Athletic Park was a bandbox of a ballpark that served as home to the Minneapolis Millers from 1889 until early in the 1896 season. It was located at Sixth Street and First Avenue North, in the area now occupied by Butler Square.
There was no building on the block directly across Sixth Street. What was there? I’m insisting that it had to be a graveyard.
Target Center has used that space since 1990. The arena was built by Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner as a home for their NBA franchise, the Timberwolves. Marv and Harv moved in that fall, and watched their dream of NBA ownership quickly turn to a nightmare.
It all had been so different in that first season of 1989-90 spent in the Metrodome. The Timberwolves finished 22-60, the best record among the four expansion teams that joined the league in a two-year period. The Timberwolves drew what was then an NBA-record 1,072,572 fans (26,160 tickets sold per game).
It was a winter-long celebration of the Twin Cities’ return to the NBA after a 29-year absence. And then the Timberwolves moved to the other end of downtown, and started living their haunted existence.
I’m the son of an undertaker. I have a sense for graveyards. And there has to be one lost in the soil under Target Center.
No primary tenants, no sports team, can have this much bad luck by accident.
There’s no need to recall all the horrors. Just remember this:
Even in the “glory years,’’ with Kevin Garnett as the unrelenting superstar, the Timberwolves’ playoff history was one series-and-done from 1997 through 2003. And when the breakthrough finally came in 2004, Sammy Cassell — the second most important player — came up lame for the Western Conference finals vs. the Lakers and the Wolves lost in six games.
The ensuing nine years have provided the longest stretch of futility ever experienced by a major league sports team in Minnesota. Much of it has been management, and with the Timberwolves, there is always the added element of lousy luck.
On Friday, Flip Saunders replaced David Kahn as president of basketball operations. Flip has been in our awareness for 40 years, since he was recruited from Cleveland to the Gophers by Bill Musselman.
Saunders was a small guard who played very well. That’s a combination beloved by basketball fans everywhere. Throw in the nickname — never Phil, always Flip — and he had us in his pocket from Day 1 in Minnesota.
He coached the eight Timberwolves playoff teams, before the 2004-05 bunch quit on him and he was fired on Feb. 12, 2005. He went off to Detroit and Washington to become a more hardened basketball man, and now he’s back, to run the Wolves for owner Glen Taylor and try to slay the evil apparitions that lurk in Target Center.
Taylor bought the team from Marv and Harv in 1995 and went with a combination of little experience in an NBA front office: Kevin McHale and Saunders. Two decades later, Taylor has given up plans to sell a large piece of the franchise, and decided to take another swing at it with Saunders as the head of basketball operations, and Rick Adelman as the coach.
It’s not definite that Adelman will return for a third season. He’ll be back if his wife, Mary Kay, is healthy, and there’s optimism with that.
Adelman will turn 67 next month. Even if Mary Kay is OK, why would he want to be back, with the odds obviously remote of winning that elusive NBA title in Minnesota?
Simple: Adelman’s a lifer. And so is Saunders, now 58.
They love the competition. They love matchups and matching wits. They love the arena and the gym. They love identifying players and getting the best from them.
If Adelman stays and Taylor is able to unite these two basketball brains for the next three or four years, the owner, now 72, will have found the best combination of decision-makers in the mostly sad history of Minnesota’s second NBA franchise.
Whether this much brainpower actually can prove mightier than the horrendous luck that has followed the primary occupants of Target Center … we’ll start finding out when the pingpong balls are pulled for this year’s lottery, I suppose.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.