Jon Cudo might not have been living the dream in the spring of 1992. Unless your idea of the dream is living on a billboard catwalk.
The Timberwolves still were relatively new to the NBA and still safely in the honeymoon phase of their existence. They had just turned in the league’s worst record of the 1991-92 season (15-67), and the draft lottery was approaching. With draft eligibles Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning waiting to start Hall of Fame careers, something needed to be done to enhance the prospects of landing one of the centers.
The Eagan native, just out of college, had been hired as the first ‘‘Crunch,’’ the team’s mascot. The stakes were high, so Cudo donned his mascot uniform, climbed back up — he had done the billboard thing a couple of years earlier waiting for the team to break an NBA attendance record — and lived on the catwalk, basically, for three weeks.
He lived in his ice fishing hut appropriately named “Shaq,” the player everybody wanted in the draft.
“It had a little cot, perched 50 feet up,” said Cudo, now 46. Still an NBA mascot, he resides in Ohio. “Honestly, I remember it being fun. One of those weird stories you don’t forget.”
Of course, we all know how this story ended. The Wolves ended up with the third pick — Christian Laettner — in what history showed to be a two-player draft.
Problem is, when it comes to the Wolves, this has become the norm. It is just one particularly painful chapter in a franchise history that plays out the draft lottery like the movie “Groundhog Day.”
On Tuesday, for the 19th time since 1990, the Wolves will be in the lottery. It will be the third time they enter it after posting the worst record in the league; the previous two times netted Laettner at No. 3 and Derrick Williams at No. 2.
The Wolves, amazingly, never have moved up in the draft. In 18 tries they have moved back 10 times. Notably: From first to third in 1992. A year later they went from second to fifth, missing out on the likes of Penny Hardaway and Chris Webber and ending up with J.R. Rider.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Former Wolves President Bob Stein remembers carrying a rabbit foot with him to Secaucus, N.J., once jokingly hiring a mystic, and of course approving the idea of a fellow living on a billboard for weeks.
In the years since? In 2007 Randy Foye took some holy water from Lourdes with him to New Jersey. A year later assistant GM Fred Hoiberg took a lucky teddy bear given to him by a 12-year-old fan.
None of that worked.
“How do you figure this?” Stein said last week. Still a fan of the franchise, he hopes every year something will change in the team’s luck.
“It’s so unfortunate,” he said. “Particularly because, in basketball more than any other sport, one player can turn a team around.”
Conditioned for failure
You can excuse Wolves fans if they’re cynical about this year’s lottery.
“I think the Wolves fans I know, the cynicism is driven less by lack of luck in the lottery and more about the poor job of making picks and developing players the team has done,” said Douglas Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. “The lottery is just kind of the icing on the cake of how bad things have been with the Wolves.”
That said, Hartmann agreed that years and years of bad luck in the lottery can wear on a fan base.
“The lottery positioning is an unfortunate, but random, event over the 18 years,” he said. “But I can see where it becomes a symbol of a larger futility of the franchise. That [fans might think] everything is stacked against us.”
John Tauer is a professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas and also the school’s men’s basketball coach. A Minnesota native, he grew up a Timberwolves fan. As a coach he can appreciate how things might have been different had pingpong balls bounced differently. As a professor, he knows how hard it is on the fans.
“There is a certain, ‘Woe is me, this is just what happens when you’re a Timberwolves fan,’ ” Tauer said. “But this is not much different than a roulette wheel at a casino. At some point the odds should balance out. But we’re still looking at a relatively small sample size.”
Tauer believes that, should the Wolves finally get that No. 1 pick Tuesday, all those black clouds will go away.
“It would right a lot of the wrongs that have happened in the lottery,” he said.
Odds against No. 1
The odds are it won’t happen. The Wolves have the best chance in the NBA of landing the top pick, but it’s only a one-in-four proposition.
Minnesota has a 25 percent chance at No. 1, a 21.5 percent chance of going second, a 17.8 percent chance at the third pick and a whopping 35.7 chance of moving down to fourth. That means there’s better than half a chance — 53.5 percent — that the Wolves will end up lower than second.
Indeed, the odds always have been against the Wolves moving up in a lottery. So, taken year by year, no result is surprising.
But is it surprising that, over 18 years, the Wolves have never moved up?
“Even if not one of the 18 disappointments the Wolves have suffered can be considered surprising, the fact that the lottery did not improve [the team’s] position once in all these years is rather unusual,” said Douglas N. Arnold, McKnight Presidential professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota.
How unusual? According to Arnold, the chance the Wolves would never have moved up in 18 tries is “only 2.4 percent, or about one chance in 40.”
But, as Arnold said, the odds don’t remember. So winning the top pick this year isn’t influenced by anything other than those one-in-four-odds.
Not lucky charms, holy water or living for three weeks on a billboard’s catwalk.