Twenty years of Timberwolves: Highs, lows, and grisly details
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.
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 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.
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.
But the dude could fly back in the day.
The Wolves' unofficial national coming-out party was the '94 All-Star Weekend, Rider's rookie season. During the dunk contest, the flamboyant two-guard electrified the hometown Target Center crowd with what he dubbed "the East Bay Funk Dunk." The EBFD was achieved by leaping off one foot, taking the ball between the legs mid-flight, and slamming it home.
It's hard to appreciate just how preposterous and mind-boggling the infamous slam was in its day, what with mutants like Vince Carter and Dwight Howard having spoiled us since.
"At that time, the dunk contest was still relatively new, so a lot of the dunks hadn't already been done," remembers Kevin Hansen, the Wolves' official scorer and stats crewmember. "It was something no one had seen before."
After he threw it through the net, the crowd went apeshit. Amid the waving 10's, Charles Barkley exclaimed to the television audience, "Oh my God! That might be the best dunk I've ever seen!"
The following September, Rider was convicted of fifth-degree assault after kicking the manager of a sports bar. By the summer of '96, the Wolves had had enough and sent Rider packing for Portland. Mere hours after the deal, he was arrested for pot possession. Also on his person: an illegal cell phone programmed to charge on someone else's tab.
Meanwhile, the lowly Wolves were quickly becoming the NBA's most reliable punch line: "Why doesn't Iowa have an NBA team? Because then Minnesota would want one."
But help was on the way.
The (New) Kid
During the lead-up to the 1995 draft, the Wolves' front office knew who they'd take with the fifth pick, if available (and that was a big if): an impossibly lanky 19-year-old—all of 6'11" and, who knows, maybe still growing—named Kevin Garnett. At that point, no highschooler had made the jump straight to the NBA since Moses Malone 21 years earlier. But VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale couldn't help but salivate.
"He was just a phenomenal athlete with phenomenal energy and phenomenal size," he says. "Just the complete package."
Fortunately for the Wolves, four teams would pass on the youngster, deeming him too risky a pick. Wearing a gray three-piece, "the Kid," as he'd come to be known, strolled up to the podium to greet a comparatively troll-like David Stern.
Few athletes in any sport in any market have been as indelibly connected with his franchise as Garnett would come to be with Minnesota. From the mid-'90s until last season, he was the face of the organization to a degree that made the terms "T-Wolves" and "KG" inevitable matches on a word-association test. Over the course of 12 seasons, Wolves fans watched the Kid blossom into the Man.
"I remember a particular preseason open-to-the-public practice/scrimmage," says Rod Johnson, the Wolves' public-address announcer of 13 years. "An organization had about 12 severely handicapped kids in wheelchairs along the sidelines. Kevin was the first guy to come out for shoot-around, and when he saw them there, he went over and gave every one of them a hug. There was no one else there, no cameras or reporters. I was really struck by that."
Garnett would go on to break nearly every franchise individual record on the books, including most career points, most career assists, most career steals, most career blocks, and most career on-air expletives (unofficial).
"When Kevin got excited, there'd typically come words that weren't appropriate for family shows," chuckles broadcaster Tom Hanneman. "Most times after he scored a bucket, I could hear him in my headset."
Garnett racked up a total of 7,575 field goals (motherfucker!) with the Wolves.
Popping the Playoff Cherry
One year after selecting KG, the Wolves once again had the fifth pick. In a move that is hotly debated (read: regretted) to this day, they went with Ray Allen out of UConn, then immediately swapped him and a future first-round pick for Stephon Marbury, whom Milwaukee had selected one pick earlier. Marbury and Garnett had been friends since their AAU/All-American days, and the theory was that their off-court amity would translate into on-court chemistry.
With All Star-caliber forward Tom Gugliotta thrown in the mix, Minnesota suddenly boasted one of the more formidable trios in the league. The revamped Wolves were no longer hapless pushovers. During the trio's first season together, the new-look Wolves—new uniforms and a sleeker logo reflected the change in personnel—garnered 14 more wins than they had the previous season, finishing 40–42. While just shy of being the organization's first winning season, it was good enough to secure a playoff berth, the first in franchise history.
The best-of-five first-round series saw the six-seeded Wolves take on the three-seeded Rockets, who handily beat the young squad in the first two games in Houston.
One of the more memorable moments came before Game 3, the Target Center's first playoff game. Governor Jesse Ventura rappelled down from the cheap seats and landed in front of Houston's bench.
"You want a piece of this, Barkley?" growled Ventura, his girth bulging within his personalized T-Wolves jersey. "This is our house!"
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.
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.
"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."
Whatever the fallout inherent from the Joe Smith debacle, all was forgiven by the '03-'04 season. The addition of hardened vets Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, coupled with the potential-realizing dominance of Garnett, made the Wolves the team to beat in the West.
The team posted a 58–24 record and glided through the first round of the playoffs against the Nuggets. The next round would prove more difficult.
The greatest game to date in franchise history came on Garnett's 28th birthday, exactly four years after Malik Sealy's tragic death, during Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Sacramento Kings. Every seat in the Target Center was filled, though there would be little sitting that night. With 2.2 seconds remaining and the Wolves up by three, the Kings took the ball in-bounds for one last shot at a tie. After Chris Webber's buzzer-beating three-pointer rimmed in and out, the Target Center transformed into an insane asylum.
Garnett, having just racked up 32 points, 21 rebounds, and 5 blocks, leapt up on the scorer's table and saluted the shrieking crowd, which turned out to be the most iconic moment of his career with the Timberwolves.
Downtown traffic that drizzling evening was at a standstill. Car horns—celebratory, not frustrated—echoed between office buildings. Hooting fans hanging out of car windows proudly waved Timberwolves flags and jerseys. It was the high point of the franchise.
"To walk out of Game 7 to that atmosphere, it was just incredible," says team president Wright. "Whether it's repeated or not, that's something you can never forget."
Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to ride the euphoria to victory in the Western Conference Finals. In a tightly matched, highly competitive series against Minneapolis's original NBA franchise, the Lakers, the Wolves fell in six games.
Spree's Gota Family to Feed
It was no secret heading into the 2004-05 season that Latrell Sprewell was unhappy. During the preseason, the wiry, cornrowed slasher made it publicly known that he wanted a contract extension before the Wolves tipped off the season against the Knicks. If none was offered, Sprewell said, he would ask for a sign-and-trade deal or, barring that, test the free-agent waters at season's end. In any event, he wasn't interested in negotiating during the season.
Which made his now-infamous statements on Halloween all the more baffling.
"Why would I want to help them win a title?" he said of the Timberwolves. "They're not doing anything for me. I'm at risk. I have a lot of risk here. I got my family to feed."
The elephant in the room was that Sprewell was pulling in a cool $14 million at the time. Granted, it's possible the "family to feed" line was simply a cliché that Spree unintentionally blurted without giving a moment's thought to what it would imply to his fans, i.e., those who might literally be struggling to feed their families. But the 13-year guard forfeited any benefit of the doubt when he went on to describe the $20-plus million offered to him as "insulting."
Sprewell subsequently found himself cast as the poster boy of the Out of Touch Professional Athlete. American sports fans are a rare breed who, given enough time and apologetic tears, will forgive an athlete for choking his coach half to death (walk it off, P.J.), but will harbor nothing but contempt for a certified delusional whiner.
But maybe, just maybe, Sprewell wasn't exaggerating after all. In early 2008, the ex-NBAer had filed a foreclosure suit for his $405,000 suburban Milwaukee home after failing to make five months' worth of mortgage payments. He also auctioned off his yacht, on which he still owed $1.3 million.
That said, his family reportedly still has access to food.
As for the team: The '04-'05 season would go down as the most disappointing year ever for the franchise, fans, and players. It's difficult to fathom, but one year after coming within a game of reaching the finals, the Wolves failed to even make the playoffs.
A New Beginning
Which brings us to the present day. The Big Moment—or rather, catalyst—of this era, obviously, was the Garnett trade. In parting ways with the future Hall of Famer, the Wolves received five youngsters, including Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson, and Sebastian Telfair, in addition to some cash and two first-round draft picks.
The immediate results have been as everyone predicted, which is to say dismal. Last season, the Wolves went 22-60—the same record the first team posted during the Dome days.
But compared to that first season, fan enthusiasm is virtually nonexistent; ticket sales are anemic. Where the organization once boasted a season-ticket base of more than 13,000 the first couple of years, this season it's below 5,000, and that includes corporate sponsorships.
"Unfortunately, this is the lowest it's ever been in terms of full season-ticket sales," says Jeff Munneke, the team's vice president of client development. "But our path is pretty clear. We're rebuilding around Al Jefferson. We have young guys and guys coming in. We always say that when the team wins, the beer gets a little colder and the hot dogs taste a little better."
As things stand, the beer is lukewarm, the hot dogs undercooked. Which isn't to say all is hopeless.
The "we're rebuilding" line is often a canned phrase that just means, "we suck," but in this case, there might be some truth in it. Jefferson has the potential to be a perennial All-Star once his passing catches up to the rest of his game (maybe even if it doesn't). Randy Foye has shown great potential as a pure scorer, maybe something akin to a poor man's Dwayne Wade (though his listed height of 6'4" was evidently measured while he was in platform shoes). He's barely old enough to drink beer, and already rookie Kevin Love has displayed ample aggression and a clairvoyant knack for rebounds and loose balls.
More reason for hope: The Wolves opened the year with a five-game winning streak, the longest in more than three years. After throttling the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 10, the players seemed almost... confident.
"The locker room atmosphere is definitely different than it was a month ago," says Love. "Guys are more upbeat and we're feeling good. We're no longer hanging our heads. We now know we can do this."
Leave it to a guy familiar with depth-perception challenges posed by the Metrodome to put things in perspective: "In 20 years, I think the Wolves have come full circle," says Tony Campbell. "I think these guys have a lot in common with us from back then. We had to tough it out for about five years before the franchise really got going. Like these guys, we were primarily young, with a few veterans sprinkled in there. I think the difference, though, is these younger guys have more talent than we had. Maybe the turnaround will be quicker this time."
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