A Home Like No Other: Looking Back At The Wolves’ Inaugural Metrodome Season
The Wolves’ 1989-90 season was the stuff of legend. Not only was it the franchise’s inaugural season and the triumphant return of professional basketball to Minnesota, but the entire season was played in one of the most iconic and strange basketball venues in state history—the Metrodome.
The Metrodome was unlike any other NBA home court. It had a capacity of 50,000 people for basketball games, making it the largest venue in the NBA. The Wolves’ current home in Target Center, by contrast, holds just under 20,000.
That one year the Wolves played in the Metrodome before moving to Target Center had its fair share of high notes. There was the team’s first-ever win (a home game against Philadelphia), the fourth-most-attended game in NBA history and an overall season that set a record for NBA attendance. However, there might not be a better memory for Wolves fans than the very first game. After years of watching other cities get NBA expansion teams, it was finally Minnesota’s turn.
“It was a frenzy. Not only was it [the Wolves’] first home game but they’re playing against Michael Jordan, the biggest star in the league. All the anticipation was rewarded with great basketball,” said Charlie Mahar, who has been a season ticket holder since that first-ever Wolves season.
Thirty-five thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven people watched that night as the Wolves took on Michael Jordan and the mighty Chicago Bulls. Though the Wolves didn’t get a victory, thanks in part to Jordan’s 45 points, fans were treated to a sterling 31-point night from Tony Campbell, who would go on to have a career year.
There was also an odd moment of levity towards the end of the game that sticks out in many people’s minds. In the game’s final seconds, Jordan bent down as if to tie his shoes and instead reached behind him and undid the laces of Timberwolves rookie Jerome “Pooh” Richardson. Mahar remembers this as the most memorable moment of the game.
“Here’s Jordan, on the court he’s so intense, he’s so competitive, and with the clock winding down and the game in hand he does this funny thing by untying our rookie’s shoes,” said Mahar.
A little history: Professional basketball first came to Minnesota in 1947, when Minneapolis businessman Ben Berger and local impresario Morris Chalfen teamed up to buy the disbanded Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League (NBL). They brought the team to Minneapolis and named them the Lakers. Led by center George Mikan, the franchise won the NBL title in its first year.
The next year, the team joined the Basketball Association of America (BBA), which would later become the NBA. In total, the Minneapolis Lakers would win five BBA/NBA championships before new owner Bob Short, a graduate of the University of Saint Thomas, moved the team to Los Angeles due to waning attendance in the Twin Cities in 1959. For the time being, Minnesota would have to go without basketball.
The 1970s and 80s saw several NBA expansion teams join the league. Eager Minnesota basketball fans watched as places like Portland, Utah, Dallas and Cleveland were given teams. The NBA began playing some preseason exhibition games in Minneapolis in the mid-80s which only fueled the fire that fans felt towards getting a team back in the cities.
In 1985, the NBA had plans to expand to three new cities, but after Miami and Orlando both put together good pitches, the number was upped to four to accommodate two Florida teams. Those two and Charlotte were announced as destinations, and finally, under the ownership of Harvey Ratner and Marv Wolfenson, so was Minneapolis. Basketball was coming back.
Season tickets went on sale years before the Wolves ever played a game. Additionally, coach Bill Musselman and the team’s new players held events at local gyms and health clubs to drum up interest in the team. After years of hard work, the NBA was finally returning to the cities and people couldn’t wait to sign up.
“I didn’t go to work that morning [that season tickets went on sale],” remembers long-time season ticket holder Richard Weiss, who attended most of the games in the Wolves first season. “I stayed home. They went on sale at 9:00 (a.m.). I got on the phone, my wife got on the phone, and a third person got on the phone. I got through first and I did my pledge.”
“We’d been counting down for the NBA ever since the announcement came that we were getting an expansion franchise,” said Mahar. “It was really exciting to get the team, so three friends and I put in for tickets two years before we got the team and I’m still a season ticket holder 30 years later.”
While the results that first season were mixed (the Wolves ended up going 22-60), the excitement was wholehearted. The Wolves opened the year with losses on the road to the Seattle Super Sonics and the Portland Trail Blazers before returning home to a welcoming crowd to face the Bulls and eventually picking up their first-ever win against the Nuggets.
“I have to tell you, the whole atmosphere was electric. Every game had great crowds because people couldn’t wait to get there,” said Weiss.
“It was more about the fun of them finally getting here and playing. You weren’t expecting an expansion team to be competitive right out of the chute,” said Mahar.
While as an expansion team the Wolves were predictably unsuccessful in terms of their record, Musselman had the Wolves playing a grind-it-out, defensive style of basketball that helped them be competitive every night. In a statement victory, the Wolves defeated Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics behind 44 points from Campbell at home in front over 35,000 people that year. Weiss remembers that game better than any other.
“It wasn’t the most exciting brand of basketball, but what it did was, it was shocking how many games we were truly in,” said Weiss. “I distinctly remember Musselman’s coaching was amazing because he would do funky things like put Randy Breuer guarding a guard.”
Both for his coaching style and personal work ethic, Musselman became somewhat of a legend around town.
“You’d read story after story about Musselman’s own workout regime,” said Mahar. “He pushed his players hard but he pushed himself harder. And the team all bonded together and they were particularly close. They all bought matching jackets. The morale was high even when the play was expansionary bad.”
Playing in the Metrodome was different than playing in the arenas that the rest of the NBA occupied. Talk around the league was that it was harder to shoot in a dome than in an arena, and the huge capacity of the arena and general excitement around the team routinely gave the Wolves home crowds of over 30,000 people. Though not all the seats were particularly good ones, it was more about the energy than anything else.
“We were happy just to be there,” said Mahar. “There was no complaining about how this wasn’t built for basketball, it was that the league finally showed up in our town and we’re happy to go to games and there’s a huge crowd and it’s fun to be here.”
“My general impressions were probably at the time complaining about being so far away from the court at the Metrodome,” said Duane Gullickson, another 30-year season ticket holder. “But when you really think back at what a record-setting deal that was in that first year, and to have basketball back in Minnesota, it was incredible.”
Another thing about the Metrodome was that its downtown location made parking, especially in the dead of winter, a challenge.
“I remember the bitter cold nights,” said Weiss. “I’ll never forget, I went to a Laker game and it was 20 below zero actual. If you parked three or four blocks from the Metrodome you’re dead.”
“I’ll never forget trying to get to the car without getting frostbite,” he continued. “I remember parking on many games when it was below zero yet the crowds were still packed.”
Packed stands, intense crowds, tough-minded basketball. Those were the staples of the Wolves franchise. Before the team’s first game in Seattle, CBS color commentator Len Elmore said that the Wolves’ season would need to be defined by “eternal optimism.” So it was. Through the losses the team endured, the crowds kept coming back to the Metrodome, culminating in their final home game of the season, when they drew 49,551 people to the stadium. To this day, that game is the fourth-highest attended game in NBA history. At the end of the year, the team had drawn 1,072,572 fans—an NBA record that still stands.
“In a city that had all the major sports, Vikings and Twins, people turned out just unbelievably,” said Gullickson. “When I think back about what the city and the fans accomplished, it’s unbelievable, it’s really impressive.”