The International Marketability Of The Minnesota Timberwolves

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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The Timberwolves currently have 15 players on its roster representing six countries across the world. In fact, three of Minnesota’s projected starters—when healthy—are from outside the United States. It’s a league-wide trend. Today’s NBA continues to become more and more globalized, with a league-record 84 players from outside the U.S. on opening night rosters in 2012-13.

The Timberwolves continue to be a leader in this area, highlighted by talented international sensation Ricky Rubio. But it’s more than that. In the starting lineup alone, the Wolves have Rubio, center Nikola Pekovic from Montenegro and forward Andrei Kirilenko from Russia. Guard J.J. Barea, of Puerto Rico, is one of Rick Adelman’s first options off the bench, and he is normally accompanied by Alexey Shved of Russia when he enters the game. Add in forward Mickael Gelabale—a native of the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe who plays for the French National Team—and the Timberwolves are well-represented across the globe.

It’s not the first time Minnesota has held this type of reputation. There have been 21 international players on the Timberwolves roster over the past 22 years. Australia’s Luc Longley was the first to join the club in 1991.

Today, the NBA has more international representation than ever. Rubio, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki and many others are major faces of the league and are marketable across the globe. The league sends teams to play exhibitions and regular season contests in Europe and Asia, has offseason NBA Jam events in countries around the world, and teams continuously have scouts looking for the next big prospect.

Minnesota is front and center in that conversation. It’s a big reason why NBA Commissioner David Stern said during his recent trip to the Twin Cities that the Wolves are an internationally marketable team.

“Increasingly, without question,” Stern said. “We are actually talking to the Wolves now about playing even a regular season game outside the U.S. We’ll see how that works out. But the T-Wolves, with this roster—it’s young—which has a great future. Unfortunately it’s been beset by injuries. But people who know are telling me that the Timberwolves are a team of the future. Well-assembled, well-coached.”

The Wolves have marketed themselves as a global team, and the league’s commissioner agrees with their popularity in Europe and beyond. But what do people in other countries think—both with and without player representation on the Wolves’ roster? Timberwolves.com wanted to know, so we reached out to media affiliates in several countries that either have a native player on Minnesota’s roster or just enjoy the game of basketball. We asked about the team, its key stars, and just how big of a presence the Wolves have in their country.

Is it a new-found attraction, or did it grow over time? Did the team’s popular personnel like Kevin Garnett and former international players like Longley, Rasho Nesterovic and others make a difference for this current team? We found out it’s a mixture of both.

The following is a compilation of interviews by Timberwolves.com to one or two representatives of seven countries. It is a small sample size meant to give an indication of how the Wolves are viewed across the world.

Spain

The epicenter of the Wolves’ international appeal is Spain, where Ricky Rubio became an international sensation as a teenager and brought his slick game over to the Wolves as a rookie in 2011-12. His presence on the team essentially makes the Timberwolves daily news in Spain, according to Spanish basketball coach Isaac Pujol.

It’s apparent even here in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves’ social media presence has grown and flourished over the past two years. On Dec. 26, 2011, the night Rubio made his NBA regular season debut, the @MNTimberwolves Twitter account had 33,822 followers. That number has grown by 107,000 since that night. The Wolves’ Facebook page has grown by 140,000 “likes” in that same span, from 132,000 to 273,000.

Part of that is the new exciting brand of basketball, but a big reason for it is the international draw. And in Spain, followers stay up all hours of the night watching Timberwolves games and tweeting about the latest highlight Rubio made on the floor. There is a similar following in Puerto Rico, where fans following J.J. Barea have an overwhelming presence on Facebook and Twitter highlighting Barea’s every move.

In Spain, Rubiomania began when he was 14 years old. His ascension through the ACB League and his move to FC Barcelona were turning points in his popularity, Pujol said. Now, he is a figure that coaches use as an example for boys and girls growing up and learning the game. He is must-see TV, even if he plays six time zones away. That’s usually a 1 a.m. start time in Spain.

“The real NBA fans are awake to watch Ricky play. No matter what time of day, they wait for him, more than for Pau (Gasol) or any other Spanish player,” said Antonio Gil Garcia, a writer for Gigantes Del Basket magazine, Basket4us.com and Sportyou.es. “That’s a true fact, and I know because I used to work at night (in New York) and fans are talking on Twitter and Facebook at this time.”

Gasol is still widely considered the top Spanish basketball player because of his tenure, success and leadership. But Rubio is gaining in that area because of his outstanding play. Soccer is king in Spain so many stars on the pitch reign supreme, along with tennis superstar Rafael Nadal, but in the basketball world Gasol and Rubio lead the way. Pujol said Rubio is of similar popularity to LeBron and Kobe in Spain.

Pujol said the daily Spanish press, including magazines, specialized programs in sports and basketball and news stations all provide coverage.

Rubio’s development began at a young age thanks to great cultivation of his skills by his coaches. Pujol said it all came to a head during a 2006 European Championship U16 final in which Rubio scored 51 points, had 24 rebounds and added 12 assists.

“Ricky started in the news when he was the youngest player to debut in the ACB (had just under 15 years), and was a ‘brazen’ player, stole many balls, playing against senior players and the style of play of Joventut Badalona favored his faster game,” Pujol wrote in an e-mail. “From that moment, his progression was growing. His game was very attractive, and the team won several titles in those years. He was an innovator of basketball next to the style of play that coach Aito Garcia proposed, which helped him develop his game.”

For Pujol, Rubio is a key part of the Wolves’ international appeal. But he is clearly not alone. Given the Wolves have six international players on their roster, one hailing from the “best league in Europe (Spain)” and two others from “the biggest country in Europe (Russia),” Minnesota has a big pool of NBA fans watching them on a nightly basis.

The next step in their global marketability is team success.

“They have to make the playoffs and have some wins,” Garcia said. “I’m not sure a kid in Brazil is interested in the Wolves more than the Wizards (Nene) or a kid in Italy more than the Nuggets (Danilo Gallinari).”

Still, in Spain the Wolves have incredible appeal thanks to Rubio’s crafty play. It leaves fans wondering what he’ll do next, and they’ll wait all night to see it.

Japan

The Wolves play a style of basketball that is intriguing to Japanese fans, and the team’s player personnel and history in the country have made them a draw on a few different levels. According to HOOP Magazine Editor in Chief Takeshi Shibata, based in Tokyo, three key elements of the Timberwolves’ popularity play into their appeal in Japan.

The first is their back court. Shibata said many Japanese fans understand they will likely not be 7-foot basketball players. According to Interbasket.net, the average Japanese male ages 20 and over is 5 foot, 6.4 inches. The United States, by contrast, is 5 foot, 9.4 inches. This factors into the style of play fans enjoy watching.

“Since Japanese people in general are not as tall as American people, flashy playmakers like Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea are always their favorite,” Shibata said. “Japanese kids won’t believe they’re going to be a 7-footer, but they can dream about becoming a player like Ricky or J.J. someday.

It is sometimes speculated because of the flashy scorers we’ve seen in the game over the past 30 years that the art for passing and distribution has been, at times, lost on the younger generation. It’s more exciting to score. But through this logic, facilitators like Rubio are making it exciting to pass again.

A second component of the Wolves’ popularity in Japan is their long fascination with Rubio. Japanese fans widely respect Spain as the top basketball country outside the U.S., and they fell in love with Rubio when he had his famous breakout Olympic run in 2008.

Shibata used the words “Wizard,” “T-Ricky (tricky),” “Magical,” and “Flash” to describe how fans feel for Rubio.

The third component dates back to 1999, when the Timberwolves led by Kevin Garnett played a pair of games at the Tokyo Dome against the Sacramento Kings to start the season. And that’s what Japanese fans hope to see again in the future. Being able to see a live NBA game with any team is longed for by Japanese fans, not just the Timberwolves, but with the core of players led by Love, Rubio and others on board they would be a welcomed squad to see live.

Shibata said the Wolves are among the most popular teams among his HOOP Magazine subscribers along with the big hitters like the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks and Bulls. The Wolves, Heat, Thunder, Nets and Clippers are all in that conversation.

His message to Wolves fans: “You are so lucky to be able to watch games all the time,” Shibata said. “I wanna share some moments.”

Russia

It’s no secret that the Wolves became a hit in Russia this offseason. With Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko, Minnesota gained a nation’s interest through two offseason acquisitions. And what a collection of talent those two players have. Both helped the Russian National Team earn the Bronze Medal this summer in London, and while Kirilenko is an NBA veteran who is having a resurgent season back in the league, Shved continues to become a new fan favorite in Minnesota thanks to his athleticism, court vision and sharp shooting capabilities.

For Ilya Donskikh, editor at Russian National Sports Rossiya-2, both are extremely intriguing to follow for different reasons.

Kirilenko, Donskikh said, might be the only basketball player everyone knows in Russia. The country is not overly interested in sports, he said, but Kirilenko is widely considered one of the best basketball players in the history of Russia and Soviet Union hoops—in some ways surpassing the likes of former NBA center Arvydas Sabonis and Sergei Belov—who played on the 1972 Gold Medal team in Munich. “[Kirilenko’s] greatness is unquestionable,” Donskikh said.

Shved’s ability in the NBA was not always expected. He became widely known after the Bronze Medal game this summer, but Donskikh said how he flourished since arriving with the Wolves has been a big storyline. How Shved’s slender build has been able to play with guys much bigger than himself has been fascinating. Donskikh said once Kirilenko retires from the Russian National Team that Shved will be the best player and leader for years to come.

Donskikh said with players like Rubio and Love mixed with the leadership of Rick Adelman, Kirilenko is a perfect fit in Minnesota: “Doubt there’s a team in the league that can suit him better,” Donskikh said.

And like Donskikh said, those two players have dramatically changed the opinions about and the interest in the Timberwolves. Now, if Minnesota made a trip to Moscow or St. Petersburg, Donskikh said they would likely be met with filled arenas. Both the Wolves and Spurs have an intriguing dynamic in the sense that they do not overwhelm teams with ripped athleticism. Instead, they play with incredible skill. Donskikh said when you watch teams like the Timberwolves and Spurs, you feel as though you are “at the Olympics All-Star Game.”

Germany

Germany’s main NBA attraction is, not surprisingly, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. That won’t change. Nowitzki is a legend in his home country, and with him the Mavs have become the top NBA focus there. Beyond the Mavs, you have the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Heat and Thunder. But there is an element of the Timberwolves that do make them an intriguing team as well, even though they are still currently in a building mode.

“Right now it’s potential first and foremost,” said Christian Trojan of Basket Magazine. “I think Kevin Love is one of the more popular players just because of his character as well as the statistics he produces. I think the European players are something that the European players can relate to. A team with multiple players from Europe will automatically be more interesting than the team made of 12 Americans if they are the same on the field in terms of performance.”

Trojan, of Munich, is the primary assigned writer for Timberwolves content when Basket Magazine does something on Minnesota. He regularly attends NBA All-Star Weekend and has a strong pulse on the league as well as what hoop heads deem popular in Europe. Stories on Love in particular do well with the German audience, he said.

In Germany, the Wolves’ presence became pretty apparent in the Kevin Garnett era. Even today, you can still see kids on street ball courts or gymnasiums playing with an old KG21 jersey, Trojan said.

As for the current team, Love and Rubio clearly top the chart. They are two big reasons why Minnesota is an attractive team to watch and would be welcomed to visit Germany in the future. Rubio has been in the public eye there since he was a teenager in Spain, and he became even more of a watched athlete during the 2008 Olympics. That early exposure helped make him an intriguing player in Germany just as much as his fan-friendly playing style, Trojan said.

He said if you look at advertisements or merchandising across Europe, Rubio is right there with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant because of company branding and his well-known persona.

“If you bring a team with star power, that’s the most important thing for Europe. That you have recognizable players like Rubio or Kevin Love,” Trojan said. “That’s what the casual NBA or sports fan in general will know about.”

More so than the Timberwolves franchise itself, Rubio and Love are the draw.

“I think Rubio and Love make the Timberwolves very interesting,” Trojan said.

Australia

Australia has ties to the Timberwolves dating back to Luc Longley joining the team in 1991. Longley and Shane Heal, both of Melbourne, played for the Timberwolves during their careers, as did Sydney-native Nathan Jawai for 43 games in 2010. And like Germany, Australian fans really identified with the Kevin Garnett era to the point where people wore KG jerseys on the street and at local street ball courts.

“You couldn’t find a court where you didn’t see a player wearing a T-Wolves jersey,” said Brad Graham, editor and creative director for Buckets Magazine in Australia.

And according to Graham, there is still a lot of love for the Timberwolves there.

For Graham, the allure of Rubio and his flashy passing attack (they call him Steve Nash 2.0) is an incredible draw for the Timberwolves today. He has pop culture significance. People who have shaggier hair are sometimes known as “Rocking the Rubio.” He has an identifiable face, and he’s making passing cool again.

“Like Steve Nash did, he’s kind of continuing that legacy of proving that a passer is just as effective as a scorer—a set-up artist,” Graham said. “People think he’s got something that’s tangible, you know? You can see Rubio now, kids rocking Rubio jerseys and you know he can follow his career for the next 10 years and have a highlight package to rival [Pete] Maravich, that can rival J-Kidd, that will rival every other sort of super passer. People love that he sees the game the way he does, and they try to mimic that the best they can.”

Graham is impressed with Love’s game when he’s healthy because of the way he can score inside and from beyond the arc while also owning the glass. Kirilenko is the type of player that plugs so many holes for a team that he fills a serviceable role in the starting lineup on both ends of the court. Nikola Pekovic is a force in the middle. And Rick Adelman, who has been such a successful coach in the NBA for more than two decades, leads the entire group.

“If they can get a dead-eye shooter, everything is going to get so much easier on that court,” Graham said. “Kirilenko was a great addition and plugs so many holes for them, but health is going to be key to their success.”

Puerto Rico

J.J. Barea became the first Puerto Rican who was born and developed on the island to win an NBA championship (following Butch Lee, was born in San Juan but moved to New York as a child—he won the title with the Lakers in 1980) when he won it all with Dallas in 2011. According to Primera Hora reporter Raul Alzaga, Barea’s championship parade after that Mavericks victory stopped traffic for nearly four hours in San Juan.

So you can imagine that all eyes are on Barea in his native country, and they pay very close attention to how he does each night. Alzaga said one local television station, Channel 6, televises 20 Wolves games each year, and fans in Puerto Rico certainly are active on social media outlets during Timberwolves games.

The Wolves are a franchise that likely could expand their influence on the island from a business standpoint.

“I think Minnesota should be more aggressive selling their merchandise in Puerto Rico,” Alzaga said. “I’m tired of going to sports stores and only see Heat, Bulls, Lakers and Knicks’ stuff.”

Barea was known in his youth for taking and making clutch shots for his teams, and Alzaga said he drew rave reviews from his minor league coaches and several high-profile coaches who had an eye on him. But he really became well-known during his performance in the U19 World Championships in Greece. During that tournament he was the second-leading scorer and a top point guard. In 2006, he won the gold medal at the Central American and Caribbean Championship against Panama with a game-winning 3-pointer.

His popularity grew even more with his success in Dallas, and if the Wolves are able to put together a playoff run down the road the team and Barea will continue to increase their popularity in the country. He continues to be viewed as one of Puerto Rico’s two most popular basketball stars, along with Carlos Arroyo.

Alzaga said a lot of Minnesota’s promise lies in coach Rick Adelman, who fosters an unselfish style of play while putting emphasis on the defensive end. Add that into the type of cornerstone and international talent Minnesota has on its roster, and Alzaga said the Wolves could likely pack the Puerto Rico Coliseum if they made a trip to San Juan.

Alzaga said Minnesota has a group that appeals across the globe.

“When you have a couple of Russian players, Spain’s top point guard and one of Puerto Rico’s top two players, among other international players, you are selling a lot of t-shirts outside of Minnesota and expanding the viewership of the Wolves to other countries,” Alzaga said.

France

Pascal Giberne is a U.S. correspondent for BasketNews, a weekly French basketball magazine based in Paris, and he is also part of the L’Equipe21 sports network. For him, simply put, the Wolves are a European Team.

“It’s so surprising to see a team with so many international players—as a European, I love this,” Giberne said. “I know some people don’t like that, but I just love this, it’s a great concept, a great idea.”

The concept of this team being popular in France seems to be just as much a testament to their overall international structure as to Wolves forward Mickael Gelabale, who is a Guadeloupe native and plays for the French National Team. Given France has been familiar with Rubio since his days in Spain—again, his 51-point triple-double is legendary.

But since he joined the team in late-January, Gelabale has also factored into the mix. Gelabale has gotten big endorsements from Tony Parker and Nicolas Batum as a great teammate on the French National Team, and Giberne said he is a player that fans like a lot on that roster.

“Everybody likes him,” Giberne said. “He is a blue-collar player, talented, smart. Mickael is pretty laid back, very easy going, funny.”

Another aspect of the Wolves’ likeability is Rick Adelman because of his style of play and his background with another internationally-oriented team from the early 2000s, the Sacramento Kings. That club had the likes of Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic on the roster.

While he said the Wolves would be a bigger hit in Spain or Russia than in France, Giberne said Minnesota would still be an attractive team to see play if they came to Paris.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “You have a mix of European and American flavor.”


For more news and notes on the team follow the Minnesota Timberwolves and Mark Remme on Twitter, and join the conversation at WolvesNation.com.