Former Timberwolves star Kevin Love came back Saturday night to the place he called home for six NBA seasons, returning to Target Center for the first time since last summer’s blockbuster trade sent him away to Cleveland. He experienced an evening in which a standing-room-only audience both booed their past and cheered their future.
Yes, as he predicted himself, Love got booed resoundingly. It went on from pregame introductions right until the end of a 106-90 comeback Cavaliers victory in which the great LeBron James ultimately trumped a 33-point game by Wolves rookie Andrew Wiggins, the centerpiece received back in that August trade.
A three-time All-Star who forced his way out of cold and woebegone Minnesota by threatening to leave as a free agent, Love said he expected as much and has faced worse wrath. One such time was that night during his lone collegiate season at UCLA when he returned to play a University of Oregon team he spurned and angry Ducks fans pelted his family with cups and made his grandmother cry.
On Saturday, Target Center fans merely booed Love heartily during pregame introductions, although some people clapped loudly underneath the din. They booed again nearly every time he touched the ball and cheered his every miss during a 14-point, 17-rebound performance that helped Cleveland win its 10th consecutive game.
But they also, at the arena’s public-address announcer’s urging, overwhelmingly cheered him during the game’s first timeout, when the overhead scoreboard showed retrospective images of Love’s accomplishments on and off the court during those six seasons.
“I mean, it’s unexpected,” Love said about a planned montage that erased some of the residue created by another Wolves-produced video that upset Wolves players and angered coach Flip Saunders.
Love expected the boos that came and said he knew it’d be different entering the visitor’s locker room rather than the home team’s for the first time. Love reported “no real angst or anxiousness or crazy emotions” going back to the place he once called home.
He had no time for a meal at his beloved Manny’s on Saturday or a stop at any of his old haunts because the Cavaliers played back-to-back games and there was little time for reminiscing. But he had just enough time to chat with former teammate Nikola Pekovic and get a bear hug from Gorgui Dieng at midcourt just before the game. He also got hugs and chatted briefly with Wolves owner Glen Taylor as well as the team’s security director and photographer and spoke with Saunders later in the evening.
“Truth be told, I thought it was a pretty good reception, especially from familiar faces,” Love said. “It was nice to shake hands and get a lot of hugs, smile, wave at different people. … I forged a lot of great relationships here and had a lot of good times here.”
Love said he took his superstar teammate’s advice — James knows a little something about going back home — and relied upon his teammates to carry him, at least emotionally.
“When you’re returning to the place where they once loved you …” James told reporters Friday. “They still love you, I know that. You only get booed because they love you.”
Love laughed off that video the Wolves played at Wednesday’s game and placed on YouTube. It spoofed Love’s return by leaving him completely out of a dramatically produced minute clip that promoted the Cavaliers’ arrival and the long-anticipated return of … Mike Miller?
“I’ve been known to sell a lot of tickets,” Miller said playfully Saturday when told his return had been much-awaited.
Saunders was livid that the video was produced without his knowledge or approval and suggested the San Antonio Spurs would never do such a thing to a player who had given and achieved what Love did in six seasons there.
“As an organization we should be above that,” said Saunders, who spent part of two days dealing internally with the matter. “We have to acknowledge that when Kevin was here, he was a great player for us. To not acknowledge that, to go the other way, I would say would be hypocritical. … He might have thought it was funny. But I know, deep down in his heart, no one would like that. It’s human nature.”
Love simply shrugged when told that Saunders and some former teammates such as Pekovic and Kevin Martin felt the video didn’t give him the respect he deserved. Players also worried that something so unprovoked might be akin to waking the sleeping bear, and Saunders suggested such a thing can affect recruiting free agents.
“I thought it was pretty funny myself,” Love said. “I didn’t take it wrong at all. I thought it was very tongue-in-cheek, but I have a pretty dry sense of humor. It’s fine, you can tell him that.”