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

A retrospective of Minnesota's most heartbreaking franchise

The absurd spectacle caught the Rockets by surprise—more then a few were on the floor laughing—but it didn't stop them from outscoring the comparatively inexperienced Wolves 32-29 in the first quarter.

The Wolves' bite failed to live up the Body's bark; they ended up losing in a shootout 125-120, thereby getting swept 3-0.

Malik Sealy,1970-2000

On May 20, 2000, the organization was rocked by a tragedy that made on-court concerns suddenly seem trivial. Malik Sealy, an amiable, defensive-minded role player, was killed in a car crash early that morning when a drunk driver, going the wrong way, struck Sealy's airbag-less SUV head-on on Highway 100 in St. Louis Park. The 30-year-old was heading home from Kevin Garnett's birthday party.

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

"We were just stunned," says team president Chris Wright. "He was a great man and to lose him so tragically... it's hard to talk about, even now."

The entire team was flown out to New York City to attend the funeral, which was held mere blocks from St. John's University, where Sealy had earned his business-management degree eight years earlier.

Before the November 4 home opener against the Kings, in front of a packed house of 19,006 fans, the Wolves retired his #2 jersey. PA announcer Rod Johnson read a tribute before the solemn crowd.

"As I was reading, I happened to look over at the Timberwolves standing along the sidelines," says Johnson. "I saw the tears streaming down their cheeks. That's the closest I've ever come to getting choked up and not being able to continue."

Garnett, whose locker was next to Sealy's, etched 2MALIK on the inner tongue of his Adidas. In honor and memory of Sealy, the team left his locker untouched for the remainder of the season.

Secret Basketball Ops

Kevin McHale has long been a favorite punching bag of fans frustrated with the Wolves' performance. (At a sparsely attended game against Golden State earlier this month, a fan broke the silence during a Craig Smith free throw by bellowing, "You suck, McHale!" at the top of his lungs.) Typical complaints run the gamut from draft pick second-guessing—always two years after the fact, of course—to questioning the firing or hiring of this or that alleged scoundrel. This is to be expected. When a team struggles to crack 20 wins in a season, it would be more astounding if its GM didn't find his name twisted into a half-clever, derogatory pun in a major American daily (See: "The Tale of Kevin McFail," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 2, 2008).

Whether such ire is warranted is beyond the purview of this particular section, but if there's one undeniable, case-closed screw-up in franchise front-office history, it has to be the Joe Smith Contract Debacle of 2000.

On October 25 of that year, NBA Commissioner David Stern handed the team one of the most severe penalties in league history after catching wind of some front-office shenanigans. The league accused McHale—then the vice-prez of basketball operations—and owner Glen Taylor of entering into secretive contract negotiations with star power forward Joe Smith. Turns out, the executives conspired with Smith to pay him what was essentially chump change in the form of three consecutive three-year deals, with the promise of a highly lucrative, seven-year deal ($40–$86 million, depending on his play) down the road. They went so far as to put the terms in writing.

The intent of the clandestine proposal was to get around league salary-cap rules. Under-the-table deals, it goes without saying, are a league no-no. The result was a boondoggle the New York Times called one of the "most embarrassing and costly incidents in National Basketball Association history."

As punishment, the league stripped Smith—incidentally the first overall draft pick the same year KG went fifth—of his "Bird Rights" (a player's right to sign a deal with his most recent team that puts its payroll above the salary cap) by nullifying his last three contracts. The penalty Stern imposed on the Wolves was even, uh, sterner, as it were. In addition to suspending Taylor and McHale, he fined the team $3.5 million and, more damaging, stripped the club of five first-round draft picks. (In lieu of suspensions, McHale and Taylor opted for leaves of absence; two of the five picks were later returned to the Wolves).

Initially, the Wolves' front office decried Stern's decision as overly harsh. These days, a more diplomatic tone is taken.

"It was a mistake that we admitted to," says team president Wright. "At the time, we felt that the sanction was not appropriate at that level. But in hindsight, we feel the sanctions were appropriate."

It's impossible to say with certainty to what extent the Wolves' current woes are attributable to the lost draft selections. On one hand, this came when the Wolves were a solid 50-wins-a-season ball club, so the squandered picks would've been late-round, probably 20th or higher. On the other hand, players still available at that point in the 2001 draft included future All-Stars Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer, and Mr. Eva Longoria himself, Tony Parker.

"It snowballed and should have probably been cut off at its knees," McHale says of the affair eight years later. "It seemed to grow on its own. It was an unfortunate time in this organization, no question."


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