Fish stories: Muskies more than a retro uniform

MINNEAPOLIS — Only the trappings remain, the faux-retro warmups that look more like cardigans and the old-school jerseys with an armless fish mascot that teeters as unsteady as the team it represents once was.

On Monday, the Timberwolves will play the fourth of seven “Hardwood Classic” games this season.

For the games, the team wears the uniform of the 1967-68 Minnesota Muskies, the ABA franchise that made Minneapolis home for one season more than 40 years ago. It’s a tribute to a team that was a footnote in the city’s basketball history, a franchise that was never able to attract fans or establish itself. After all this time, it’s been reduced to a logo and a scoreboard change, to that teetering, mud-colored fish. It was another era, another lifetime for some of the men who put on the first Muskies uniforms, but even without those throwback outfits the team’s legacy is still felt, however faintly, in Minneapolis.

The Muskies were one of the 11 original ABA teams, founded in 1967 as a means of challenging the NBA’s dominance and providing an alternative form of basketball. It was a flashier league, known more for offense than anything else, with a 30-second shot clock, higher scoring, the first 3-point line and its signature red, white and blue basketball. It was also a spillover league, providing a home for players who couldn’t find a spot on the 12 NBA teams at the time.

In their year in Minneapolis, the Muskies finished second in the ABA’s Eastern Division with a 50-28 record. They won a playoff series against the Kentucky Colonels before losing to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Pipers in the second round. Their coach, Jim Pollard, was an NBA great who won five championships with the Minneapolis Lakers from 1949-54.

The team’s roster had what former Muskies public relations officer Dick Jonckowski called a “Big Ten flavor,” featuring players like Skip Thoren and Donnie Freeman from Illinois, Irv Inniger from Indiana and Terry Kunze from Minnesota. Minnesota’s best player was Mel Daniels, the team’s first draft pick who elected to play in the ABA despite being drafted in the NBA. Daniels led the league in rebounds in his season as a Muskie, averaging 15.6. He, Freeman and Les Hunter represented the Muskies at that year’s All-Star Game, and shooting guard Ron Perry garnered a reputation as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters.

Pollard had been a Lakers teammate of George Mikan, the first ABA commissioner, and in a way, the Muskies were more closely linked to ABA leadership than any other team. The franchise shared offices with the league in the Farmers and Mechanics Bank building in downtown Minneapolis. Mikan was a key member of the 1980s task force that eventually brought the Timberwolves to Minnesota. Despite that link, neither the Muskies nor the Pipers, who moved to Minnesota from Pittsburgh for the 1968-69 season, were able to gain a foothold in the Twin Cities.

In their season in Minneapolis, the Muskies estimated that they lost about $400,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s equal to about $2.6 million in 2012 dollars. The team, which played in the 15,500-seat Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, was never able to attract many more than 100 season ticket holders, and its fan base was spotty at best.

Jonckowski said the team often went to desperate measures to attract a crowd — or to make it look like it had filled the stadium. When games were televised, general manager Eddie Holman and other team officials would go to the upper deck, Jonckowski said, and bring people out of the cheap seats and into the courtside rows, creating the illusion of a full stadium.

“People would call in and say, ‘What time does the game start?’” Jonckowski said, laughing. “I’d say, ‘What time can you be here?’”

Attendance and financial problems weren’t isolated to Minnesota, though. Of the 11 original teams, only the Indiana Pacers and Kentucky Colonels survived through the league’s nine seasons without folding or relocating. Kunze said the only place he remembers consistently good crowds was in Denver, and some venues were even more sparsely populated than the Met Center.

“We played in Anaheim,” Kunze said. “If you threw a bomb in there, no one would get hurt. There weren’t many people there.”

And though the league’s eventual fate, having four teams absorbed into the NBA in 1976, renders it something short of a financial failure, the ABA’s business operations were downright arcane compared to those of the current NBA. Teams flew commercially, making for late nights and early mornings, Kunze said, and the Muskies would often practice in local college gymnasiums.

Jonckowski made a mere $60 per week ($5 less than the cost of admission to Monday night’s Timberwolves game for a lower-level seat), and he couldn’t even afford to park his car near the offices. Each day, he’d walk the six blocks to the railroad tracks after work, hoping his car hadn’t been towed.

As a general manager, Holman no doubt contributed to the team’s financial woes. A friend of Mikan’s, he knew very little about basketball, and much of the Muskies’ office staff seemed to have little interest in the game itself.

“He didn’t know a free-throw from a double dribble,” Jonckowski said of Holman. “It was really unbelievable. I used to say that I was the only guy in the office that didn’t wear a shoulder holster because some of the guys were a little shady.”

In addition to herding fans into prime seats for those televised games, Holman also set up a system in which all media could go to a nearby Bloomington restaurant and order food and drinks on the Muskies’ budget — the same budget that could pay Jonckowski only $60 each week.

On the court, it was similar touch-and-go situation. Kunze said he’ll never forget how hard it was to win on the road, mostly because referees rarely traveled and often had home teams’ interests in mind. It was an era in which things like that didn’t come under fire. No Internet, less attention and 11 teams of players simply hoping for a paycheck and a chance to play the sport they love will do that to a league.

That first ABA season tipped off during the Vietnam War, and Kunze said teams would sometimes find themselves shorthanded due to players’ military obligations. Kunze, a guard, broke his shooting hand that season but was often forced to wrap it up and play.

Racial tension also shaped the league as much as the war. The ABA became a destination for many African-American players, and teams often had a front-row seat to the civil rights movement.

“That was in a time of racial tension,” Kunze said. “We played in Pittsburgh, and they actually stopped the game in the second quarter with armed polices with shields and everything escorting us out of the arena. They were having a race riot.”

Hunter, who played both center and power forward, felt acutely the affects of race in sports during his early years as a professional. Drafted by the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets in 1964, Hunter, who is African-American, found that the team had little interest in helping him improve. He was too small to play center in the post and needed to move to power forward. The Bullets, however, weren’t willing to let anyone ride the bench while they learned new skills, much less an African-American player.

“Coaches would have their drinking buddies sitting on the bench down there taking those seats, not a young guy,” Hunter said.

So instead of fighting for a spot in the NBA, Hunter returned to school and got his degree while enjoying the continued pay of his no-cut contract. When the ABA formed less than three years later, he was on board, and he saw the league as the perfect outlet for all the talent the NBA was unwisely ignoring or getting rid of.

Kunze, who played in Europe after finishing at the University of Minnesota, decided to move to the ABA for financial reasons. The Muskies paid more than his European team did, and when the franchise folded, he returned to Europe because of financial concerns and a love of the culture overseas.

Not every player elected to play in the ABA for such noble or practical reasons. In 1967, this new alternative was billed as — and actually became — the fun league. It was a league of bikini ball girls in Miami (which Hunter remembers fondly) and young, energetic players. These were guys who could have been equally successful in either league, but the structure of the NBA had in some instances forced them out.

There’s a certain irony to the Timberwolves choosing to honor the Muskies this season. It was a franchise defined by struggle, a fleeting presence that players remember more for its humor than for its success. In some ways, it was the exact opposite of what the Timberwolves are trying to build, but the Muskies had fun with the colorful ball, with the newness of it all and the promise of youth that’s so similar to this year’s Timberwolves.

It’s been more than four decades since the Muskies shuttered their operations, but that cycle of chaos and youth and fleeting success remains in the 2011-12 Timberwolves, who will no doubt sustain what they’ve built this season for longer than did the Muskies.

But even after the team was no more, its players and staff continued to play a part in Minnesota basketball. Jonckowski, who eventually became the voice of the Minnesota Gophers, never gave up on the professional game in the Twin Cities and took the same job with the Pipers the following year. He made significantly more than his former paycheck, and there were no more long walks to the railroad tracks that second season.

As a coach, Kunze helped recruit Kevin McHale to the University of Minnesota. He’s held Timberwolves season tickets since the team arrived in 1989, and said he can tell that there’s something different about this year’s team.

“When I watched the Utah game when they won . . . on the last shot, the best thing about the whole game was the attitude of the players when it was over,” Kunze said. “It was like they’d won a championship, so you know something’s going right in the locker room.”

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