There are fantastic debates to be had about the greatest game in the history of some franchises. With the Timberwolves, however, it is a short conversation leading to an obvious conclusion and a date: May 19, 2004.
That was the night of Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against Sacramento — a physical, spectacular, back-and-forth series already through six games that needed a winner-take-all finale at Target Center.
In the absence of live sports in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many vintage games have been rebroadcast on various sports channels. If you have been resistant to idea of re-watching (hand raised), perhaps this game should be an exception.
Fox Sports North is showing Game 7, Wolves vs. Kings, at 7 p.m. Wednesday. And with that occasion in mind, we compiled an oral history of that memorable Timberwolves season — and particularly that pinnacle Game 7 — featuring some of its key stakeholders.
Hop onto the scorer’s table and take a ride back in time.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Fred Hoiberg, Timberwolves guard, 2003-05: The first thing that stands out to me about that season is how I almost didn’t make it to that roster. I had an offer to go play in Italy, and I had pretty much made an agreement with my agent that we were going to take that job on a Monday. And then I was getting frantic calls from my agent while I was at a wedding in Grand Forks, North Dakota. … He said, Yeah, I’ve been calling you the last 24 hours. The Timberwolves have offered a one-year, Timberwolves deal. And this was on a Saturday. I said absolutely. We had four young kids at the time, and we jumped at it. … We had a great training camp. Craig Kilborn came in and was part of that camp. It was a lot of fun. But once the season started, I don’t think people remember this but we really struggled early in that year. It was about 20 games. Everyone was trying to feel each other out. Kevin (Garnett) would defer, and he’d pass to Sam (Cassell). And maybe he’d try to get it to (Latrell) Sprewell. But once we figured it out, we just clicked.
Jeff Munneke, Timberwolves VP of fan experience who has been with the franchise since its inception: It’s such a special season. It’s our most iconic game in our history at this point. But you go back to the start of the season when we made all those changes with Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, and if I recall correctly I think we started off 9-8. We were sluggish early, trying to figure things out. And I think Flip Saunders called a meeting with the Big Three — KG, Sam and Spree — and kind of laid out some parameters of, hey guys we’ve got to get going. And I think we rattled off nine of next 10. There was a run of like 35-8. You could really feel this thing building.
Wally Szczerbiak, Timberwolves forward, 1999-2006: I was coming off two really good years and had a good offseason. Then we got Sam and Latrell. I was really excited I couldn’t wait to get back to work and training camp. But then I had plantar fasciitis and I couldn’t shake it.
Mike Cristaldi, former Timberwolves media relations guru: That summer there was a bunch of change — a bunch of new guys. … What was interesting is that some guys got hurt when they did, the timing of it. I think it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I don’t think anyone predicted Ervin Johnson being our starting center or Trenton Hassell being our starting small forward. But roles were able to be established and brought the team closer together. … There was a game in early December in Sacramento. We won and Sprewell, Cassell and KG scored like 96 points. You felt after that game that we might have something here. This has the potential to be really good.
Lea B. Olsen, longtime Timberwolves broadcaster and reporter: It was just a different team. We just never had an edge like that before Sprewell and Cassell. It was a fun year to be around the team to interview players. A lot of cool people were coming to the game. It was the spot to be and the team to watch. … KG had so much on his plate by being the franchise. When he got those two bad boys next to him, it freed him up. They had a lot of the personality of the team that year. Sprewell being the known bad boy, and Cassell is the one that I think personally that ran that group. He was so confident in what he was doing. I think that gave KG space to do what he had to do.
Cristaldi: Earlier that year, Sports Illustrated had approached us because they wanted Kevin on the cover. This was the middle of February. He was winning every Player of the Month award. It was a ridiculous run. They had reached out to me about hey, we’d love to get Kevin on the cover. Kevin looks at me point blank and says, “Nah, I don’t want to do it.” I was like, “Kevin, this is Sports Illustrated” — at the time, the pinnacle of sports magazines. I’m going back and forth, telling him it would be something great for him and the team. We’re doing our negotiation and he comes back and says, “Hey, you know what — I’ll do it under one condition. That they put Spree and Sam with me.” I said, “OK, I’ll talk to them.” I talked to SI and at first they said no, we don’t do multiple player covers. That was their big thing. I was like, well he’s not going to do it. They came back and said, you know what we’ll do it. The other funny part is that he said he’d do it under one more condition: that the photo shoot was 10 minutes. I said, “what?” He said, “The photo shoot is only 10 minutes, Cristaldi.” With Kevin, 10 minutes is 10 minutes and not a minute more. I told SI and they agreed to it, and I had a watch in there. We timed it.
Hoiberg: If it was a close game, within two possessions under two minutes, we were going to find a way to win that game. That’s where that team was. Kevin was going to be the guy, it was his MVP season. Sam a lot of times would close the game out — the Mariano Rivera of that team. And Spree was just Mr. Steady — unbelievable every time we stepped on the floor. We had great role players — Ervin Johnson, Gary Trent, Mark Madsen. I would stand in the corner and hit a shot or two. Troy Hudson had his moments before he got hurt. Trenton Hassell was a great role player. We just had a group of guys who knew their roles and played their roles to perfection once we got things figured out.
Henry Lake, longtime Twin Cities radio personality and Wolves fan: It was an incredible feeling. You look at the fact that the organization was having success we’d never seen before. KG being hailed as the best player in the entire league. You felt like you were being respected finally for once. The energy in Target Center was amazing. Leaving the game after, going to Block E, was amazing. It got to national prominence. Charles Barkley screaming “Block E!” and calling out Bellanotte. We were arriving. We were in a place we were being respected.
BUILDING TO GAME 7
Munneke: We go into that first round with Denver, and if I recall correctly I think (the Nuggets’) Jon Barry said something about Minnesota’s arena not being very loud. It wasn’t that big of a dig at Minnesota, but you know us. He was offending Minnesotans. I remember we put that quote up on the scoreboard during pregame, and we had all these people inside the building and Barry comes out and is like, “What they heck, why is everyone booing me?” That really, I thought, almost set the tone for the postseason. It was rabid.
Gregg Farnam, Timberwolves head athletic trainer since 2000: Getting into the Kings series, getting out of the first round for the first time (after defeating Denver in five games), there was a lot of emotion to get to that point. But Cassell had a hip issue at the time that he was laboring through. I don’t remember the exact date, but it became progressively worse. I don’t remember him dealing with it during the regular season or what exactly flared it up, but as the Sacramento series went along it became more of an issue for him.
Cristaldi: It felt like every game whether it was the end of a close game, things went our way. A big shot by Sam Cassell. I think of the Cassell 15-foot jumper. The KG 18-footer that was never a swish but went right in. And how good KG was. Our campaign for MVP was “best player on the planet.” I don’t think there was a better player in the league, and I don’t think it was close.
Hoiberg: What I remember about that Sacramento series is that we were dead in the water in Game 2. Game 1 we were lethargic. That was the night Kevin was presented his MVP trophy and we just didn’t have it that night. If we lose Game 2 there probably isn’t a Game 7. And we were down eight with about 2 ½ minutes left and found a way to come back. Sam was huge down the stretch. Then Game 3 we were up 15 in the fourth quarter, up 9 with a minute and change left, and that game went to overtime. If we don’t find a way to still win that one …
Cristaldi: I remember how physical and chippy the Kings series was — Anthony Peeler elbowing KG and getting suspended. The old ARCO Arena was one of the great arenas to play in. Fans on top of you. They had the cowbells going and it was crazy. One game was delayed because they gave fans glow sticks to wave and fans started throwing them on the floor. It was wild. I’m on press row ducking.
Munneke: Sacramento fans had those crazy cowbells and sat right behind our bench. They were so loud in their arena, passionate about their team. I remember Flip coming back after a couple of those games in Sacramento saying, “We have to do something about that. We need to give them a taste of their own medicine.” So he says, “Go out and buy a bunch of cowbells. We have to give cowbells to everyone who sits behind the Sacramento bench.” I said, “Oh, that’s awesome. We’re going to do that.” So it was funny, the first night, we put these cowbells and maybe drumsticks for people to bang them. Very conservative Minnesota fashion, everyone was revved up and ready to go, but only a couple people were banging the cowbells. They’re being shy and conservative about it. Is it OK? Should I really be doing this? Flip is urging, “Come on, let’s go!” Later, Flip came back in my office and said, “What can you do to get those guys to bang the cowbells?” I said, “Next game, Flip, I’ll go personally talk to everyone before the game and say look, we’ve got to have these. You have to disrupt Sacramento.” And for Game 7, we were banging those cowbells loud.
MAY 19, 2004
Munneke: Game 7, back in Minneapolis, KG had his famous quote about firearms and military connotations — going to war with Sacramento.
Cristaldi: The thing is, I still to this day I understand why people took it the way they did — but Kevin felt terrible when he realized what he said. That wasn’t his mentality or meaning.
Farnam: The city was electric. You could just feel it in the building. It was a Game 7, and to take it that far it’s that much more intense. With Sam dealing with his injury, the other players — especially KG and Spree — had to step up. We really rode KG that game. I know he was exhausted.
Munneke: I just remember getting to Game 7. So many people wanted to get in the building and soak it up with everyone. I’ve been here since the beginning (of the franchise). I remember thinking to myself, “I just want to go out on the street and just look and observe and soak it all in for a couple minutes.” I went out and looked up Sixth Street toward Lyons’ Pub, then down First Avenue toward the Loon, and it was just a sea of humanity. People partying and having a good time. Getting so revved up for that Game 7.
Szczerbiak: I always loved the Timberwolves fans. And getting drafted when I did (sixth) and going to a winning team is great. They were coming off a playoff year and we made it pretty much every year. The Western Conference was brutal, and we had some early exits. We always had tremendous home court records. A big part of that was their support. In that Game 7 we needed them. That was a really good Kings team that had NBA championship potential. We needed every pulse from the fans. It helped carry us.
Cristaldi: Incredible, unbelievable, I don’t know what other adjectives for Kevin’s performance (32 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks and four steals). It was one of those things were you kept thinking in the second half, we have to get him a little breather. And he carried us in the fourth quarter. He’s doing the up and under, jump hook, jumper. To me it was the culmination, his stamp on that season — let me carry you guys. What he did was just unbelievable.
Szczerbiak: I would have to say in them moment and at the time it was the best performance I had been a part of. I played with LeBron later, and he had incredible performances, but to do it in Game 7 the way KG did in the moment, that’s as big as it gets in the moment. It’s one game and it’s for everything. I would have to say it’s the best performance I’ve seen.
Hoiberg: In that Game 7, they had three shots in that last possession … they ran a great play without a timeout, Chris Webber pump fakes Kevin and shoots a three. I’m standing right there underneath the basket and that thing looked like it was going straight through. I mean it looked like there was no doubt when that ball was in the air. And I’m thinking oh (shoot) … and it hit every part of the rim and bounced out. I got the ball and threw it up in the air. Kevin is on the scorer’s table. And the fun part was getting to share that with our fans. I don’t think one fan left the arena in 20 minutes. It was so loud. It was an unbelievable thing to be a part of, and to see what Kevin did in that game was incredible. … That’s as great a game as any I’ve ever been a part of. To be on the floor and be a part of that last shot. It was dead on. To be part of that game, the greatest moment in the history of a franchise that means a lot to me, is one of my great memories in basketball. That game, Kevin and I combined for 32 points.
Szczerbiak: I felt like that (Webber) shot wasn’t going in, that It was meant to be for us. Game 7 at home is huge. That’s why you have best record in the West. I felt like it wasn’t going in. I was happy it didn’t go in. And it was really close to going in. As a shooter I know all about those in-and-outs. I was really happy to see it rattle out.
Lake: You felt like the (Webber) shot was going to go down because in your mind you are conditioned to think things aren’t going to go your way. But when you think about down the stretch, it’s almost like certain shots were moving in slow motion. It’s weird to say that, but I almost felt like that. … Until it bounces off, you’re fearful.
Olsen: I remember thinking at the end of Game 7 that it was going to be stolen from us somehow. Can we really get to the conference finals? To be honest when Webber had the ball in his hands, I didn’t think we were going to get there. When he missed that shot, everyone went crazy. It was kind of hard to believe. It’s by far the most exciting memory and feeling I can think of in my years with the Timberwolves.
Lake: That was the pinnacle. That was THE game for me when I think about the highest moment of being a Wolves fan
Munneke: That postgame celebration with KG jumping on the table. I had left the media platform, and people were just rushing up to get close to the players. I decided my escape route was the court. I went down and it was so fun because you had so many longtime fans and they couldn’t wait to high-five me and hug. I couldn’t wait to hug them back. I almost felt like one of the players. You’re soaking in the celebration.
Cristaldi: Obviously when Garnett jumps on the scorer’s table — there are iconic photos of him with the crowd in the background. That’s what pro sports are all about that — the connection between those players and that city. His connection with the city and the state — I don’t know how many players in NBA history have had that. That was his birthday, too. 28 years old that day.