Jeff Munneke, the last original employee still working for the Minnesota Timberwolves, has survived 26 years of mostly bad basketball with his signature optimism and enthusiasm intact. For his next trick, he will walk through a car wash without getting wet.
If there were a Hall of Fame for behind-the-scenes Minnesota sports employees, Munneke would be the first inductee. In a business known for change and conflict, he is a beloved survivor.
“When I first got the job, I thought, ‘If I can last in the NBA for five years, that would be great,’ ” Munneke said. “Why would I want to change anything now?’’
Munneke is the Wolves vice president of fan experience and basketball academies. For 26 years, he has watched his franchise suffer from mismanagement and misfortune. If Wolves history has been an avalanche of bad news, Munneke has been the guy standing at the bottom of the mountain, cheerfully holding an umbrella. “It’s a dream job,’’ he said.
He was a high school star and successor of Randy Breuer’s at Lake City High. He played at Huron College in South Dakota, where he said he once “held” Dennis Rodman to 38 points and 26 rebounds in an NAIA playoff game. “His size 18s went past my eyebrows a few times,” he said.
A coach from Huron introduced him to former Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, who owned the Minnesota Strikers soccer team. Munneke aced the “interview.’’
“He asked me what the heck kind of a name ‘Munneke’ was,’’ Munneke said. “Then he asked if I’d work for $10,000 a year. I was in.’’
In 1988, he applied for a sales jobs with the upstart Minnesota NBA franchise. On the fifth round of interviews with team executives Bob Stein and Tim Leiweke, he broke out in flop sweat — “Like Robert [Hays] in the cockpit in the movie ‘Airplane’ ” — and flubbed every answer.
Except one. “They asked me, if I were an animal, what kind of animal would I be?” Munneke said. “I said, ‘A Timberwolf.’ ”
Two weeks later, Munneke received a letter telling him he was hired. He thought it was a prank. He asked Leiweke why he got the job. “Tim said that was one of the worst interviews he had ever seen,” Munneke said. “But that he’d never seen so much enthusiasm for a product.”
He found himself playing basketball in the Metrodome before Wolves games with the Twins’ Tom Kelly and Kirby Puckett, and became something of a polished Forrest Gump, present for every chapter of Timberwolves history.
• Sam Cassell: The point guard told the front office he would do promotional work. They asked him to sign 650 basketballs. He asked for $10,000. They paid him. He signed about a quarter, then quit after Munneke made 27 trips to his condo to deliver the balls. Cassell kept the money. Wally Szczerbiak signed the rest of the balls for free.
• J.R. Rider: Munneke passed two of Rider’s “associates” in a back hallway at Target Center. He was carrying a box of hats. The large gentlemen suggested he leave the box with them. Then they insisted. “J.R. came into my office and said he was sorry,” Munneke said. “So I lost a box of hats, but I got an apology from J.R.”
• Entourages: “The biggest ones I ever saw were the ones around Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. They were so big that they had their own waiver wires. One day a guy in KG’s entourage would switch to Marbury’s, or vice versa. You needed a program to keep up.”
• Flip Saunders: “He could stand flat-footed and dunk a basketball with two hands. He was the best clinician I ever saw. He was my coach in seventh grade at the Jim Dutcher basketball camp. We were down by a point with a few seconds left and he told a kid to stand at the elbow screaming that we were in the wrong play. Everyone looked at him, we threw it in for a layup and won.”
• Kevin McHale: “Best storyteller I’ve ever met. I was lucky enough to be one of the people he invited into his circle. We’d be at a game and he’d ask me if I wanted to drink a cool one later. I’d tell my wife Kevin wanted to get together and she’d say, ‘OK, see you tomorrow.’ She knew I’d be up late in the locker room, listening to Kevin.”
Munneke’s favorite story defines the Wolves’ luckless history. When the team was still playing in the Metrodome, Munneke heard about a 75-year-old man who would go into Minneapolis clubs and breakdance. “He said his name was Joey Two-Step,” Munneke said. “He even had business cards.”
The Wolves staged a dance contest, and had Joey limp onto the court, then start spinning. “The Celtics were in town, and they stopped listening to K.C. Jones and started laughing at Joey,” Munneke said.
Joey was a hit until he hit on female employees. Munneke was in the room when the Wolves fired him and Joey said, “Nobody fires Joey Two-Step. I place a hex on the Timberwolves.”
So the Wolves wound up with Christian Laettner instead of Shaquille O’Neal … and you know the rest.
Neither the losing nor the curse has kept Munneke from becoming an invaluable and popular ambassador. “No matter what you’re going through, he always has something positive to say,” said Saunders, now the Wolves coach and president. “We’re lucky to have him.”