Bay Thrillers' legacy instead of the Rapid City Thrillers, but we'll say it's attributed to both teams, so it's less confusing.

Now that you know the Rapid City Thriller's backstory, let's focus on the 1987-95 Thrillers, starting with their front office.

 

Table of Contents:

 

The Owners: John Tuschman, John Samuelsen, and Pat Hall

Starting with John Tuschman, before owning the Rapid City Thrillers, Tuschman was the head of Fidelity Management Company (FMC). At first, I was impressed because I confused Tuschman's company with Fidelity Investments. Regardless, with FMC, Tuschman created 24 residential communities!

Besides owning the Rapid City Thrillers, as said earlier, Tuschman also owned the Tampa Bay Thrillers and, in 1998, would buy the Black Hills Posse, another South Dakota-based team. Tuschman would rename the Black Hills Posse the Rapid City Thrillers to reignite the Thrillers' spirit, but after one season, the team would come to an end.


In addition to his work, Tuschman also did a lot of volunteering with AISEC, The Tuschman Foundation, Julia's Deck, and the Houston Autism Home.


The other John that owned the Rapid City Thrillers was John Samuelsen. Before becoming the owner of the Thrillers, Samuelsen worked in so many different positions at so many different companies that I don't even think I can name them all. Here are just a few of the notable positions that Samuelsen was in:

  • President: Highland Beverage, South Dakota Beer Wholesales, and Rocky Mountain Conference of Beer Wholesales

  • General Manager: Lakes Development Building Association

  • Sales Associate: Rushmore Homes

When Samuelsen owned the Thrillers, his wife, Sally Olson, also worked for the Thrillers as the Dance Team Manager. Together, they served as coordinators for the CBA's All-Star Team on their tour in France! According to Pat Hall, the other owner of the Thrillers, Samuelsen was a relatively quiet person but was respected and loved by everyone in the community.


Finally, the last owner of the Rapid City Thrillers was Pat Hall. Unfortunately, unlike with Tuschman and Samuelsen, there isn't much news or info about Hall. The only information, or more accurately, opinion piece, about Hall is pretty negative. In a Bleacher Report article, it was reported that Hall demanded a cut of the concession's profits even though he was making well enough.

The only other news update regarding Hall is that he's promoting Rapid City's real estate. In the article, Hall said, "I think that Rapid City is going to just keep on growing. It's an outstanding town."

Lastly, just recently, in 2020, Hall donated the Rapid City Thrillers' warmup suits to the Rapid City Rush, a professional ice hockey league in the East Coast Hockey League. Here are pictures of the warm-up suits! They're pretty cool!


The Rapid City Thrillers' Six Coaches

Throughout the Rapid City Thrillers' eight seasons, they had six coaches:

  • 1987: Bill Musselman

  • 1988: Tom Nissalke

  • 1989: Flip Saunders

  • 1990, 1992-95: Eric Musselman

  • 1991: Keith Fowler and Jim Calvin

Since there are so many coaches, I will only focus on the two coaches that were most important to the Rapid City Thrillers, Bill Musselman and Eric Musselman. The former helped the Rapid City Thrillers win their only Championship, while the latter was their longest tenured coach.


Bill Musselman

The first coach, the Rapid City Thrillers, had was Bill Musselman. Before coaching the Rapid City Thrillers, Musselman was also the coach of the Thrillers when they were in Tampa! However, once the Thrillers moved to Rapid City, Musselman left. Musselman called then owner John Tuschman a "goddamn idiot" for relocating the Thrillers.

Besides being a head coach in the CBA, Musselman also coached for teams in the NBA, ABA, NCAA, and WBA. Here were the teams that Musselman coached in each league:

  • NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves

  • ABA: San Diego Sails and Virginia Squires

  • NCAA: the University of Minnesota and University of Alabama

  • WBA: Reno Bighorns

  • CBA: Sarasota Stingers, Albany Patroons, and Rochester Renegade

Musselman found the most success in the NCAA and CBA. In the NCAA, his overall record was 158-104 (76.6 W/L%). His best regular-season record was with the 1972-73 Minnesota Golden Gophers. They went 21-5 (80.8 W/L%).


However, Musselman's best season overall was probably with the 1971-72 Minnesota Golden Gophers. They would go 18-7 (72.0 W/L%) and finish as the Regular Season Champions! In addition, In the NCAA Tournament, they ended up being the Mideastern Regional Third Place Winners!


Musselman's CBA record is slightly worse than his NCAA record. In five seasons, he went 267-114 (70.1 W/L%). Musselman's first CBA team was the Sarasota Stingers. They didn't give him a chance, and only 19 games into the regular season, Musselman was fired from the Stingers. Within those 19 games, the team went 6-13 (31.5 W/L%).

This was a blessing in disguise for Musselman as he would win a championship every season for the next four seasons! Musselman won THREE CHAMPIONSHIPS in a row with the Tampa Bay/Rapid City Thrillers (1984-87)! Once he left the Thrillers, he joined the Albany Patroons and won a Championship with them as well (1987-88)! The Patroons would go 48-6 (88.9 W/L%) in their Championship season!

Musselman's stint in the ABA with the San Diego Sails and Virginia Squires and his time in the WBA with the Reno Bighorns were extremely forgettable, so we'll gloss over those two seasons and discuss his NBA coaching career instead.


Musselman's NBA coaching career was nowhere near as good as his NCAA or CBA career. It was actually pretty horrible. His overall NBA record was 78-120 (30.2 W/L%). Musselman first coached the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1980-82. In the second season, in 23 regular-season games under Musselman, the Cavaliers record was 2-21 (8.7 W/L%).


Musselman would resign before the 1982-83 NBA season, and I'm not surprised. The team had no All-Stars, and according to Cedric Maxwell, the team was more known for partying than playing.


As for the Minnesota Timberwolves, that didn't go that well either. From 1989-1991, Musselman and the Timberwolves went 51-113 (31.1 W/L%). Again, I don't blame Musselman for the Timberwolves performing poorly because the team had no star players. The Timberwolves didn't have a positive record from 1989-1997.


Eric Musselman

Eric Musselman was the Rapid City Thriller's longest-tenured coach. Eric coached the Thrillers in 1990 and from 1992-95. He's also the only coach to coach the Thrillers for more than one season. Eric was 23 when he first started coaching the Thrillers, becoming the youngest coach in CBA history.


Also, if you haven't already figured it out, Bill and Eric Musselman are related. Eric is Bill Mussleman's son! Like his father, Eric had a pretty successful coaching career with the Rapid City Thrillers. Although Eric didn't win any Championships with the Thrillers, Eric brought the Thrillers to the Playoffs each season that he was their head coach.


Another similarity that the father-son duo have is that Eric also coached numerous basketball teams in various leagues:

  • NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, and Sacramento Kings.

  • NCAA: Arizona State, LSU, Nevada University, and Arkansas University

  • D-League: Reno Bighorns and Los Angeles D-Fenders

  • CBA: Rapid City Thrillers and Florida Beach Dogs

  • USBL: Florida Sharks

Eric had a positive overall record in each league besides the NBA. In the three seasons that Eric was a head coach, he went 103-148 (43.9 W/L%). Nowhere near as bad as his father's record in the NBA, but still negative.


Eric was the head coach for the Golden State Warriors for two seasons (2002-04) and the Sacramento Kings for one season (2006-07). Like his dad, Eric didn't have any star players on the teams he coached.


With the Golden State Warriors, Eric's best players were Antawn Jamison and a sophomore season Gilbert Arenas. With the Sacramento Kings, Eric's best players were Kevin Martin and Metta World Peace. Eric's regular-season record with each team was around the same:

  • 2002-03 Golden State Warriors: 38-44

  • 2003-04 Golden State Warriors: 37-45

  • 2006-07 Sacramento Kings: 33-49

Although Eric's NBA coaching career wasn't that successful, he is one of the best NCAA coaches. From 2015-2019, Eric coached the Nevada Wolf and went 144-34 (76.4 W/L%). In 3/4 of those seasons, the Nevada Wolf were Regular Season Champions and made it into the NCAA Tournament.


Eric and the Nevada Wolf's deepest NCAA Tournament run was in 2018 when they went all the way to the Southern Regional Semifinals. This season, Eric was also named the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year!


Eric is currently the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks and, so far, has a record of 45-19 (70.3 W/L%). In the 2021 NCAA season, Eric and the Razorbacks made it to the Elite 8. Unfortunately, they would get knocked out by Baylor University, 72-81.

Besides his NBA and NCAA career, Eric has also been a 2x USBL Champion, CBI Champion, and D-League Coach of the Year!

Like with the coaches, since the Rapid City Thrillers played eight seasons, I'll be picking three of the team's most noteworthy seasons: 1986-87, 1987-88, and 1992-93.


The 1986-87 Season: Championship

Rapid City Thrillers Officla Program Book

As said in the introduction, the Tampa Bay Thrillers were in Rapid City by the end of the regular season, but the 1986-87 Championship is associated with the Tampa Bay Thrillers more than the Rapid City Thrillers. To make this more interesting and less confusing, I'm just going to say it goes to both teams. This is one of the more noteworthy seasons as they won a Championship this season.

In the 1986-87 CBA season, with Bill Musselman as the head coach, the Tampa Bay/Rapid City Thrillers went 34-14 (70.8 W/L%) and finished first in the Eastern Division.


This season, the best player for the Thrillers was Don Collins. Collins was a 6'6" Forward from Washington State. This season, he averaged:


27.2 Points, 6.2 Rebounds, 2.5 Assists, 2.0 Steals, and 1.1 Blocks

55.4 FG%, 33.3 3P%, 84.6 FT%

37 Minutes


Collins didn't win any awards this season, but a crap ton a season prior. In the 1985-86 CBA season, Collins led the league in points (31.6) and was the All-Star MVP! He was also the CBA Newcomer of the Year in the 1984-85 CBA season! By the end of his CBA career, Collins was selected to the CBA Era Team!


Sidenote: I don't know how the CBA All-Star Games work, but in the 1985-86 CBA season, the All-Star Game was between the 'CBA All-Stars' and the Tampa Bay/Rapid City Thrillers? I guess the Thrillers were so good that the entire team was selected for the All-Star game?


Before joining the Thrillers, Collins was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the 1980 NBA Draft as the 18th pick. Forty-seven games into the first season of his NBA career, the Hawks traded Collins to the Washington Bullets for Wes Matthews.


Collins' first season in the NBA was pretty good. He averaged 12/3/2 and a steal while shooting 44.4% from the field and 77.6% from the free-throw line. Although he had a good rookie season, he wasn't selected to the All-Rookie Team. Back then, only the First-Team existed for Rookies. If there was a Second-Team, I'm pretty sure Collins would have been on it.

Collins would stay on the Bullets for two more seasons (1981-83) before signing with the Golden State Warriors (1983-84) and then signing with the Bullets again (1984-85). Within these four seasons, Collins was... average. On any night, he could give you ten points on good efficiency in 20 minutes of play.


Collins' best game was on April 13th, 1962, against the Milwaukee Bucks. He put up 32 points, six rebounds, two assists, and two steals and shot 15/20 from the field!

Besides Collins, the Tampa Bay/Rapid City Thrillers also had 2x All-Star and 2x All-Defensive Eddie Johnson. In the 1986-87 CBA season, Johnson was the All-Star Game MVP and Newcomer of the Year! Like Collins, Johnson was also selected by the Atlanta Hawks, but as the 49th pick in the 1977 NBA Draft.


Johnson played for the Atlanta Hawks for most of his NBA career (1977-85). His best season was in 1979-80 when he averaged 19/2/4 and two steals while shooting 48.7% from the field. Unfortunately, in 1987, the NBA would eventually suspend Johnson due to cocaine addiction.

In the playoffs, the Tampa Bay/Rapid City Thrillers would make it to the Finals and beat the Rockford Lightning, 4-1, for the Championship!

Although Collins led the team in scoring in the playoffs (25.3), the best player for the Thrillers during the playoffs was Clinton Wheeler. Wheeler averaged:


21.8 Points, 2.4 Rebounds, 9.0 Assists, 3.2 Steals, and 0.1 Blocks

53.6 FG%, 22.2 3P%, 90.0 FT%

46 Minutes

Although 3.2 steals is an impressive stat, I'm more surprised that Wheeler played 46 minutes per game! This is more than how long a typical NBA game lasts, and Wheeler played 14 games during the playoffs!


Like the previous two, Wheeler also played in the NBA. The Kansas Ciy Kings drafted him in the 1981 NBA Draft as the 150th pick. Wheeler's NBA career was relatively short, only playing 87 games and averaging 10 minutes per game.


Wheeler's best game in the NBA was on January 16th, 1988, against the Houston Rockets. Wheeler would put up 18 points, two rebounds, six assists, three steals, and one block while shooting 8/9 from the field!


The 1987-88 Season: Garbage

In the 1987-88 CBA season, with Tom Nissalke as the head coach, the Rapid City Thrillers went 16-38 (29.6 W/L%) and finished sixth in the Western Division. I chose this season because this was the Thrillers' worst regular-season record. They went from Championship winners to the worst in the Conference in just two seasons.


In defense of the Thrillers, the team was completely different. Not a single player from the 1986-97 Tampa Bay/Rapid City Thrillers stayed with the team the following season.


It's also funny how ironic it is that Nissalke ended up being the coach with the worst record with the Thrillers because he's the only coach out of the six Rapid City Thrillers' coaches that won Coach of the Year in the NBA (1977) AND ABA (1972)!


It's surprising how Nissalke won Coach of the Year during those seasons since the teams he coached didn't even hit 50 wins. In 1977, Nissalke coached the Houston Rockets, and they only went 49-33 (59.8 W/L%). They were tied for fourth in the league with the Portland Trailblazers.


In 1972, Nisisale Coached the Dallas Chaparrals, and they only went 42-42 (50.0 W/L%). They were sixth in the league! That sounds good, but there were only 11 teams in the ABA during the 1971-72 ABA season... This might be because, in the previous season, the Chaparrals went 30-54.


As for the Thrillers' players, they were all pretty bad. Not a single player averaged more than 13 points. The only player that averaged exactly 13 points was Brent Timm, but he only played three games for the Thrillers.


I guess the "best" player for the Thrillers this season was Duane Washington. Washington averaged:


12.3 Points, 3.3 Rebounds, 4.2 Assists, 1.6 Steals, and 0.1 Blocks

43.0 FG%, 38.2 3P%, 72.4 FT%

28.8 Minutes


The Washington Bullets drafted Washington in the 1987 NBA Draft as the 36th pick. Washington ended up playing for the New Jersey Nets in his rookie season and only played fifteen games. Within those fifteen games, his best game was on April 23rd, 1988. He put up:


18 Points, 5 Rebounds, 10 Assists, 6 Steals

5/9 FG, 8/9 FT

31 Minutes


Unfortunately, Washington was suspended from the NBA for two seasons as he broke a substance abuse agreement. As a result, Washington ended up playing for numerous teams. After the Nets, Washington played for 18 TEAMS!


Washington went back to the NBA and played for the Los Angeles Clippers, but it was only for four games. Washington's son, Duane Washington Jr., entered the 2021 NBA Draft but was sadly not selected. Thankfully, the Indiana Pacers signed him to a two-way contract! Washington Jr. recently scored 23 points in a Summer League Game!


Another fun fact is that 5x NBA Champion, Derek Fisher, is Washington's brother!


1992-93 Season: Best Regular-Season

In the 1992-93 CBA season, with Eric Musselman as the head coach, the Rapid City Thrillers went 44-12 (78.6 W/L%) and finished first in the Midwestern Division. I chose this season because it was the Thrillers' best regular-season record. While Bill Musselman got the Thrillers their Championships, Eric Musselman got them their best regular-season record.


This season, the Thrillers had 25 PLAYERS. Out of the 25, the best player for the Thrillers was Tony Dawson. Dawson was a 6'7" Forward from Florida State University. He only played 15 games for the Thrillers, but his stat-line was so amazing that I just have to include him. His averages were:


31.1 Points, 6.0 Rebounds, 1.1 Assists, 1.5 Steals, and 1.2 Blocks

59.7 FG%, 40.0 3P%, 77.9 FT%

35 Minutes


Unlike most of the players we've mentioned so far, Dawson was not drafted by an NBA team. He did sign a 10-day contract with the Sacramento Kings in the 1990-91 season and with the Boston Celtics in the 1994-95 season, but neither contract was extended. Dawson only played six games in the NBA.


Most of Dawson's professional basketball career was in the CBA and overseas. In 1995, Dawson was the All-Star MVP, but he was on the Rockford Lightning instead of the Thrillers. As for his overseas career, Dawson played in Spain, Israel, France, Germany, Greece, Lebanon, and Venezuela! He was the top scorer in the German League in 1996 and Greek League in 1998.


Like Duane Washington, Dawson also has an NBA player brother. 2x All-Star and All-Rookie, Jerry Stackhouse, is Dawon's little brother!


Other notable players on the team include Stanley Brundy and Shelton Jones.


Stanely Brundy was the rebounding leader of the CBA in the 1992-93 season. What makes this feat impressive is that Brundy was a 6'7" Forward! He averaged 11.8 rebounds this season. Last season, Brundy was also the rebounding leader with 11.1 rebounds! In the 1991-92 season, Brundy was the CBA Newcomer of the Year!


As for Shelton Jones, he was the Slam Dunk Champion in the 1992-93 season! Jones was also one of the Rapid City Thrillers' best players this season. Jones averaged:


19.1 Points, 9.4 Rebounds, 1.6 Assists, 0.7 Steals, and 2.5 Blocks

60.4 FG%, 81.1 FT%

36 Minutes


Since Jones was the Slam Dunk Champion, I'm not surprised that he averaged 2.5 blocks! He was nowhere near Mike Bell, the block leader this season (2.8), but 2.5 is still a lot!


In the 1995-96 CBA season, Jones would be selected as the regular-season MVP! What's weird is that although he played great, it wasn't an exceptional season. In fact, he had worse stats in his MVP season than in his season with the Rapid City Thrillers. Here were his MVP-season stats:


18.5 Points, 7.3 Rebounds, 1.4 Assists, 0.2 Steals, and 2.4 Blocks

55.0 FG%, 82.7 FT%

36 Minutes


He did worst in each statistical category besides free-throw percentage!


As for the playoffs, the Rapid City Thrillers would go 5-3 but would, unfortunately, get knocked out in the National Conference Finals. In the playoffs, the best player for the Thrillers was John Morton. Morton averaged:


27.3 Points, 3.4 Rebounds, 3.6 Assists, 1.5 Steals, and 0.3 Blocks

55.3 FG%, 33.3 3P%, 83.8 FT%

34 Minutes


Out of everybody on the roster, Morton took the hugest leap in the playoffs. No one else on the team came near to how well Morton was playing.


Morton had a short NBA career, but it wasn't as short as Dawson's. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Morton as the 25th pick in the 1989 NBA Draft. Morton would play 107 games for the Cavaliers before signing with the Miami Heat. He would only play for the Heat for 21 games before leaving the NBA.


Within those 128 games, Morton's best game was on March 6th, 1992, against the Chicago Bulls. He put up:


16 Points, 2 Rebounds, 3 Assists, 2 Steals

8/12 FG, 0/1 3P

31 Minutes




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