It took eight seasons and a succession of general managers and coaches. So many losses.
But on this night, the future looked extremely bright.
On April 10, 1997, the Timberwolves were in the process of finishing off a 108-96 victory in Los Angeles over the Clippers.
According to Steve Aschburner’s description in the Star Tribune the next day, with less than two minutes left and the game in hand, Stephon Marbury smiled, clenched his fists and “hissed a quiet ‘Yes.’ ”
When the final buzzer sounded, Marbury jumped into Kevin Garnett’s arms, then they both shared a hug with veteran Doug West — who had been there since the beginning.
“That was a tribute to Doug and the rest of the Timberwolves [people] who have been here from Day 1,” Garnett said at the time.
It was on that night, in the 651st game in franchise history, that the Wolves clinched their first playoff berth.
“It was incredibly exciting,” said sideline reporter Tom Hanneman, who eventually became the team’s TV play-by-play voice and then studio host. He remembers the joy in the locker room.
“You felt this was just the beginning.”
The talent was coalescing. Tom Gugliotta had been acquired from Golden State in a trade for Donyell Marshall in 1995, the same year Garnett was taken with the fifth overall pick. A year later, in a draft-day trade, the Wolves got Marbury, who had been taken by Milwaukee with the fourth overall pick, for Ray Allen, who the Wolves had picked fifth. They were surrounded by veterans such as West, Sam Mitchell, Terry Porter and Dean Garrett.
A 26-win team the season before, the 1996-97 Wolves went 40-42. Gugliotta averaged a career-best 20.6 points per game. That season he made his only All-Star Game appearance and Garnett made his first. On the night the Wolves beat the Clippers to clinch a playoff spot, Marbury had 29 points, Gugliotta 23 and Garnett 19 for coach Flip Saunders.
The biggest memory Hanneman had of that game was the next day. The scheduled charter back home was delayed by a mechanical issue. So Saunders put the team on a bus and took them bowling.
“I remember it well,” he said. “KG said he’d never bowled before. His first roll was a gutter ball. It didn’t look like he had any form. But within four rolls he was getting consistent strikes. It was a great morning, and it was a bonding experience that nobody had planned. Flip was brilliant at keeping the team together.”
It was the start of eight consecutive playoff appearances for the Wolves. But history shows the team’s trajectory wasn’t as steep as that spring might have promised. The Wolves only got out of the first round once, in 2004. By that time both Gugliotta and Marbury, for different reasons, had pushed themselves out of Minnesota.
“I don’t think the future ever looked brighter for the franchise,” Hanneman said of the spring of ’97. “You look back now and think, ‘What if?’ Wolves fans have had a lot of what ifs.”