Before the NBA’s G League or the D League before that, there was the minor league Continental Basketball Association and a team in Albany, N.Y., that for one season current Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau considered in a league all its own.
The Patroons that went 48-6 during the 1987-88 season included former NBA All-Star Michael Ray Richardson coming off the bench, three future NBA head coaches, seemingly half of what would become the NBA expansion Timberwolves’ first two rosters as well as Michael Brooks, one of the great scorers in NCAA history.
They were led by former Gophers coach Bill Musselman, who parlayed that championship season into the Wolves’ first coaching job a year later.
“I know it’s crazy, but I think they could have beaten some NBA teams,” said Thibodeau, a Harvard assistant coach who regularly made the three-hour trip from Boston to study Musselman’s practices.
The Patroons played smart, played hard and played with a purpose: To get out of Albany and the CBA and on the road to — or back to — the NBA.
Players Scott Brooks, Rick Carlisle and Sidney Lowe all became NBA head coaches. Brooks, Lowe, Scott Roth, Tony Campbell and Tod Murphy later played for Musselman during one or both of his seasons when he coached the Wolves.
“We had a group of guys who were determined and hungry,” said Campbell, who used that season to reach the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and Wolves. “Most of the guys wanted to be in the NBA and had a little pit-stop in Albany. The goal was to be there not too long. Muss got us to play together, to accept why we were there and what we needed to do to get out of there. Winning was the solution to all of us graduating.”
It just might have been a team good enough to be an NBA expansion team.
“It was,” said Brooks, now the Washington Wizards’ head coach. “It was called the Timberwolves two years later.”
They filled the historic 3,500-seat Armory to capacity and rattled the rafters, when both building engineers and the home team turned up the heat.
“It was sold out every game, and it was so loud, right on top of the court,” Brooks said. “But when we practiced there, it was so cold we practiced with gloves on.”
Boxer Mike Tyson attended games when he was training in the nearby Catskill mountains.
“It was quite the little place to play in,” said Roth, now coach of the Timberwolves’ Iowa G League team.
There was a pay phone outside the team’s locker room and Roth remembers Musselman “loading that thing up with a gazillion quarters” so he could conduct business in a league where players came and went like the winter wind.
“When he was on the pay phone, you knew someone was either going to take your place or you were going to have a new teammate,” Brooks said.
Well, at least Brooks knew that.
“I didn’t realize it was the Bat Phone,” said Campbell, now athletic director at Bay Ridge Prep school in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Phil Jackson coached the Patroons the year before 48-6, George Karl coached it the season after. It’s all part of a rich history through three incarnations from 1982 to the present that’s chronicled in an Albany marketing company owner's documentary filmed scheduled to be released this year.
Find out more here: http://theminorleaguemecca.com.
One of Karl’s teams went 50-6, but it played in a big, new arena, and it didn’t win the title after late-season NBA call-ups decimated the roster.
So that 1987-88 team with so many Timberwolves’ connections just might be the best minor league team ever, right?
“You’d be far-fetched to find a collection of guys who’ve done what they’ve done since they left the team,” said Roth, an NBA assistant for much of the last two decades. “I would not hesitate to say yes.”
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves