On Friday, I ceremonially handed the Timberwolves’ beat to colleague Chris Hine in a baton exchange staged for Twitter that used a Ricky Rubio bobblehead as the baton. I filed one more story Saturday that detailed young center Justin Patton’s continuing foot injuries and as of Monday, I finally, officially bequeathed the hunt for news on Jimmy Butler’s future in Minnesota and Karl-Anthony Towns’ looming contract extension to Chris.
As I go, my colleague, assistant sports editor Chris Carr, suggested I reminisce for the morning web audience about my 15 seasons covering the Wolves, from the first four in their expansion yeas long ago to my most recent stint that started when Strib sports editor Glen Crevier asked that I go back on beat.
I’ll remember his parting words from our conversation: Just do it for a couple years.
That was 2007 and 11 NBA seasons ago.
Looking back, it’s the players and coaches – and the things they said – I’ll remember more than I do the games, although there sure were a few doozies in there despite years and years of losing that only last season resulted in me covering my first playoff games in those 15 seasons. They also were the Wolves’ first such games since 2004. I’ll remember the Sunday afternoon the Wolves’ very first season and their only one at the Metrodome, when their very first coach Bill Musselman dared Golden State’s Don Nelson to double-team big Randy Breuer near the basket all afternoon and Nellie refused, all afternoon. So Musselman called the same play – Five Down – nearly every time down the floor. Breuer scored 40 points that day and the Wolves lost by 10.
The Wolves were just getting started and I saw so many, many more losses. Before they went and won 47 games and made the playoffs last season, my winning percentage in my first 14 NBA seasons on the beat was .293. That’s worse than the career winning percentage of Kurt Rambis, one of a long list of Wolves coaches I covered that includes Sidney Lowe, Jimmy Rodgers, Randy Wittman, Kevin McHale, Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell and now Tom Thibodeau.
I remember, too, the night in Oklahoma City when Kevin Love made seven three-pointers, scored 51 points and J.J. Barea (there’s a name from the past) had a triple-double, but the Wolves lost in double overtime after Russell Westbrook scored 45 points and Kevin Durant scored 40. That was in March 2012, at the end of a 13-day road trip and eight games after Rubio’s rookie (and lockout-shortened) season -- and the Wolves’ s lingering playoff hopes -- ended with a torn ACL.
Two months earlier in L.A., Love popped free at the three-point line out of a drawn play after a timeout and made the buzzer beater that defeated the Clippers by three points after Rubio had just finished a terrible shooting night by hitting a game-tying three seconds earlier. I didn’t cover the game, but I was there the night Corey Brewer inexplicably scored 51 points and needed nearly an hour afterward to complete a random drug test. (You just can’t make that kind of stuff up.) I wasn’t in Indiana when Mo Williams set a franchise scoring record with a 52-point night that was surpassed late last season by Karl-Anthony Towns’ 56-point game.
And of course, there was the Wolves’ overtime victory over Denver on last season’s final night that sent them to the playoffs for the first time since Kevin Garnett – whose first time around with the franchise I missed, which probably says something about my sense of timing – played.
Those are but a few of many games covered. But as much as those unforgettable moments, what I’ll remember most are the people and the quotes that still ring in my ears all these years later. The Wolves played the first game in their history on a Friday night in Seattle in November 1989 and two nights later visited Portland. On the Saturday night off in Portland, I met Musselman and his staff at the downtown Marriott’s Champions sports bar -- a meeting of coach and beat writer that would almost never happen today – for an early dinner so they could watch games being played back in the East.
Phil Jackson was coaching Chicago in his second game there, against Boston. Musselman leaned over to me after watching his former CBA rival on one of the many screen, lowered his voice and said, “I can’t tell you the reason, but I know why Phil Jackson will never win a NBA title.”
I never did learn that reason.
This was in another day and age of media coverage, long before Twitter and social media, back before players had personal assistants employed by their agents, back when reporters got to know players and coaches better, if even sometimes only a little bit. Those first Wolves teams played just like Musselman coached – hard – and most of the teams were players looking to find their way in the NBA after they had played for him in the CBA. They by and large were just happy to be there and I was happy to cover players just grateful to be there.
And funny, too. One night after he landed hard on his tailbone, inaugural Timberwolf Tony Campbell – one of those players who reached the NBA by playing for Musselman in Albany, N.Y., with a stop in Los Angeles with the Lakers in between – was asked how he was feeling. He replied, “My gluteus maximus hurteous enormous.”
It remains one of my favorite quotes in 34 years of doing this sports reporting thing. The Wolves lost a lot in those years – and in many years long after that – so to entertain ourselves, the team’s beat writers and broadcasters invented a game. Or rather Kevin Harlan – the Wolves’ original voice now known for his national work on TNT and elsewhere – came up with a game: One of us each night would choose up with a word that the others would have to use, too, that night in their stories or broadcasts.
With the Wolves down big once again in a game at Sacramento, Harlan suddenly stood from his courtside seat, thrust his arms towards the heavens and with Kings fans around him befuddled about the theatrics, he declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, Tyrone Corbin just drove the lane with impunity!”
Who could ever forget that?
Or those cold winter nights when broadcast partner Tom Hanneman amused Harlan by creating on tape legendary broadcaster Bill Beek, the late, nasal, deadpan and totally fictitious voice of the Toronto Huskies who called, among many other things, in 1947 the very rain-shortened first outdoor game ever played in the NBA, at the Moose Jaw Expo Center no less. Those there that night scattered like wild ferrets when the rains came, but I’ll spare you the other messy details. The bit was brilliant, but the best part was Harlan’s uncontrollable cackling with each next episode.
If you haven’t heard the tape unearthed long ago by a bone-digging dog in North Dakota, you can still find a sample of Bill Beek’s greatness here.
Gone from the Wolves’ beat for the entire Garnett era, I returned to it 11 years ago to a changing media landscape and a team that lacked the innocence and novelty of its earliest years. That doesn’t mean it didn’t have it moments and memorable characters, European imports Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic among them. Rubio came to Minnesota in 2011 after a two-year wait with uncanny court vision and imperfect English that only made him more charming, if that was possible.
TNT cameras and microphones captured him during another trying night when he came out of a huddle, patted teammate Alexey Shved on the back of the head and said, “Alexey, be happy. Change your face. Enjoy it.”
It wasn’t always easy to do that if you were the Timberwolves or you just followed them, but Rubio’s charm and creativity helped. So, too, did Pekovic, who when he was healthy was both brutish and boyish. I’ll always remember a shootaround in Mexico City – one of two trips the Wolves made there to play just one game – when I heard this voice behind softly singing “I Believe I Can Fly.” I turn around and it is Pekovic singing to himself and wearing a straw hat, all ready for a vacation.
That from a guy whose biceps bulged from a tight-fitting Mickey Mouse t-shirt he often wore. Before his career ended prematurely from constant foot and ankle pain, Pekovic did an interview with a local reporter in the hallway outside the Wolves’ Target Center locker room while a group of other reporters waited down the hall to ask him if he’d play the next night.
That interview was one of those that asked about his favorite movie, color or what was the last thing that made him cry. As it went on and on, I told the group of reporters waiting that I get the first question when Pekovic came down the hallway to talk with us. When he arrived, I asked him if he could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would he be? Without missing a beat, he said quizzically, “I don’t want to be a tree. Can I be a carrot?”
At 6-10 and more than 300 pounds, he was told he can be anything he wants to be.
He’s long gone back home to Montenegro and now I, too, am gone from the Wolves beat, but I’ll miss so many of the people I encountered in those 15 seasons.
And I’ll always wonder how Phil Jackson won not just one, but 11 NBA titles.