Wes Johnson and Jonny Flynn are hungry. It is a rare day off for the Timberwolves, and after practice, weight-training and signing basketballs for a community program, they're standing in the foyer of Manny's Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis, shaking the cold off their thin jackets and talking and laughing in a low huddle, like two college buddies sharing an inside joke.
They're waiting for Kevin Love, the final member of the party, to show up. Wes shyly mumbles something about appetizers to Mike Cristaldi, their public relations manager. It comes out like he's asking permission.
"Do whatever you want," Cristaldi says with a laugh, throwing his hands up.
Of course, as NBA players leading charmed lives of multimillion-dollar salaries, private jets and team services at their beck and call, they often do exactly whatever they want.
But most of the Timberwolves -- who boast the youngest roster in the league -- are only a few years removed from a broke, college-dorm lifestyle, and have been thrust into another hectic, highly structured environment. Behind the wealth and exclusivity lurks, in many ways, a band of kids.
• • •
Love shows up in a fire-red track jacket just before the snacks -- lobster cakes and apple-smoked bacon -- arrive. It's impossible to miss his entrance. As the 6-foot-10 forward struts through the double doors, the staff moves into action, eager to please. A couple peer at him as they walk by, whispering.
An ice bucket full of Stella Artois, Love's beer of choice, is already frosty and waiting on the table, which sits in the middle of the room. Love, a regular, shakes his head when asked if that's his "normal" table, but he doesn't seem to mind the extra exposure.
Maybe it's because they're used to it by now. But while they get a healthy share of the spotlight, plenty of criticism comes their way, as well. Especially in years like this one, when they've had an abysmal season.
"You can't escape it," Flynn said. "If you watch 'SportsCenter' all the time, you're going to hear everything that's said about everything. You just have to try and stay positive."
• • •
"This is the clown," Love says, pointing to Flynn. "And this is the instigator," he says, nudging Johnson, whose polite Texas charm infects just about everything he does.
The rookie shakes his head. "I'm just quiet. ... I like to scope everything out," he says.
"Yeah, but it's the quiet ones you've got to worry about!" Love roars.
The chatter turns to talk about Mike Beasley, the just-barely-21-year-old forward known for his wild hair, tattoos and attitude.
"He puts 'SpongeBob' on in the locker room," Love says. He pauses for effect. "And watches it."
But beyond the amusing TV show preferences, the strong presence of video games and the playful banter, the young team has a unique bonding mechanism that many teams don't have.
"The whole team is just silly," Flynn said. "But we get along. And when you have chemistry off the court, you go to the same places, you do the same things ... that carries over."
• • •
Flynn's spending outlet is shopping, a hobby that shows in his snappy attire. And the Mall of America, with its thousands of patrons, doesn't scare Flynn, who claims he blends in because of his height (the Timberwolves site lists him at a questionable 6 feet). "People might take double looks, but I can run," he said, grinning.
"You know, not a lot of people are 22 years old and have this lump sum of money. So you have to enjoy it when you're young, because when you get older, it's not the same. My motto is, you work hard, you've got to play hard."
Of course, with their resources and deep pockets, they're able to play and relax in ways most people can't do or even hope to do. The night they met for dinner, Love took a $40 steak to go, to make his massage appointment with a team therapist at his apartment. Johnson left to go get his weekly haircut.
They've become as accustomed to the lavishness of their lifestyles as they have to the thrills of playing against basketball legends such as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant on a nightly basis. But they realize that they have a ways to go before they achieve the same level of ease with fans, even in their own arena.
"We're just peeking around the corner," Flynn conceded of the team. "I know, in Minnesota, the fans are just striving for something good. They're waiting for us to go out and perform, so they can get behind us.
"Now it's up to us to do it."