Twenty years of Timberwolves: Highs, lows, and grisly details

A retrospective of Minnesota's most heartbreaking franchise

On a frigid night five days before Christmas, a sparse crowd gathers inside the Target Center to watch the floundering Timberwolves take on the Houston Rockets.

With 2:50 remaining in the first quarter, Al Jefferson, the Wolves' skilled, fluid center/forward, squares up to the basket. He jerks his head upward, a fake that causes his defender, the towering Yao Ming, to hesitate for just a 10th of a second too long. Jefferson takes one hard dribble, hops into a jump stop, and explodes toward the basket, delivering a ruthless one-handed slam.

The crowd reaction is comically incongruous to the move's brilliance: muffled cheers and scattered applause sound, but no whistles. No roars.

NBAE/Getty Images
A young Kevin Garnett
NBAE/Getty Images
A young Kevin Garnett

Fan morale is understandably low. At this point, the Wolves' record stands at 5-20. The official attendance is just over 12,000, and by the looks of it, that figure might be a bit generous; even the lower levels are sprinkled with vacant green and blue seats.

The highest decibel level reached inside the arena this night comes during a timeout with 5:05 to go in the first half, when a compilation of winter-related bloopers are shown on the looming, cubic scoreboard hanging above midcourt. Children on a speeding sled plow through bystanders like a bowling ball through pins.

One would be hard pressed to come up with a more apt metaphor for the Wolves' past two seasons.

But what concerns us now is not the present tension (we'll get to that soon enough), but the past. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the franchise, we're looking back at the team's most important moments.

Some are good. Most are bad. One is tragic.

The Inception

The first Timberwolves team, 1989-90, was a ragtag collection of lunchpail players coached by the late Bill Musselman, who had previously coached the Gophers. Musselman composed his team of scrappy hustlers, many of whom he had coached during his CBA days in Albany, Sarasota, and Tampa Bay.

"It was a unique group of players," says Tod Murphy, who started at power forward and is now an assistant coach at UC Irvine. "A lot of times, expansion teams will take NBA veterans from other teams, guys who weren't [contractually] protected. But we had a lot CBA guys, guys who had won championships at other levels and were very hungry."

This unorthodox crew played their games in an equally unorthodox venue. The Target Center was but a metal skeleton at this point, so the Wolves scrapped it out in the Metrodome. Forward Tony Campbell, a versatile offensive threat and the Timberwolves' leading scorer that year (23.2 ppg), recalls the initial disorientation.

"We had to deal with depth perception adjustments and the openness of the arena," says Campbell, who these days coaches a high school team in New Jersey. "It wasn't your typical basketball stadium, but it held a lot of people and we felt the fans' support. It was great."

In order to keep his usually outmatched team within striking distance late in the fourth quarter, Musselman slowed down the tempo, emphasized defense, and favored gritty veterans over talented but unproven newbies. He was a master of motivation, a constant source of chatter on the sidelines.

"Bill was one of those coaches who would talk shit to players on the other team," says guard Doug West, who would go on to become a Timberwolves mainstay, but was then a bench-riding rookie. "I remember against Utah, Karl Malone was guarding Adrian Branch and Coach kept telling Branch, 'Wear his ass out! Wear his ass out!' Then he'd tell Malone, 'He's kicking your ass, Karl!' Next thing you know, Malone is arguing with Coach."

Wins were few and far between, but despite the team's on-court mediocrity, Wolves fans turned out to the Metrodome in droves. The franchise became the first in NBA history to draw more than one million attendees in a season, partly because of the Metrodome's ample capacity, but mostly because there was a genuine buzz surrounding the team. It didn't hurt that this was during the NBA's apex—the era of Jordan, Bird, and Magic—and Minnesotans were pumped to have a team to call their own for the first time since the Lakers took off for Los Angeles 40 years earlier.

"That honeymoon period was just phenomenal," says Tom Hanneman, who's been doing TV play-by-play for the Wolves since the inception. "Forty-thousand fans would show up for a game. The energy was palpable. It was a happening."

The team would finish the season 22-60; a lackluster record, to be sure, but better than any of the three other expansion teams that debuted in the '88-'89 season. The next year, played in the newly christened Target Center, the Timberwolves would improve to 29-53.

This was followed by years of ineptitude that Wolves fans would just as soon forget.

Easy, Rider

The Wolves may have lacked an internationally known, sneaker-endorsing, bona fide superstar during those miserable first few years, but in 1993, the team got its hands on a sizeable talent with a personality to match.

There's no denying that Isaiah Rider was an asshole. The rookie out of UNLV showed up late to his first NBA practice, habitually missed planes, constantly clashed with his coaches, was once suspended for three games for spitting on a fan, had kidnapping charges levied against him in '06, and, most recently, was booked in LA County on grand theft auto charges... then failed to show for his arraignment.

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