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