Minnesota Madness |
The NBA in the 1980s and 1990s is often seen as an era of financial stability and expansion. The league saw money come in at a previously unprecedented rate, most of it coming for the new found television revenue. The NBA added 11 new teams from 1976 until 1996. The league also found three superstars to hang its image on in Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
But there was an underbelly to this glorious side as well. In the same time span that saw the NBA add 11 new teams, four teams relocated and three others attempted to relocate.
One of the most interesting cases involved the Minnesota Timberwolves who were awarded by the NBA to the city of Minneapolis in 1989. The Wolves were one of four NBA teams that entered the league between 1988 and 1989, and the second NBA team to play in the Twin-Cities.
The Wolves almost did not happen. In 1984 Minneapolis based businessmen Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner were attempting get an NBA team to Minneapolis and thought they had a deal. Wolfenson and Ratner had been in negotiations with Utah Jazz owner Sam Battison to relocate the team to Minneapolis. The Jazz had been struggling financially since they were founded in New Orleans in 1974 and were in despair need for money.
At the same time Wolfenson and Ratner were attempting to buy the Jazz, the NBA announced that it would be looking to add between 3 and 5 new franchises. Wolfenson and Ratner contacted the NBA, but after hearing that much larger cities were also vying to get the new NBA franchises, were not confident that they would be chosen. Wolfenson and Ratner nonetheless put in a bid to get one of the new NBA franchises.
Shortly after their bid they were contacted by Battison who wanted $16 million dollar for the Jazz and Wolfenson and Ratner were obliged to buy that much. However, at the last minute Jazz minority owner Larry Miller countered with an offer to keep the Jazz in Salt Lake City. Wolfenson and Ratner countered offering Battison $24 million. In May of 1985 Larry Miller and new NBA commissioner David Stern come up with an agreement that would satisfy all involved.
The agreement would allow Miller to buy the Jazz and keep them in Salt Lake City, while Wolfenson and Ratner would be assured by the NBA that one of the new franchises would go to Minneapolis if they could get a new arena.
In 1986 the NBA announced that it was expanding to four cities: Miami and Orlando; Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Heat and the Hornets entered the NBA in 1988 and the Magic and Timberwolves would enter in 1989.
Fan support for the Wolves was massive in their first year, as the team set attendance records. Despite only winning 22 games, over a million fans came to see the Wolves. The Wolves rarely had the best basketball odds available online at the time, But while fans were coming to the games, the bottom line was still suffering.
The Wolves had an unfavorable agree with their newly built arena the Target Center and were struggling to make mortgage payments. The NBA tried to help this by placing the 1994 NBA all-star game in the city. The product on the court also did not help the Wolves financial woes as the Wolves continued to fail to make the playoffs.
By the time of the 1994 All-star game the financial woes were extremely evident and most assumed that the Wolves would be evicted from the arena and forced to relocate.
On February 11, 1994 NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the NBA would form a commission to help resolves the Wolves financial issues. The issue at hand was the Wolves needed someone to buy the remaining $73 million mortgage. The city of Minneapolis and state of Minnesota had both already refused to step in, and if a buyer in Minneapolis could not be found an outside group would likely buy the team.
Soon outside benefactors began to try an acquire the team. Groups from San Diego, Nashville and New Orleans all were submitting offers to buy the team. Eventually the Top Rank group out of New Orleans purchased the team for over $152 million dollars with the intent to relocate the team to New Orleans.
The New Orleans group included Fred Hofheinz and John O'Quinn. They intended to have the team play games in the Super-dome until a new arena could be built. The team name was also going to be changed with Angels and Rhythm being suggested as potential new names, as well as suing the Jazz to retake that moniker.
But right when things were the bleakest for the Timberwolves in Minnesota, good fortunes stepped in. First several citizens initiatives were filed to try and keep the team, than the NBA's relocation committee unanimously rejected the relocation. The committees reasons where that they did not thing that the Top Rank group was financially secure enough to support the team in the long term.
The NBA filed a suit against Top Rank to keep the Wolves in Minneapolis for the 1995 season and to block any relocation attempts. Top Rank filed a counter suit to have the courts uphold the sale. The Federal District Court sided with the NBA and issued a edict that would keep the Wolves in Minnesota through June of 1995.
Several unnamed sources would leak things to the media about the NBA and its owners; One of these being Michael Jordan's gambling problem. Many in the NBA community thought it was due to the failed relocation.
Eventually, a group headed by former Minnesota state senator Glen Taylor, came up with a large enough sum to buy the Wolves. The NBA agreed to the sale and Taylor became the majority owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves. By the time the sale was completed there was nothing Top Rank could do, Top Rank filed for bankruptcy brought on by the failed purchase.
Taylor's ownership of the team finally brought some financial stability to the team. The Wolves would end up drafting Kevin Garnett a year after Taylor bought the team and the Wolves finally made the NBA playoffs in 1997.
The Wolves enjoyed the greatest success in their franchise history during the Kevin Garnett era, making the playoffs eight straight years from 1997 until 2004. However, the team did not make it out of the first round until 2004.
While the team became financially stable under Taylor, they suffered in other ways. Taylor allowed General Manager Kevin McHale to sign forward Joe Smith to several illicit contracts in violation to the NBA salary cap. Smith signed 3 small one year deals with the promise that the Wolves would go over the cap to re-sign him with Bird-rights.
The NBA punished the Wolves severely. McHale was forced to take unpaid leave, all Smith's contracts were voided, the Wolves were stripped of five first round picks, and Taylor was barred from the NBA for a year. This would have a colossal affect on the franchise going forward.
The Wolves at this time were an NBA title contender but without first round picks to add cheap young talent and for trades, the team could not get any better. It all culminate when the team began to struggle and had no replacements for the older players and eventually forced them to trade Kevin Garnett to Boston.
Things have somewhat stabled with the Wolves as of 2019, but they remain the most likely team to have some kind of destabilizing incident that could force a relocation. Should Glen Taylor decide to sell the team, another mess like 1994 could happen and this time the fans in Minneapolis may not be so lucky to keep their team.