Reusse: Dynamic NBA feels cold shoulder in Twin Cities

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2012 - 12:11 AM

There were highs during the inaugural seasons and the Kevin Garnett era, but mostly, fans have refused to reach out to the game and its stars.

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Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio turned out to be a player before he blew out his knee in March, but there's plenty more talent to appreciate on the team and throughout the NBA.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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The Twin Cities do not have a proper appreciation for the NBA as an attraction. Evidence of this pre-dates the arrival of the Timberwolves in 1989.

The Minneapolis Lakers won six titles in the seven seasons from the fall of 1947 through the spring of 1954. They went through a bad spell after that and attendance dwindled.

The Lakers were able to draft Elgin Baylor from Seattle University with the first overall selection in the 1958 draft. He was spectacular from the start, averaging 24.9 points as a rookie, and 29.6 points in his second season (and last) in Minneapolis.

The Lakers reached the NBA Finals in 1959 -- a playoff run that provided no urge among Minneapolis politicians to solve what was a legitimate arena problem for the team.

A year later, with a roster that included Baylor, Frank Selvy, Rudy LaRusso and Hot Rod Hundley, owner Bob Short moved the Lakers to Los Angeles. The level of concern in Minneapolis was such that the front page of the Morning Tribune had this coverage:

A small, bold box reading, "Lakers Move to L.A. Details in Sports."

Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner were NBA fans from the Lakers days. They paid the freight to bring in the expansion Timberwolves, and also undertook the construction of Target Center.

The Wolves were trendy for a couple of winters -- first selling a then-NBA record number of tickets in the Metrodome in 1989-90, then filling the new arena in 1990-91.

Empty seats started to appear during the third season. By 1994, Marv and Harv were in over their heads and announced a deal to sell the team to New Orleans interests.

The NBA refused to approve a move to that city. Glen Taylor, the wealthiest businessman in North Mankato, solved the dilemma by buying the team.

Think about that? A 29-year wait to regain the NBA, and five years later, there was a threat that the team would be leaving town.

The team's futile history finally started to change in 1995, when the Wolves landed Kevin Garnett -- a modern version of Baylor -- with the fifth choice in the draft.

The Wolves reached the playoffs and lost in the first round from 1997 through 2003. Finally, Sammy Cassell and Latrell Sprewell were brought in to assist for the 2003-04 season.

The Wolves finished as the No. 1 seed in the West, losing in six games to the Lakers -- Shaq and Kobe -- in the conference finals.

It was great fun. The excitement would linger, right?

The Wolves did not sell out the opener the next fall. That's when it became official to me: Deep in our sporting soul, this was a lousy NBA market.

The Timberwolves have fed that, of course, by quitting as a team for Flip Saunders in 2004-05, then falling off the cliff for five coaches (including Kevin McHale twice) over the next six seasons.

Ticket prices were chopped. Local TV ratings were horrendous. And the Twin Cities market always was near the bottom nationally in ratings for big NBA events.

The first hints of credibility in a long time came last season. Rick Adelman was hired as coach. Kevin Love got even better. Ricky Rubio turned out to be a player.

Once the lockout ended and games started in late December, there was life inside Target Center, until Rubio blew out his knee against the Lakers in early March.

Another season -- No. 24 for the Timberwolves -- starts here on Friday night. There will be no Rubio or Love (broken hand) for a few weeks, yet this should be an intriguing team in an extremely intriguing league.

I used to be a hardcore fan of college basketball. I find watching most games to be a chore these days. A contest of well-matched NBA teams, with its outstanding mix of talents, far surpasses what can be found most of the time in a major college arena.

It's a league with the amazing LeBron James, the spectacular tandems of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the all-timer Kobe Bryant, and the new kids from Kentucky ... and, oh yeah, Charles Barkley on TNT.

If you're a Minnesotan ready to ignore the NBA again this season, that's your problem, not the game's.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon to 4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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