Twice a year, for about 10 days each time, Jim Petersen will come out of the film room, leave the bench and step away from the microphone.
Maybe even rest.
For half the year Petersen, the former NBA post player, is a Lynx assistant coach, working with the team’s frontcourt. His summers used to be spent golfing with stepson Sanjay Lumpkin. Now they are spent in dark film rooms and with the Lynx, adding some in-game cool to counterbalance fiery head coach Cheryl Reeve.
The other half of the year, Petersen slides over a few chairs. Days after the WNBA playoffs end, Petersen will start his 16th season broadcasting Timberwolves games.
Petersen, who is woven into Minnesota’s basketball fabric, does this by choice. The son of a truck driver and a nurse, he grew up in St. Louis Park knowing the value of work. He had a heart attack in November of 2010 but was back behind the microphone three days later.
Besides, is it really work when you love every minute?
“They feed each other,” Petersen said of his two lives, one looking at the game from the inside, the other from the outside. “The analyst feeds the coach, the coach feeds the analyst, and it’s an unbelievably fulfilling situation.”
A basketball life
For Petersen, 51, it’s a continuation of a basketball life. He played in three state tournaments at St. Louis Park High. He was the state’s first McDonald’s All-America selection. In four years at the University of Minnesota, Petersen helped win the Gophers’ last official Big Ten Conference championship in 1982. During his eight-year NBA career with the Rockets, Kings and Warriors from 1984 to ’92, Petersen reached the NBA Finals in 1986 while backing up Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in Houston.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of things,” Petersen said. “I’ve been able to reach a lot of my goals.”
When he looks back, Petersen sometimes wishes he’d been more confident. But with age that confidence — and more accomplishment — has come. He earned a WNBA championship ring in 2011. His work as a coach has made him a more incisive analyst. But his Minnesota roots have prevented him from ever losing his perspective.
“He doesn’t think he’s anything special,” said Bob Stein, Petersen’s friend and former agent. “That’s what makes him special.”
But it took a while to get here. Sore knees forced Petersen from the NBA in 1992. He moved to the Bay Area, determined to use a yoga-based discipline to get healthy while working with the NBA Players Association. Then to San Diego, to return to school, where a friend in the NBAPA convinced Petersen to coach her daughter’s sixth-grade team.
“I took this ragtag group of girls from this private school in La Jolla and we ended up winning the city championship,” Petersen said. “I realized it was so much fun to mold this group of girls, make them feel really great about themselves. I felt as good about that as I did about winning the Western Conference championship as a player.”
As so often happens, a career path was formed by connections and circumstances.
Looking for a dentist, Petersen found Dr. Michael Sudit, whose son’s youth basketball team — Stein’s nephew was on that team, too — was looking for a coach. Arm-twisting ensued, and Petersen took the job. Then-Wolves coach Flip Saunders and assistant Randy Wittman had sons in the league.
When the Wolves needed a radio analyst and Saunders put in a good word for Petersen, a second career was born. He has bounced between radio and TV broadcasts since then, currently serving as a television analyst.
His Lynx ties began when Petersen and then-Lynx coach Don Zierden were coaching their sons’ AAU team. They hit it off, and Zierden hired Petersen as a Lynx assistant. When Reeve was hired as head coach in 2010, she retained Petersen.
Over the past few years, Petersen has become a film room enthusiast, his basketball knowledge deepening.
“How he’s evolved, where he was in year one and where he is now? A lot of growth,” Reeve said.
“I knew the game as a player,” Petersen said. “But it’s like asking a person what it’s like to have a kid vs. being in the delivery room having a kid. … I just know way more about the game as a coach.”
There is a lot of crossover. As a coach he uses Synergy Sports, a technology company providing select video breakdowns of primarily pro basketball players and teams, to watch film on opponents. He also uses it to prep for broadcasts.
“If we’re playing the Spurs, I can go into Synergy and pull six or seven to 10 San Antonio clips of something Tony Parker does, what is unique to him, what makes him good,” Petersen said.
Then he can give his producer the exact clips Petersen wants to use in his pregame show. During the game, his coaching experience allows Petersen to explain to viewers what teams are trying to do, why something is or is not working.
It goes both ways. “I’ll see how the Spurs get Parker shots and Cheryl will say, “I like that for [Lindsay] Whalen,” Petersen said.
The Lynx have used things they saw in the Phoenix Suns’ pick-and-roll game when Steve Nash was there.
As his knowledge has grown, Petersen’s broadcasts have become more informed — and more frank.
“It wasn’t until I stopped caring what people think that I became honest,” Petersen said.
Petersen was critical of former vice president of basketball operations David Kahn’s drafts and personnel decisions. He was, at times, hard on former coach Kurt Rambis and has consistently been critical when he sees a lack of effort.
Petersen credits Timberwolves senior vice president Ted Johnson for allowing him to be honest.
“A lot of teams would never allow me to criticize a player or a coach,” Petersen said. “Ted has never said, ‘You can’t say this.’ That’s really unique.”
In 15 years, only one coach and one player have ever confronted him about a broadcast. Former Wolves coach Dwane Casey once approached Petersen, asking him to end his on-air campaign to play Eddie Griffin more because of personal problems he was going through. The player who was upset? Kevin Garnett.
“We had a [shouting] match on the tarmac in Atlanta about something he said I’d said,” Petersen said. “But I hadn’t, so it was a misunderstanding.”
His analyst/coach life fits together nicely, but if his two half-year jobs ever yield to one year-round opportunity — not that he is actively looking for such a change — Petersen would like it to be in Minnesota.
“This is where I’m from,” he said. “I’ve been around. The weather in California is great, the people in Texas are phenomenal and New York is fun. But Minneapolis is such a great city to live in. Whenever I would leave Minneapolis and play somewhere else, it was always great to come home.”