So many years after he left the Timberwolves and Minnesota to eventually run sporting empires in Los Angeles and Toronto, Tim Leiweke remembers that first NBA expansion season 25 years ago as a time and place in his life that never will be replicated or surpassed.
On the court, that first season produced 22 victories and four men who went on to become NBA head coaches.
Upstairs in the front office, that first season produced an NBA attendance record at the Metrodome that never will be approached again and four young workers who went on to run the business operations of major-sport franchises. They came from a 35-member staff of mostly 20-somethings who played hard together and sold tickets and exclusive corporate sponsorships harder.
All these years later, the man who brought David Beckham to Major League Soccer’s L.A. Galaxy calls those first Timberwolves years unforgettable and unrepeatable.
“The best-run sports organization I’ve ever been part of,” said Leiweke, who now runs Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment that owns the NBA’s Raptors, the NHL’s Maple Leafs, and MLS’s Toronto FC. “We were good, I mean we were really good. We had unbelievable talent there.”
And he wasn’t talking about Bill Musselman’s team that sent Tony Campbell, Tyrone Corbin, Sidney Lowe and Pooh Richardson onto the court nightly.
Hired away from indoor soccer’s Kansas City Comets at the tender age of 28, Leiweke brought with him from the game of human pinball a colleague named Len Komoroski and others as well as indoor soccer’s unconventional conventions — lights-out introductions, throbbing music, T-shirt-dropping blimps, mascots and dance teams — needed to sell a sport unbeholden to the sanctity of the major pro sports at the time.
“There were no boundaries or restrictions,” said Komoroski, now CEO of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loan Arena. “None of these, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way,’ no baggage of heritage you had to deal with.”
So original team owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner and team president Bob Stein hired Leiweke and an office full of youngsters — including nine sales reps pretty much straight out of college paid strictly on commission — and they dreamed and invented and worked.
“We had the advantage of not knowing what we didn’t know,” said Stein, a former NFL player, lawyer and player agent. “We didn’t really have people who were NBA or even major league sports lifers to do it the way they always did it.”
So Leiweke, and his army created out of the ether, targeted national corporations for what Leiweke termed “cornerstone” and exclusive sponsorship deals that were ahead of their time in sports marketing. Prospective partners received a brick taken from the demolished building on the site where brand new Target Center was being erected. Each brick had an engraved plaque and each symbolically urged representatives from U.S. West, Miller Brewing, Pepsi and other corporations to build a bridge with the fledgling NBA franchise.
To seal the deal with U.S. West, Leiweke, Komoroski and former radio executive John Thomas — who later ran the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings — flew to Denver for the final pitch. Somebody had to tote a duffel bag filled with 30 bricks.
“It was a good thing to be young,” said Komoroski, who did the toting. “It really was a ton of bricks.”
Together, they sold 15,000 season tickets and their work drew 1,072,000 fans to the Metrodome that inaugural season.
The same young group that worked hard together by day socialized hard together by night, whether at Eddie Webster’s peanut bar out on the I-494 strip or piled into the back of a pickup truck for a late-night, celebratory ride down Hennepin Av. in front of the team’s first offices there among the porn shops and prostitutes.
“We enjoyed each other, we hung together, we had fun,” said Leiweke, former president and CEO of entertainment giant AEG that owns LA’s Kings, Galaxy, Staples Center and part of the Lakers. “We ran hard and we were good.”
Office employees from those first few years still gather together regularly for reunions to remember those times when that first group had just two years to get an NBA franchise started from scratch after Minnesota was awarded an expansion franchise in 1987.
“Still to this day, these people are some of my best friends,” said Wolves vice president of fan experience Jeff Munneke, who for more than a decade has been the last original member of that 35-person staff. “We didn’t know any better. We were in a race to get this thing up and going. You’re in early, you’re staying late and you just worked at this incredible pace. We kept it up for two, three years. It would have been hard to keep it up much longer than that.”
Other members from that original group have gone on to head sales at Old Dutch and the Mall of America and run everything from the Phoenix Coyotes to Kansas City’s Sprint Center.
“The difference was the people,” Leiweke said. “We were rebels and we were selling lots of tickets and doing great things in the community and we were thinking about life differently than anybody had ever thought about life.”
Wolves’ week ahead
Tuesday: 7 p.m. vs. San Antonio (FSN Plus)
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Chicago (FSN)
Friday: 7 p.m. vs. Houston (FSN)
Player to watch: Joakim Noah, Bulls
Not only is he is the NBA’s most active interior defender, he just might be, with apologies to Kevin Love, the best passing big man around. The guy’s averaging 12.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals.
"It hurts when I smile, and I want to smile all the time but I can’t."
Wolves guard Ricky Rubio, who is stitch-free after receiving 15 of them in his upper lip after being struck in the face during a game against Atlanta two weeks ago.