Nobody Said It Was Easy, No One Ever Said It Would Be This Hard

Steve McPherson —  August 21, 2014 — 17 Comments

(Note: There is an awesome Iverson jersey in a pickup basketball game in the above video.)

Here is something I didn’t write about when it happened because, well, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. A press credential is, after all, something given, not taken. When you’re not a beat guy with a large local or national organization to stand behind you, there’s little profit in pushing the limits, so you stick to your lane. When players are grousing in the locker room and it’s not part of a media scrum, it seems like the right thing to do is keep it off the record.

So let’s go anonymous with this: After yet another loss down the stretch for the Wolves last season (I can’t remember which), one of the Wolves’ players was told that he had to do a meet-and-greet with fans after he was done in the locker room. He immediately launched into voluble complaints — not about fulfilling the commitment, but about the fans themselves.

“Did you hear it out there?” he asked.

He likened the atmosphere in the Target Center to — as best I can remember — a tomb. No energy, no enthusiasm, not even when the Wolves managed to close the gap before eventually falling behind again. He wasn’t the only one to carp about it last season, although a stinging loss might have made the barbs a little sharper. His tone wasn’t dismissive or condescending, but genuinely frustrated, I think with both the fans and the team. It was a basic human moment of being fed up, one that fans of the Wolves should be familiar with.

It was a little startling, if only because I’ve generally assumed that the players play the way they play with little regard for how the fans react. Sure, we’re fed the line about the players needing the crowd to get loud by in-arena hosts, but I always figured that was more for the fans’ benefit than the players’. I shouldn’t have been all that surprised, though: as a musician, I’ve learned to get the job done whether or not anyone is into what’s happening onstage, but there’s certainly an energy generated by the crowd that can feed into the performance. As a pro, you’ll do the work one way or another and some nights you might even elevate the crowd. But a dead crowd can seep into anyone’s consciousness.

Then again, there’s a chicken and egg thing going on here as well. Wins beget enthusiasm, and the crowd in the Target Center is no less vulnerable to the dampening effects of years of futility than the players themselves. Consider: as Minnesota’s wins over the last three years have gone from 26 to 31 to 40, their rank in attendance in the league has gone from 15th to 20th to 27th. As the Kevin Love era draws to a close, there are rumblings about the fanbase not being able to tolerate another rebuild, to which I would basically say, “What fanbase?”

That’s not meant as a knock on the individual diehard fans I know. I know many, many people who are going to stick with the Wolves barring anything save a nuclear detonation at 600 First Avenue North. But all those wonderful people put together are not going to raise the attendance for Wolves games out of the cellar. A team needs fans from devoted to casual, and needs a lot of them to come to games pretty much all the time.

Putting aside actual, tangible successes like making the playoffs — which the Wolves couldn’t manage last year and weren’t likely to this year with Love — nothing puts butts in seats like the new hotness, and Andrew Wiggins — plus Zach LaVine — is exactly that. The last time the Wolves had an uptick in attendance it was from 24th in the league to 15th three years ago — not coincidentally when Ricky Rubio at last came over from Spain.

There are a lot of things that bring fans out for games, and curiosity is one of them. As offensively impressive as the Wolves of the last couple seasons have been when they were on their game, Kevin Love’s Eternal Struggleface just didn’t engender much curiosity on the part of casual fans, and the team’s repeated failures in close games last season turned away plenty of longtime ones. The thrill of early Ricky Rubio games evaporated as the team self-consciously attempted to “get serious” about making the playoffs, with Rick Adelman benching Rubio in favor of J.J. Barea down the stretch of many games last year.

The long-suffering fans will likely take longer to come back, and I can’t say I blame them. But the promise of alley-oops from Rubio finished off with sky-high dunks by Wiggins and LaVine might bring back the looky-loos, and maybe some of them will stick around.

The Heat (at least during the Big Three era) could deal with half-full arenas at tip-off, and Lakers games will always be as much about the spectacle as the game itself. But small market teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder make their reputation on a home-court advantage based on the enthusiasm of the fans. At one time, the Target Center provided that kind of boost for the Wolves, but not now.

Like any relationship, the one between team and fan is complex and multi-hued. That initial swoon can last weeks or months, maybe even years. But eventually, there will be a fallow period — longer in some relationships than others. One side demands, “What have you done for me lately?” and the other side replies — with equal legitimacy — “Well, what have you done for me?” The promise of a fresh beginning hangs dewy in the air, but both sides doubt it almost as strongly as they want to believe in it.

The prospect of a rebuild can be tough. This isn’t intended as a call to stick with a franchise that has struggled and struggled. It’s just a way to say that we can live in the now, that as watchers of basketball, we needn’t actually concern ourselves with the future. Not actually.

There’s a Zen concept called Shoshin, or “beginner’s mind,” about which Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Both the Wolves and their longtime fans have had expert minds for the last several years: there are the playoffs and there is futility, and only these two poles seemed to be recognized. Both the team and the fans would do well to cultivate a little more beginner’s mind.

Steve McPherson

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17 responses to Nobody Said It Was Easy, No One Ever Said It Would Be This Hard

  1. Interesting angle for an article. As a die hard basketball fan, it is easy to watch Ricky and Pek play the game. Win or lose, they are fun to watch. I hope we can keep them here for the long haul. I thought the way they played would translate to casual fans. Apparently, only wins and losses do. Even my friends, that will listen to my rants and raves, can’t get past wins and losses. I hope new life can make the change, but there needs to be some winning to sustain casual fans. I am hopeful this team can win 30 this year!

  2. I guess I am in the diehard fan mode so for me I am just looking forward to this weekend with almost as much anticipation as I am the start of the NFL season.

    After this weekend we should have an actual handle on our roster. I hope/pray the rumors are true and Thaddeus Young is also on the way with Wiggins and Bennett. Trading JJ Barea and Luc Mbah a Moute + Clevelands protected first for Young.

    That would give us a starting 5 of

    Rubio
    Martin
    Budinger
    Young
    Pek

    with a young exciting bench mixing in and out of that lineup.

    Gorgui Dieng
    Wiggins
    Bennett
    Zach LaVine
    Glenn Robinson III

    a lot of young talent to get excited about while still having a good starting nucleus. Watching who moves out of a bench role and into the a starting role will be pretty exciting. But we don’t know anything yet and it’s killing me as far as what our actual roster is going to be.

  3. I understand the frustration of players playing in front of a disenchanted fan base. The organization is mostly to blame. I am sure they continue to raise prices even as attendance declines. But sometimes it take players demonstrating effort and that they care to get the fans going. One can compare the enthusiasm of KG to Kevin Love even when the team was bad, KG made it worthwhile. At least Ricky brought that “I’m having fun” vibe to the game, but last year even he seemed to need to “chance his face” occasionally.

    Anyone subjected to the ugliness of the Wolves bench play might have wanted to leave. In contrast I was struck watching the Spurs during the playoffs by how beautiful their offense is. The elegance of finding the right pass and making the right decision, of finding the right shot. The sheer optimality of the game.

    That feeling was very occasionally available during the few T-Wolves games I watched, mostly due to Ricky’s play making. The PnR and great passes. There isn’t much I can teach my kids watching the Wolves and it makes me sad. At least with KG I can tell them about effort and with Ricky I can tell them about making your teammates better.

    I do think young players with a high energy level might help. I am somewhat, unexpectedly, excited by the prospect of Wiggins and Levine. I hope it goes well. I hope it makes Ricky smile again.

  4. I’m not sure about the cause of the attendance drop from 15th to 20th two years ago, but I can tell you a big cause of the drop from 20th to 27th last season was the steep increase in ticket prices. My friends and I who shared season tickets weathered it for a year after moving to a lower-priced section, but when another substantial increase was announced for this coming season, that was the back breaker for us and we didn’t renew. Even if the team had been performing better, we still wouldn’t have renewed because we were just plain priced out. I think the team definitely made a mistake by increasing prices too quickly. They should have phased in last year’s increase over about 2-3 seasons.

  5. Steve McPherson August 21, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    An interesting point about the ticket prices, Mark. I know that I was not renewing my season tickets when I joined up with AWAW and so got credentialed, so there’s something to that. I know that they were charging well below market value for them for a while there, and that that was a problem when it came to revenue sharing. I can’t remember where I heard about this, but it makes sense that if the league is going to distribute some amount of income to teams who make less than major market teams, those teams have to hit some floors in terms of what they charge for tickets. Otherwise, teams could have super rock-bottom ticket prices and make everything up in revenue sharing, which I’m sure major market teams would not go in for. Seems like the Wolves expected they would be better than they have been and people would want to come to the games.

  6. I know for a lot of people that Minnesota was must watch on NBA league pass. I think that the team was exciting to watch for people who are not emotionally invested in the final outcome. It can be hard to pay money to watch your team lose close game after close game.

    I went to both games that they came in to Utah this year, I just don’t think it was all that helpful to them.

  7. It makes sense that increased ticket prices had an effect on attendance, but I also wonder if Love’s old school, below the rim game had anything to do with the casual fans’ apathetic attitude towards the team. If the Wolves had, for instance, Blake Griffin as their star player instead of Love, would that entice more fans to come to the games? I think it might.

    This also became apparent when the trade talks started with Cleveland. On twitter, plenty of Cavs fans were dead against trading Wiggins for Love, but would trade Wiggins for Blake in a heartbeat. By every advanced metric, Love is superior to Blake (not to mention a far better fit as stretch 4 alongside the drive-and-dish LeBron), but Blake, however, is clearly the more entertaining player. As we saw with Ricky’s debut season, fans will pay for entertainment even if the product on the court is a .500 team (although ticket prices were admittedly less expensive in 2012).

    For these reasons, I think that attendance has the potential to be in the top 15 in the league at Target Center this year. Assuming we land Thad Young, this team not only has a chance to make a push for the playoffs, but will also provide fans with some extremely athletic, above the rim the players to drool over in Wiggins, LaVine, and Young. Hopefully, as Steve said, the fans can do their part and create a buzz around town, which could make Target Center as electric as it’s been in 10 years.

  8. I often wonder how many people actually like watching the NBA as opposed to just talking about the various “storylines.” Of course, there are reasons not to go; that applies to most entertainment options. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but plenty of NBA fanbases have made their arenas a homecourt advantage despite the team not being very good.

    My favorite game last season was Brewer’s 51-pointer, one where I didn’t notice many regulars around me but everyone who was there just got into the game. That mentality makes it a much more fun experience than watching the game like it’s a movie or complaining about every missed shot or bad play. Last season’s home schedule was still fun in spite of the close losses; they destroyed some teams, and that probably happened as much last season as it did in Love’s previous 5 seasons.

  9. Woj reported trade of LMRAM, Shved & Miami’s 1st rounder (we should get on Saturday) for Thad Young. I am genuinely surprised at how well Saunders seems to be doing in the GM role. Very solid trade if/when it happens and the Wiggins haul is a no-brainer for a patient GM. Kudos Mr. Saunders, kudos.

  10. Just hope all these leaks do not become a problem. But if we are really adding Wiggins, Bennett, Young for Love and flotsam than Flip is GM of the year before the season even starts.

  11. You start the young guys

    Rubio
    Wiggins
    Bennett
    Young
    Pek

    bench.

    Gorgui Dieng
    Martin
    Budinger
    Zach LaVine
    Glenn Robinson III

    This way Martin and Budinger can play with 2nd line of Lavine / Dieng and so forth .. Keeping 2-3 vets on floor at all times.

  12. No perimeter shooting with that starting lineup W-F that would be a problem, Martin or Budinger need to be on the floor or spacing is a problem.

  13. WF and farnorth: aren’t those rosters missing Corey Brewer?

  14. Mickey, one can hope

  15. And its missing Mo Williams that WF lineup. One would figure JJ has to be traded somewhere. Is there any viable scenario that a team would want him and trade us a backup big for him? Or some combo of him plus others for a backup big?

  16. Don’t forget the “D-League Destroyer” Shabazz

  17. FN — Though there might be some worry about the leaks with the Young trade, I don’t think the Wolves had anything to do with leaking the Love-Wiggins deal. Love wants that Bird Rights 5-year max so badly that the chance to get it on LeBron’s team and the Wolves’ willingness to keep him for the whole season made them the most motivated to cement this trade.

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