Next time someone praises an athlete for spending extra time in the gym, or signing autographs for five minutes, you should compare that with a true profile in perseverance.
Jeff Munneke has worked for the Timberwolves for more than 31 years. As the vice president of fan experience, he might have the toughest job in local sports, and he is one of the longest-tenured of Minnesota sports executives.
Now 55, he is working with another new front office, and facing another rebuild. How does someone last 31 years in a constantly changing business while selling one of the least successful organizations in modern sports history?
The clue might have presented itself during his first month on the job.
The Wolves hired Munneke to work in sales on June 20, 1988, a year before they would start playing games at the Metrodome.
The bosses took the 35 original employees to a local hotel for “relationship building and psychological profiles.”
The goal was to learn how to engage with different sports fan personalities, but the employees received profiles as well. Munneke was described as an “amiable expressive.”
Perhaps only an “amiable expressive” could have thrived in this job.
“I had a season-ticket holder friend of mine ask me the other day, ‘From an executive standpoint, do you have the worst winning percentage in sports history?’ ” Munneke said. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, I probably do. Thank you for pointing that out.’
“We’ve only had one playoff appearance in the last 15 years. That’s unprecedented. But I think from our fan standpoint, when we hear back, they rarely talk about wins and losses, they talk about their experience with us. That’s where we can win the day.”
Often, the Wolves have had little else to offer. Along with the constant losing, they play in the Target Center, which is a functional arena in a market where most of the venues are state-of-the-art.
So Munneke represents the Wolves by being as optimistic as reality will allow. “Sometimes, you get to your car in the ramp after a game and just exhale and say, ‘Man, that was tough,’ ” he said.
“But it’s a great job and we deal with great people all the time.”
How long has Munneke worked for the Wolves?
His first crisis occurred before anyone in the organization had a computer or a cellphone.
For the Wolves’ first-ever exhibition game, in 1989, they would face the Los Angeles Lakers at the Metrodome.
“About two weeks prior to the game we get word from our ticket-printing company that there’s going to be a delay,” he said.
Munneke and his colleagues began calling fans to tell them not to wait until the last minute to pick up their tickets at Will Call.
Despite their efforts, shortly before the game began, there were about 3,000 people in the stands and about 31,000 outside in line.
“We got pummeled for that, and rightly so,” he said.
His favorite moment? When the Wolves played their first home playoff game, against Charles Barkley and the Rockets, and Jesse Ventura rappelled to the court from the ceiling before the game.
Venture ripped off his jean jacket, pointed to his biceps and yelled, “Hey, Barkley, you want some of this?”
Then the Wolves sent an intern dressed as a drunken Rockets fan onto the court and Ventura clotheslined him. “The place went nuts,” Munneke said.
Munneke also offers the Wolves’ defining story. In the early years, the staff heard about a 70-something breakdancer who called himself “Joey Two-Step” making a name for himself at a local bar.
They visited after a game and hired him to perform between quarters. The first time he danced on the court, the Celtics’ bench loved it. “I knew we had something,” Munneke said.
But after Joey “said the wrong thing” to a couple of female employees, the Wolves fired him.
“He said, ‘Nobody fires Joey Two-Step — curse the Timberwolves; I”m putting a hex on you,” Munneke said.
Munneke has survived that and many other curses, including David Kahn and Ndudi Ebi.
Another 31 years like this, and Munneke might consider retirement.