In Wolves’ 25th anniversary, excitement of first season recalled
MINNEAPOLIS — When the Timberwolves parted ways following the franchise’s inaugural season, Bill Musselman didn’t leave them with some sort of glorious motivational spiel.
Instead, the club’s first-ever coach posed a wardrobe-related question.
"When you go home this summer and put that Timberwolves shirt on," the late head man’s son, Eric Musselman, recalls him inquiring, "are you proud to wear that? Have you earned the respect of the people in your hometown?"
The organization’s volatile history sure didn’t begin with a bang. To date, the Kevin Garnett era stands as Minnesota’s only peak separating two valleys of mediocrity, each littered with pits of utter ineptitude.
These days, folks’ appreciation of the black-and-blue’s past is tempered by tension regarding its future. Another Kevin could be out the door soon, and a silver-anniversary season will extend the NBA’s longest active playoff streak to 10 years in a fashion all-too-appropriate for an expansion club that’s made it past the first round just once.
There was a time, though, when record and result were secondary to experience. It was a time Twin Cities sports fans, especially the ones drawn to hardwood floors and iron hoops, could relish regardless of outcome.
Fandom in its purest essence. It wore off fast, and the young professional generation currently walking the skyways is too young to remember most of it.
But when NBA buckets returned to Minneapolis 25 years ago, the city came alive in a way that only KG and Co. have been able to match.
To the majority of spectators, the players on the floor didn’t look much bigger than action figures. Some sat angled away from the court, others so far away they could barely make out Tony Campbell and Randy Breuer executing a pick-and-roll.
Kirby Puckett, Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and the Cities’ other high rollers could afford a better courtside view. But their enthusiasm was often outdone by regular Joes in the nosebleeds, some too far away to understand much else than the score.
It didn’t matter. Basketball was back. The fact it took place in a 64,000-seat structure designed for football only added to the experience; crowds of more than 40,000 packed the Metrodome for some of those first games.
"It was the most hip event you could be at in the Twin Cities," said FOX Sports North TV personality Tom Hanneman, a broadcaster employed by the team during its earlier years. "There was room for everyone."
The Minneapolis Lakers’ departure west after the 1959-60 season had left a void in the state’s sports landscape. When the NBA expanded in 1987, tennis and health club chain owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner filled it in, founding the Timberwolves — the mascot posed by fans and voted on by Minnesota’s city councils — at a price tag of $32.5 million.
"The NBA was hot," Wolfenson said at the time, according to a New York Times article this past December in reporting his death at the age of 87. Ratner passed away in 2006.
Wolfenson and his business partner were right. The late 1980s and early ’90s saw the emergence of Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone and David Robinson, to name a few ultra-stars. When Minnesota began play in 1989, Magic Johnson was still in the league. So was Larry Bird.
That first year was spent in the Dome, opened seven years earlier primarily to house Vikings games away from the harsh northern elements, while "Harv and Marv" put their own money into construction of the 19,000-seat Target Center.
Many fans had a hard time seeing the action. Visiting players had to adjust to the cavernous surroundings.
"I still say we had seven men on the court at all times," said Campbell, indisputably the franchise’s first star and the league’s No. 5 scorer that first season. "The messed-up depth perception was the seventh, the many fans were the sixth, and all five players were good because we’d gotten used to it."
All but five of Minnesota’s 22 wins in 1989-90 came at the Dome. In their first year of existence, the Timberwolves drew a basketball-starved 1,072,572 fans, which still stands as an NBA record.
On April 17, 1990, they hosted the third-largest crowd in NBA history — 49,551 spectators — for a 10-point loss to the Nuggets. An average of 26,160 patrons took in those first 82 home contests.
By comparison, 17,636 per game showed up during Minnesota’s 2003-04 run to the Western Conference Finals.
The fans weren’t just rabid back then, Campbell said. They were engaged.
"They were not only were supportive, but they were astute," said Campbell, one of a handful of Musselman carryovers from the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. "A lot of our players came from the CBA, and even when it came to where we went to college, when you spoke to someone, they always had that information. It’s always nice to talk to fans, but to talk to students of the game, you always felt better getting into conversations of why we did this and why we did that."
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, Musselman’s assistant during the two years he was here: "You could see the joy and how important it was to all the people there. There was really a sense of tremendous pride."
It wasn’t a Timberwolves team workout without some sort of verbal — and, frequently, physical — altercation.
That first group was a tight-knit one. But its collective tenacity matched its closeness.
"The intensity of practices was so crazy," Campbell said. "We’d get so hot and heated at each other that there was a lot of yelling and screaming and talk-back; basically, it was a good kind of competitive.
"I think that’s what made us who we were. When you have guys constantly trying to get better and challenging each other, practices were never dull."
Via the 1989 expansion draft, Musselman built a roster core of hard-nosed vagabonds from the CBA. Campbell, Tod Murphy, Sidney Lowe, Steve Johnson, Sam Mitchell and Scott Roth had played for teams coached by Musselman, who won four CBA titles and earned the league’s 1987-88 coach of the year accolades.
The same gritty group of players from what former NBA guard David Wesley once called a "second-chance league" would play cards together on the team’s commercial plane rides and go the mall or the movies in groups of at least three during road trips. "We were very close," Campbell said.
While Musselman didn’t designate a captain, Campbell’s status as one of the league’s top producers rendered him the de facto on-court general. He averaged 23.2 points per game on 45.7 percent shooting.
That scoring mark ranked first in franchise history until Garnett came along, then bumped to third when Kevin Love usurped both of them in 2011-12. It also made Campbell a favorite among fans, the older batch of whom hadn’t seen such a talent since George Mikan as part of the Lakers dynasty.
"Amongst a long list of really, really good people on that team, Tony was our first star and really seemed to enjoy and embrace it," Hanneman said.
Current Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin manned the wing opposite Campbell and led the team in rebounding. Breuer, a former Minnesota Gopher acquired from Milwaukee in a midseason trade, was the bruiser down low. Pooh Richardson took over as the starting point guard halfway through the campaign and wound up averaging 11.4 points and 6.8 assists per game.
Tough, salty and a difficult out at home, the first Timberwolves team struck a chord with the more blue-collar viewer. But they weren’t all that competitive, finishing 22-60 and second-to-last in the Western Conference standings. That mark, though, was better than those of Miami, Orlando and Charlotte, the league’s other three newest teams.
And just because they weren’t up to the athletic snuff of the NBA’s elite didn’t mean they weren’t a dreaded opponent.
"Everyone hated playing the Wolves," Hanneman said. "(Musselman) didn’t have the talent level overall to play with Chicago and L.A., so if you could grind it out, slow it down, you’re gonna win some games, and they did."
So that’s what Musselman went with, often ditching his thick playbook for a set of four favored plays — almost all of them isolation sets for Campbell. He rotated players frequently, ensuring they had enough energy and fouls to give to play suffocating defense.
The Timberwolves’ 99.4 points allowed per game ranked second only to 1989-90 NBA champion Detroit.
"We were built on defense," Campbell said. "That was our motto and that was our modus of operation."
And that goes back to one man.
The professional hoops world is one of closed doors, company secrets and behind-the-scenes workings few outside the organizations are every privy to.
There’s always been a degree of separation. But it wasn’t as pronounced in Musselman’s day.
Two hours before every home game, the franchise’s first head man would venture to Lyon’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis and host a question-and-answer session with season ticketholders and fans. He also opened practices to the media — a practice unheard of during the present Rick Adelman regime.
One day, Hanneman brought a sports page into practice. As soon as the coach saw it, he snapped at the TV and radio voice to put it away.
The coach may have been a people pleaser. But he was a stickler for the details, too.
And when the balls were rolled out for practice or pregame warmups, Musselman was as fierce as it gets.
"We were an expansion team, so many nights, we didn’t have the same talent level as our opponents did," Thibodeau said, "but Bill never let that get in the way of being competitive and winning as many games as we could."
Musselman became the club’s initial coach Aug. 23, 1988, a year before the team commenced play. It was considered a controversial hire locally; the NCAA found the University of Minnesota program guilty of 127 rules violations that occurred during his tenure as the Gophers’ head coach from 1971-75.
That stint in Minneapolis — Musselman’s last collegiate position — brought droves of previously uninterested fans to Williams Arena. He finished with a 69-32 record, the best winning percentage (.683) in school history, and brought the team its first Big Ten title in 53 years.
Current Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders was among the players Musselman coached in Dinkytown.
An on-court brawl between his players and Ohio State that ended with three Buckeyes players being hospitalized for injuries further muddled Musselman’s legacy. The chalkboard in the Gophers’ pregame dressing room that night read "Defeat is worse than death, because you have to live with defeat."
Whether that mantra caused his team to go overboard that night or not, Musselman largely lived by its sentiment.
Keeping a VCR at the foot of his bed, he’d often watch film until 3 in the morning, his son Eric said. "
Even as his son, I knew he was always a great competitor with great intensity," said Eric Musselman, who wasn’t hired onto his dad’s original staff because Bill "didn’t believe in nepotism."
Bill Musselman sandwiched a three-year NBA excursion in Cleveland between a CBA, American Basketball Association and World Basketball Association career that rendered him one of the most successful minor-league hoops coaches ever. His ability to identify and combine talent, and his ties to the Twin Cities, made him an ideal fit to ring in the Association’s return to Minnesota, Thibodeau said.
"There was a lot of irony in a lot of things with that first team that I’ve taken away," said Thibodeau, who attended Musselman’s Albany Patroons practices while serving as an assistant coach at Harvard. "Bill had been here at the U, so there was a connection in a lot of different ways. I just think it resonated with people out there, and with the popularity of league taking off at that time, the timing was perfect."
As Thibodeau, Campbell and every player on that inaugural team can attest to, Musselman ran excruciating practices. Anything but maximum effort, particularly defensively, was unacceptable.
But he was also a practical joker.
During one road trip, Musselman hid in Lowe’s hotel closet, jumped out and "scared the crap out of him," according to Eric Musselman.
He fused passion and stubbornness with a knack for creativity. In a home loss to the Lakers during Minnesota’s second season, he had 7-foot-3 center Breuer guard Magic Johnson, who at one point came to the Timberwolves bench and asked "is this for real?" said Eric Musselman, a Timberwolves assistant by then.
Bill Musselman’s return here was ultimately short-lived, as Minnesota fired him after going 29-53 in 1990-91. But his legacy permeates today’s league; including Thibodeau and Corbin, six players or assistants from those first two Timberwolves teams went on to become NBA head coaches.
The list includes Utah assistant Lowe, who coached Minnesota from 1992-94, former Raptors head man Mitchell, Thunder coach Scott Brooks and even Eric Musselman, currently an Arizona State assistant who helmed the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors at different junctures.
"The biggest thing I took away is if you play hard on a nightly basis and play with great discipline, you can win," Eric Musselman said. "We were underdogs almost every night out. The other great lesson that year was you can have great pride even if you’re not a playoff team or a championship team. We got fired at the end of the year, and nobody had a bad taste in their mouth. Everybody was proud of what was accomplished."
That assistantship was Thibodeau’s first at the NBA level. This season, he’s in the coach of the year discussion after leading the Bulls to the brink of home-court advantage in the playoffs’ opening round.
"I think the best thing for me was coming into the league with a guy like Bill," Thibodeau said. "I just thought he was a great, great teacher and communicator, very demanding and he wanted you to know the league inside and out. With it being my first NBA experience, it was a great way to learn.
"And you had to learn fast."
It’s always hard to forget the first.
Growing up in Lake City, Minn., Jeff Munneke quickly became what he describes as a basketball junkie.
One wall in his childhood bedroom featured a giant poster of George Gervin. The other, Julius Erving.
So when the new NBA team in town began hiring staffers for its daily operations, the former Huron (S.D.) basketball player quickly jumped on board. Today, he’s considered the unofficial historian for all things Timberwolves.
Now the team’s vice president of fan experience, Munneke still remembers the exact date he was hired: June 20, 1988.
"To have the NBA coming back to Minnesota, it was the thrill of a lifetime to be involved and hired by them," Munneke said. "It was an electric time."
One of very few employees still around since the franchise’s inception, Munneke remembers the early hoopla. He recalls just as distinctly when the Timberwolves won a franchise-worst 15 games in their third season under Musselman’s replacement, Jimmy Rodgers.
An avid storyteller, Munneke had an inside track on the golden Garnett era. Like most of Minnesota fandom, he’s watched in unfulfilled earnest as Kevin Love attempts to achieve similar transcendence.
But there’s a keen nostalgia associated with that first group.
"There’s a certain, I suppose, melancholy to that to where you remember back to your first," Munneke said. "You remember your first playoff opportunity (1996-97, Garnett’s second year in the fold). You remember back to your first win (Nov, 10, 1989 at the Dome — 125-118 in overtime against Philadelphia). You remember back to the first mascot game, the first time we broke the attendance record. All those different milestones were really fun to look back on and share with people."
The stories from that 1989-90 Timberwolves squad would take years to relay in full. But one of Eric Musselman’s favorites occurred five years after team management gave him and his father the boot.
During a family getaway in Sarasota, Fla., Eric recalls his ultra-competitive dad jogging along the beach.
In a Timberwolves shirt.
"That, like, resonated in my brain, him always wearing Timberwolves gear," Eric Musselman said. "He never said a negative word about his time there."
For an organization with an all-time winning percentage of .401 — 26th in the 30-team NBA since Minnesota entered the league — there has been plenty of vitriol tossed about regarding its failures.
It makes it easy to forget the days when people were just thrilled to have a team again.
Hanneman thinks that’s a tragedy.
"Twenty-five years is a long time, and in that time, I think a lot of the first season, a lot of the early years is forgotten, because the team wasn’t successful, and I think that’s a mistake," he said. "I think those pioneers of the franchise should be remembered and talked about. I would say that, other than the successful playoff run of 03-04 when Denver goes down and then in the greatest game ever played in franchise history, Game 7 against Sacramento to advance to the Western Conference Finals, the energy level there is the greatest of all time.
"But there were games in that first season, even when the Wolves weren’t winning, that was close. That’s pretty amazing."
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