This was an hour before Friday night’s tip-off at Target Center and there was a stream of customers using the new skyway entrance from Ramp A. A gentleman in his 40s made it through security and said to a Wolves employee:
“Hey, where are the T-shirts you’re giving away?”
The employee answered: “Draped over the back of your chairs.”
The ticketholder gave a look of surprise and said: “You guys got it going on.”
That is an accusation the Timberwolves have not faced often over the past 13 years of wandering in the non-playoff wilderness.
There have been numerous fresh starts in that period, but there are a couple of significant elements this time:
There is the rebuilt roster in basketball boss Tom Thibodeau’s second season, who won their home opener 100-97, and there is the $140 million renovation to Target Center as the building enters its 28th season as home to the NBA team.
Plus, there are the T-shirts reading, “All Eyes North,” which isn’t quite as catchy as the “United We Run” that kicked off what became the misguided David Kahn Era.
The building was looking very much like a relic in comparison to other venues for major sports entities across the Twin Cities, even though the Wolves had done their best to keep it lightly used with only 22 home playoff games in their history.
Thiodeau has been calling the building renovation “spectacular,” and he repeated that before Friday’s game. The renovated basketball team did not receive that review after Wednesday’s season opener at San Antonio. The Wolves wilted down the stretch, as they had so often in Thibodeau’s first season.
The hearty crowd in attendance Friday offered a pass for that Spurs’ loss. The fans showed up early to look over the remodeled digs, and they came to their feet in a standing, roaring ovation when Jimmy Butler was introduced for a few remarks before the start.
The opposition was Utah, and its starting point guard, Ricky Rubio, also received cheers, but those came and went quickly.
Tony and Jessica Ehrnreiter of White Bear Lake had been among the early arrivals. They were expressing approval of the bright look inside the arena, the open spaces and the much-improved concessions at the top of the first deck.
“I’m a diehard, I’d be here anyway, but it looks very good,” Tony said.
Tony was drinking a can of beer that cost $10 and Jessica a rum and Coke that was $11. The seats at the top of the first deck were also $100 apiece, plus a service charge.
“We’ll get here five to 10 times this winter,” Tony said.
Jessica said: “And he’ll watch every other game on television.”
How does a guy around 30 remain a Wolves diehard through 13 non-playoff seasons?
“Basketball is my game,” he said. “I can’t watch baseball. It’s too slow. And the Pohlads [Twins owners] … they would rather spend their money on the stadium than improving what’s been mostly a crummy product.”
Excuse me, Tony — you’re a Wolves fan and are accusing another team in town of having offered a crummy product?
“OK, but basketball is so much different,” he said. “There’s constant action.”
No real frustrations then? “Letting all those big leads get away in the fourth quarter last season … that bothered me,” he said.
Kevin Moynihan and his wife Ngoc Tran were on a pregame scouting mission. “Are you looking for season ticket-holders?” Moynihan said. “That’s us. They had to freshen up this building, and everything looks good so far.”
The family had four season tickets for years. Then, daughter Bridget headed for Tufts University and daughter Erin for Wheaton (Mass.), so now Kevin and Ngoc have two seats.
What happens if this turns into another flop of a year?
Ngoc beat her husband to the answer: “This is the first season of the turnaround. No matter what happens, we will be back for one more year.”
Josh Newton and Shannon McGinnis were in attendance with their sons. Kellen Newton and Parker McGinnis had a chance to play on the Target Center floor last winter as fifth-graders.
Newton said the combination of the transformed arena and the Butler-led transformation of the roster will lead to more trips from Hastings to Minneapolis for Wolves games this winter.
As a reporter was walking away, McGinnis pointed at the two boys and said:
“Kellen and Parker are both 12. You know what that means? They never have been alive to have the Timberwolves in the playoffs.”