The Chicago Bulls were one season from starting a championship run of six titles in eight years when they came to the Metrodome on Nov. 8, 1989. The NBA had been gone from the Twin Cities for 29 years and this was the first home game for the expansion Timberwolves.
Michael Jordan played 40 minutes, scored 45 points, and the Bulls won 96-84. Tyrone Corbin played 48 minutes and Tony Campbell scored 31 points for Bill Musselman's Wolves.
The crowd was announced at 35,427. Those in attendance did not witness a made three-pointer. The Bulls attempted one, a miss by Jordan, and the Wolves attempted five, misses by Campbell, Brad Lohaus, Pooh Richardson, Doug West and Scott Roth.
The Timberwolves took outstanding advantage of the Dome's capacity that first season, totaling an NBA record of 1,072,572 tickets sold for a 22-60 team. One season later, the Wolves opened Target Center and averaged 19,011 in paid attendance for a 29-53 team.
The obvious storyline was that this showed a public hunger for the NBA in this region. What wasn't clear at the time is Bob Stein, then the team's president and CEO, had put together a collection of young marketers that put the Wolves near the forefront of a new age for promoting and selling a sports product.
"Nobody came out and said it, but the NBA wanted its expansion teams to be bad," Stein said this week. "The players available in the expansion draft were mostly roster-fillers. The best we could do in the draft was 10th going into our first season, and that's not going to excite people.
"I had represented players, but I was new to the sports business. That forced us to look at everything from the perspective of a customer."
And from that viewpoint, Stein told his ambitious crew of pitch men and women: "Our business is not basketball. Our business is entertainment and customer service."
Stein did not have a large budget to create that workforce, so he looked everywhere for the young and ambitious people.
"We hired more people out of indoor soccer — where they had to be creative — than we did the NBA," Stein said. "When I look at that crew we hired and where they have gone in their careers in sports … it's tremendous."
Tim Leiweke. Len Komoroski. John Thomas. Shawn Hunter. Brenda Tinnen. Ron Minegar. Molly Tomczak.
They wound up running teams, major sports facilities, sports businesses and "Groups."
That's when it's clear you really made it in sports, when you're the head of one of those. Leiweke now has the Oak View Group, the deal maker for the new Seattle arena and the "Kraken" expansion team that will debut in the NHL next fall.
Chris Wright was another hire from soccer in the summer of 1991. Leiweke left a few months later. Wright stayed for 26 years, before moving to Minnesota United as CEO in the fall of 2017.
He was there when the carnage arrived and the honeymoon ended for the Timberwolves early in 1994:
The news broke that owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner were negotiating with Top Rank to sell the team, which then would move the franchise to New Orleans.
Marv and Harv had built Target Center on their own. The financial upheaval caused by the savings & loan crisis left them paying heavily for a "bridge loan" for which they were personally responsible.
Stein said: "The loan obligations left them with two choices — sell or go broke."
A deal with Top Rank that would move the team to New Orleans was announced in late May. The NBA balked at the New Orleans move, and Glen Taylor made a deal to buy the team in August.
The summer of tumult and endless losing caused a crash in attendance: from an announced 17,898 per game in 1993-94 to 14,720 in 1994-95.
When the NHL returned with the Wild, they did so with younger brother Tod Leiweke in charge of selling the product, and it has never been done better in the Twin Cities — early Wolves included.
The Timberwolves will open a delayed, pandemicized season on Wednesday night at Target Center, without fans in attendance. Remodeled — but the oldest pro sports facility in the market, and last in NBA attendance at 15,066 per game before the shutdown in mid-March.
"I would like to see them doing much better," said Stein, now 26 years removed from his Timberwolves duties. "This sports market is so crowded now — a half-dozen major league teams, a major university three miles away.
"All the teams now are pushing entertainment and customer service like we did three decades ago. I'd guess the Timberwolves are going to have to win to sway people back the way this market is now."
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