In the skyway back to the parking lot after the Minnesota Timberwolves’ comprehensive mangling of the Los Angeles Lakers 143-107, two Laker fans stood vigil with a view of the exit to the visiting team bus. This was well after most of the crowd had made their way to their cars and the skyway was mostly empty.
Below, other fans stood a meager layer deep waiting for a dejected Lakers team to make their way to the bus. The 143 points Minnesota put up set a new Timberwolves franchise record and also gave them their largest win since a 42-point victory over the Thunder on Jan. 7, 2009. Their 67.1% shooting set a single-game franchise record and was the highest in the NBA so far this season. Kevin Love had a triple double at the end of the third quarter. Nikola Pekovic was a plus-38, Jordan Hill a minus-38. The Wolves biggest lead was 41 points, the Lakers biggest lead, zero.
These two Lakers fans, in jerseys and hats, in Forum blue and gold, waited. If this Laker team manages two more wins this season, they’ll be spared the ignominy of having the second-worst win total in Laker history, beating out their 25-50 finish in 1959-60 and their 19-53 finish in 1957-58. They were still the Minneapolis Lakers during those two seasons. Terrible basketball has a long tradition in Minnesota.
Maybe that’s why these fans who come out of the woodwork in the visiting team’s colors for games against the Lakers, the Heat, are such easy targets. Being a Wolves fan for any serious amount of time demands resilience. It fosters a mistrust of success, an expectation of disappointment. At the core of this fandom is the sense that it has to be earned with hardship, not bought in the form of a #24 jersey with “BRYANT” on the back.
Even an offensive explosion like last night’s — a game Nikola Pekovic, back from injury, called “a triumph from the very first moment” — is going to bring with it a sour little note: Where was this kind of performance when it could have gotten them into the playoffs, when it could have mattered?
But “mattered” is a strangely relative term. Since the Wolves have fallen out of contention for a playoff spot, they’ve been peppered with questions about what there’s left to play for and they’ve given the same bland, generic responses that most athletes do in such situations. Stuff about still having things to learn, about seeing where they are for next year, about playing hard because that’s what you do.
But last night there was a little pure joy in the game. Returning to the bench after starting six games and putting up a double-double in all but one of them, Gorgui Dieng got a hero’s welcome when he checked into the game for the first time at the 4:17 mark of the first quarter. Some of the applause was also no doubt for Pekovic’s sterling effort in that first quarter, where he went 4-4 and scored 12 points. And some of it may have been for the simple fact that a bench player checking in for the Wolves was not a reason to nervously bite your fingernails. Dieng acquitted himself well in his backup role with 14 points and 9 rebounds. (“The guys were giving him a pretty hard time there with only nine rebounds,” said Adelman in his postgame presser.)
And as the third quarter was ending with the Wolves up comfortably, an errant Laker shot bounced harmlessly towards the Wolves bench. Love was the closest to the ball and the Minnesota bench, well aware of his 22 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, starting shouting, “GET IT! GET IT! GET IT!” When Love gamely scooped the ball off the ground for a buzzer beating rebound, they cheered. In the break between quarters they patted him on the back and smiled. Everyone was just having a good time.
You can take what you will from a historic win like this at the tail end of a disappointing season. You can say that when the chips are down, this team didn’t step up, that their inability to close out games shows a lack of character. That any team can have a good time when they’re romping all over an opponent as hopeless as the Lakers. That Love is leaving so none of it matters. I get it: It’s a weird thing how at the end of a bad thing, there are good things.
But then I think about those Lakers fans waiting for their team — without Kobe Bryant, without Pau Gasol, without any clear path beyond lottery luck — and I think about why they’re out there in the skyway. It’s possible they’re Los Angeles transplants, that they grew up there and grew up with the Lakers, that they’re sticking by their hometown team. But I would almost prefer for them to be bandwagon fans who jumped on a frontrunner because of the glitz, the rings, the Black Mamba. Maybe the weird thing for them is that they actually started liking the team and now they can’t get out of it.
One way or another, we end up places. We get there by a mix of things we can control and things we can’t, and then we have the choice of either leaving or sticking around. Those Lakers fans and this Timberwolves team last night are a reminder: If you’re sticking around, at least try to enjoy yourself. It’s just much easier on your constitution.