Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Timberwolves' one Dome season was tremendous

Posted by: Patrick Reusse under Rookies Updated: December 31, 2013 - 3:35 AM

The goodbyes to the Metrodome have not included much attention paid to the phenomenal return to the NBA that took place in the 1989-90 season. This is the 24th season for the Timberwolves. When it comes to enthusiasm for the product, only the 2003-04 season and the run to the Western Conference finals rates higher than that inagural campaign in the Dome.

There have been suggestions through the years that Wolves owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner would have been better off financially if they had played a second season in the Dome, and taken more time with the planning and construction of Target Center.

Maybe a harder look at things would have led to an arena with more seats downstairs than upstairs. It turned out to be the opposite of that -- an architectural shortcoming that will continue to plague the arena even after the $97 million remodelling takes place.

The NBA had departed here after the 1960 season, with the move of the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles. The NBA was an eight-team league, with three of four teams in each division reaching the playoffs.

The 1959-60 Lakers went 25-50 in the regular season, yet made the playoffs, beat Detroit 2-0 in an opening series, and were leading the St. Louis Hawks 3-2 in the Western Division finals.

The last game played in Minneapolis was a 117-96 loss to the Hawks in Game 6 on March 24,1960. The Hawks won the series two days later in St. Louis, then lost in seven games to Boston in the finals.

The Timberwolves and the Orlando Magic were the 26th and 27th franchises when the NBA came back to Minneapolis. The official return took place on Nov. 8, 1989, with the Wolves home opener against the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were still a year away from the start of their dynasty, but Michael Jordan already was the game's No. 1 attraction.

The crowd was announced at 35,427 -- a big start to a season when the Wolves would draw an NBA record attendance of 1,072,572 (an average of 26,160).

The fans spent the night trying to decide if they wanted to cheer for Jordan, or cheer for coach Bill Musselman's collection of rookies, veterans discarded by other NBA teams, or favorites of Bill from his recent times in the CBA.

The Minnesotans were into Jordan's greatness early. They switched to roars for the Wolves during a 14-point run that cut the Bulls' led to one in the third quarter, followed by a 10-point run that gave the home team a brief lead in the fourth.

Jordan brought back the Bulls, scoring 15 of his team's final 23 in a 96-84 victory. He finished with 45. "I've played the Bulls enough in the past to know that's the way they play,'' the Wolves' Tyrone Corbin said. "They just try to keep it close until it's time for Michael to take over.''

Three nights later, the Wolves played their second game in the Dome. They were 0-3 after energetic losses at Seattle and Portland, and then against the Bulls.

"I was worried that we had to see something positive from all the hard work the players were putting in,'' Musselman said. "I couldn't let them come in this locker room tonight with a loss, I wasn't going to let them lose.''

The Muss was crazed as he beseeched his players that night. Scott Brooks, a guard Musselman had coached in the CBA, was a backup point guard that night for the 76ers. Rookie Pooh Richardson was guarding Brooks for a five-minute stretch of the second quarter and Musselman was screaming:

"Get up on him, Pooh, get up on him.''

Richardson was within inches of Brooks and The Muss still was screaming, "Get up on him.''

Sidney Lowe, Richardson's point guard partner on the expansion Wolves, had played with Musselman and Brooks in the CBA.

"Scotty played off guard for us at Albany,'' Lowe said. "Bill didn't want Scotty to have a comfortable second handling the ball.

"That's the thing about Bill. There isn't one player who has been in the NBA or the CBA the past 10 years that he doesn't know everything there is to know ... his strengths and weaknesses.''

Musselman called out plays featuring Corbin or Tony Campbell on most every trip down the floor. "They had Hersey Hawkins and Kenny Payne trying to guard Tony and Tyrone, and I thought we had an advantage,'' Musselman said.

He was right. Campbell scored 38, Corbin 36 and the Wolves got their first of 22 expansion victories, 125-118 in overtime.

"My throat is raw and this headache ...,'' Musselman said postgame. "I think I'm having an aneurysm.''

The Timberwolves went 17-24 at home that season. The Wolves were so competitive in the Dome that people were complaining -- including personnel director Billy McKinney -- that Musselman was hurting the long-term cause by driving his players for victories (thus reducing Ping Pong balls for the draft lottery).

Trying to win became such an internal debate that it helped lead to Musselman's firing in 1991. His crime that season was to up the Wolves' victory total to 29 games. Wolfenson was the last to turn on Musselman, after the coach refused orders to give big minutes to Gerald Glass.

Of all the embarrassments the Wolves have suffered with their management through the years, making an issue of playing Glass, a slothful 20th overall choice from 1989, deserves a place in the top 10.

McKinney and the rest of the critics were wrong about this, of course. Trying to win is the essence of sports. The Wolves wouldn't have set an attendance record in that one Dome season if the public had showed up in November and watched an expansion roster going through the motions (think Jimmy Rodgers' teams, or Kurt Rambis').

Musselman's fanaticism and his ability to get constant effort from a ragtag collection of players was what made the NBA's return entertaining. It was what made those six months at the Metrodome memorable to the point that, nearly a quarter-century later, only 2003-04 tops it among Timberwolves seasons.

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