When Kevin Harlan left the Timberwolves in 1998, the franchise’s original broadcast voice — with emphasis on “original” — advanced to network notoriety and far higher tax brackets.
It also left him without a team for which to cheer.
Now the comparatively understated voice of the NFL for CBS on Sunday afternoons and Westwood One radio on Monday nights, the man who also works NBA games for TNT on Thursdays roots these days only for an entertaining game to call.
“That’s the difference,” he said. “When I was with the Timberwolves, I wanted them to win and wanted them to play well.”
The Wolves have won all too infrequently these many years, first in their dark expansion days when Harlan and broadcast partner Tom Hanneman became a comedy team of sorts just to survive long, losing nights and now in more recent years when the team wasn’t worthy to fill a prized TNT Thursday night slot.
On Thursday, however, Harlan will call his second Wolves game in a mere three weeks. A resident of both Kansas City and northern Wisconsin, he returned to Minneapolis for last month’s national TNT game against Philadelphia and now leads its call of Thursday’s Wolves-Raptors game in Toronto.
He has been back to Minnesota occasionally through the years to call Vikings games, but seldom for a Wolves team that finally has piqued the interest of television network executives.
Harlan calls his recent Target Center return “very gratifying” and a heartwarming chance to see some old friends.
“I have not been back very much,” he said. “Everybody looks the same. No one has aged.”
It must be the cold.
‘Perfect nine years there’
Harlan teamed with Hanneman — now a studio host for FSN — in the franchise’s earliest days. They always entertained themselves and sometimes even the audience with bits that included the invention of broadcast “legend” Bill Beek, the nasally, deadpan voice of the long-forgotten 1946 Toronto Huskies whom Hanneman brought to life on radio.
It just so happens that, in a slice of serendipity, the Raptors on Thursday will wear replica uniforms of that real 1946 Huskies team, one of 11 founding members in the Basketball Association of America that became the modern-day NBA a few years later.
“I know we laughed more than we were serious, every hour we were together,” Harlan said. “It was a perfect nine years there. I can’t think of anything I would have wanted to have done more.”
For all too brief a time, Harlan also paired on play-by-play calls with Kevin McHale after he left a Basketball Hall of Fame-playing career with Boston and before he ran the Wolves’ basketball operations.
In between, Harlan and Hanneman brought everyone from Trent Tucker, Sidney Lowe and current Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau to the late Bill Musselman and Flip Saunders into their auditory hijinks.
“We took nice, professional, respected men and brought them down to our level,” Harlan said. “They probably dreaded thinking of those times to this day, although they probably were every bit as mischievous as we were.”
Along came KG
Harlan entertained Wolves fans for seasons with over-the-top calls such as “With no regard for human life!” after a thunderous slam dunk and “Googly-oogly-oogly, baby!” in reference to former Wolves star Tom Gugliotta.
“That name just rolled off your tongue,” Harlan said. “I don’t say it like that anymore. I don’t know if I could. I might be too old.”
He also was the guy who first gave young, blossoming superstar Kevin Garnett the nickname “The Big Ticket.”
“You could see early on that he was something special,” Harlan said. “You could see he was the ticket to future success. He was not just a regular ticket. He was The Big Ticket. Sometimes you say that stuff and it does stick. Most of the time you say it and it doesn’t. People liked it.
“It was unique. I think he kind of liked it. He was The Big Ticket.”
Harlan still has footage somewhere of Garnett and Boston teammate Paul Pierce impersonating Harlan’s most famous calls when they were on the field at a New England Patriots game he called years ago.
He also has memories sharing buckets of popcorn with McHale, their mouths full while they tried to call games together. The two will be reunited on some TNT games this winter now that McHale has returned to television work from coaching.
“We’d get fired now, no doubt, we’d be out of work if we tried to do now what we did then,” Harlan said. “There was dead air because we’d have our fingers on the ‘cough’ button, muting the sound, we were laughing so hard. Kevin is so insightful, so honest. He can be as big a star in TV as he was as a player if he wants to.”
Harlan has toned down the enthusiasm for network television, but admits his Monday Night Football radio call in this season’s opening weeks recalled his Wolves days. He created an internet sensation with a rollicking play-by-play call that described a “goofball” fan roaming the field — “Somebody stop that man!” — late in a blowout game.
“The roots of that call were right there,” he said. “I channeled my Timberwolves days and that’s what came out.”