Kevin Garnett will always be known as a basketball icon. His athleticism and star talent are what brought him to Minnesota at the young age of 19 years old.
But here in Minnesota, our adoration for KG goes far beyond what he could do with a basketball.
Our love for Garnett is entrenched in the way he could enliven any crowd with his blinding smile or his unabashed disposition that will never be matched. If KG was around, you were getting all of him, which was somewhat foreign to Midwesterners who were inclined to show restraint while avoiding the limelight or confrontation.
Whether he was repeatedly pounding his head on the padded part of a hoop in an attempt to kick start his adrenaline, refusing to censor an interview or taking up as much space as possible, tilting his head back and letting out a loud roar to ignite a crowd, KG never held back. No one completely emulated KG’s intensity, but it was often infectious in Target Center during the height of his career in Minnesota.
Though his method — to say the least — “differed” from Garnett’s, Jiggly Boy, a superfan character fixed in Garnett’s history with the Timberwolves, also taught us how to let it all out there and fully embrace our inner fandom.
The Making of Jiggly Boy
I hate to break it to you guys, but Jiggly Boy isn’t actually a real person. Instead, he’s a recurring Target Center character played by John Sweeney, the owner of Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater, which reigns as the nation’s oldest comedy theater.
Sweeney originally pursued a career in corporate real estate after graduating from college but after seeing longtime friend Chris Farley make a career out of comedy, he let his love for improvising take off.
Sweeney and his wife bought Brave New Workshop, which was originally founded in 1958 by Dudley Riggs, in 1997 and created a partnership with the Timberwolves shortly after the expansion of the internet began to provide comedy club regulars with other options for entertainment.
To ensure their business would stay afloat, the Sweeneys had to lean on their greatest asset: their creativity.
They began reaching out to organizations such as General Mills, Microsoft, Target and the Timberwolves franchise that needed innovative ideas, and their first questions for said companies were, “What are you scratching your head on? What’s important to you?”
Sweeney posed the question to the Timberwolves’ former Senior Director of Ticket Sales Bryant Pfeiffer and current Vice President of Fan Experience Jeff Munneke in the early 2000s. Back then their answer, which still rings true today, was fan engagement.
To brainstorm ideas on how to drive excitement amongst fans at Target Center, Sweeney turned to his experiences as a lifetime Green Bay Packer fan (don’t hold that against him).
“One of the ideas was, ‘Think of how crazy these Packers fans are. It’s 10 below zero and they’ve got their shirts off and they’re having fun,’” Sweeney said.
“A lot of people don’t know that the Packers were the worst team in the NFL for like nine years in a row. Like horrible. And we still sold out every single game. Every single game. The fans were exactly the same.”
The idea of creating a fanbase whose loyalty didn’t waver during their team’s down years stuck with the brainstorming crew until it was eventually personified.
“Someone — hopefully not me — said, ‘Well, what if we created this superfan and he danced with his shirt off like they do at Lambeau Field?’ Then everyone in the room looked at me because I’m fat,” Sweeney recalled, “and I was like, ‘Well, yeah, how about if we didn’t do that at all, ever?’”
But with continued persistence, the superfan was created. However, Sweeney and his team had no idea just how quickly the Target Center crowd would be drawn to the rambunctious fan.
Sweeney first introduced Target Center to his new character in 2004 during a game against the Dallas Mavericks. The original plan was for Sweeney to embrace the Dance Cam, strip down and show off his “KG” and “Spree” permanent marker arm tattoos before ripping his undershirt and revealing the “Wolves” etched across his dancing body. As planned, all eyes of bewildered fans were on Sweeney.
But before things got too out of control, Sweeney’s character was escorted out of the arena by two policemen played by hired actors. Sweeney’s wife planned to watch the remainder of the game by herself while Sweeney hid in a suite to sell the bit.
But the outrage of Timberwolves fans called for some improvisation.
“When those two actors brought me out through the top of the stairs, during halftime, Munn said that over 100 people came to the little customer service booth there outside of (section) 111 and were just livid,” Sweeney said. “'How can you arrest that guy?’ They completely bought it. “Munnes comes and gets ahold of me, and he’s like, ‘Sweenes, they’re pissed. They’re really pissed that we kicked you out so we have to figure something else out.’ So on the fly, we figured out let’s bring him back and put the camera on him and then have Crunch come up and lift his hand up to kind of say, ‘We love you and we love our fans that way.’”
Sweeney returned to his seat in the fourth quarter fully clothed and quickly became the hero of the night. But unbeknownst to Sweeney, the bit’s lifespan would last much longer than the duration of that Dallas game.
Of course, social media and camera phones didn't exist back in the early 2000s, so there was no “going viral.” That wasn’t on Sweeney’s radar.
“To be very honest, we weren’t thinking about that at all,” Sweeney said. “We were thinking about the 18,500 fans in that room. Can we have them have more fun and maybe they’ll tell their neighbor or a guy over coffee someday? That’s how the spread used to work back then.”
And yet, Sweeney’s bit quickly became a hit nationwide.
Sweeney’s dance moves were re-aired on local channels such as KARE 11 but also gained national attention from ESPN, “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America”.
“Katie Couric spent like 45 seconds talking to the nation about this superfan,” Sweeney said.
But the distinctive coverage came from the Star Tribune’s very own Sid Hartman who used the front page of his sports section to coin the iconic character’s name with the headline, “Jiggly Boy Helps Wolves Beat Dallas.”
“That’s where that moniker came from,” Sweeney said. “Thanks, Sid.”
Sweeney and Brave New Workshop continued to partner with the Timberwolves’ Game Operations team, but Jiggly Boy made few appearances in the coming years.
“The following year, when I started working for the team, we worked with him I believe on one or two skits,” said Chadwick Folkestad, the Timberwolves’ current Executive Producer of Live Programming and Entertainment. “But then after that, KG left and it was sort of a different time.”
Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics in 2007, and Folkestad and his team never found the right time to bring back Sweeney’s full skit without The Big Ticket in town.
Could there be a Jiggly Boy without KG?
Luckily, that question wasn’t pondered for too long.
If you’re reading this, you probably remember where you were when Garnett’s return to Minnesota was announced.
On Feb. 19, 2015, the Timberwolves shared they’d be bringing 38-year-old Garnett back home in a trade deadline deal that sent Thaddeus Young to the Brooklyn Nets.
After going 187-460 since Garnett’s 2007 departure, the Timberwolves finally had something to celebrate again.
The Timberwolves staff quickly prepared for a sellout crowd that would welcome Garnett back to Target Center on Feb. 25, but how could they adequately celebrate Garnett’s return without the fan whose energy paralleled KG’s?
Folkestad’s team had just over a week to plan for Garnett’s return, but despite how crazy that time was, he still remembers where he was when he proposed Jiggly Boy’s return to Sweeney.
“I’ll never forget I was having breakfast at (The) Freehouse and I sent a text to John Sweeney, and I said, ‘KG’s coming back. Do you want to do something?’”
Sweeney remembers some initial hesitation on his end.
On top of having multiple corporate clients who may not be delighted to see a partner dancing with his shirt off on TV, Sweeney also had two young sons to think about now.
“When I was dancing the first time, I was 40 years old,” Sweeney said. “The second time, I was 50 years old. I didn’t have kids the first time. Now I had two kids who were going to Catholic school.”
But as Sweeney and Folkestad continued to deliberate their best plan of attack, it became obvious his sons would have to be a part of the act.
“Immediately if you see a guy dancing by himself, you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s really drunk or really insecure or drives a white van or something like that,’” Sweeney said. “But maybe there’s more play if people are like, ‘Oh, what a nice dad.’ Maybe that’s a little more palatable and reputation-saving.”
And so, two background dancers were born.
Tight on time, the Sweeneys didn’t have a chance to rehearse their skit before the game, and there were questions of whether they’d get the right camera angle or what they would do if the Sweeneys’ view was blocked by fans sitting in front of them.
But no amount of preparation could have prepared them for how magical the night would turn out.
The night, as planned, did start on a perfect note.
After then-rookie Andrew Wiggins was announced in the starting lineups, the lights were cut and the crowd’s roars grew as Kanye West and Chris Martin’s “Homecoming” narrated KG’s past and future in Target Center.
“People thought that was going to be the extent of the KG shenanigans,” Folkestad said.
The Wolves got off to a dreadful start, didn’t record a field goal until the 5:24 mark of the first quarter and finished the opening frame with just 11 points.
Thankfully, some nostalgic encouragement was on the way.
By the third quarter, it was time for the Dance Cam. The camera first panned two a group of young girls dancing before cutting to the man whose Dance Cam routine had never been topped in Target Center. Sweeney, dressed in the same No. 15 jersey he wore for his original act, gave a polite wave to the crowd while his sons’ smiles and the fans’ applause grew.
On the second try, Sweeney’s sons rose to their feet, but Jiggly Boy didn’t budge, only to rile up the fans even more.
The camera cut to two more fans before one final try to coax their superfan. But on the third try, there was a deliberate change in the music.
“Anytime you have a punchline, you have to have a drastic change in something,” Sweeney said. “So when you’re doing stand-up comedy it’s your facial expression, it’s your tone of voice, it’s your volumes. So if you watch the video, the change is when we go to the Usher song, “Yeah!” We specifically picked that Usher song because of that recognizable beat.”
The music changes and Jiggly Boy comes alive.
“Watch my face as soon as that song comes on,” Sweeney said, “It’s kind of like, ‘Oh my god, they’re playing that one song. I can’t not dance to it. I don’t have any choice now. It’s not up to me anymore. It’s up to these internal, fat dance guys that I have to stand up.’”
And as Jiggly Boy stood, so did the rest of Target Center.
“We were just trying to have another moment that could help people think about the times that Garnett played here,” Sweeney said.
But the fans weren’t the only ones who enjoyed Jiggly Boy’s return. Garnett himself couldn’t help but acknowledge the man dancing with his shirt off, revealing a “Welcome Home KG” greeting across his chest.
Garnett — the player who notoriously had absolutely no time for distractions — looked into the stands while returning to the court after a timeout, saluted Jiggly Boy while wearing that same smile he introduced himself with as a 19-year-old draft pick nearly 20 years prior.
“I had been talking to Kevin about music he wanted to hear when he was running out, and I talked to him about a few things earlier that day. I intentionally didn’t tell him this,” Folkestad said. “He’s also a pretty intense guy and I didn’t think he’d be that interested in a humorous bit like this happening. But you can’t script that kind of reaction from him.”
“When people first watch the video, they certainly first start watching me, but I think they’re getting as much enjoyment … (from the fans),” Sweeney said. “People are not kind of laughing; they’re unbridely joyful. Their smiles are big. Then we pan to Kevin, and you know, his smile is four feet wide and it’s just gorgeous.
“I think that’s why it works also. It’s just a quick, simple, version of joy. And I just think we’re so needing joy.”
Garnett’s acknowledgment did more than encourage fans to release their inner Jiggly Boys. It was also Garnett’s way of embracing Minnesota and all of the superfans like Jiggly Boy who’d been along for his good, bad and now future times with the Timberwolves.
“If I remember correctly, Kevin beat his chest a couple of times and smiled and pointed at him like twice,” Fox Sports North analyst Marney Gellner said. “I just thought that was the moment. That was him not just acknowledging that particular person, that was him acknowledging Minnesota.
“‘I feel your life. I remember you. I remember this. I remember what this feels like.’”
Continuing To Make Others Smile
Sweeney’s next 24 hours were consumed with his sons giving him hourly updates on Jiggly Boy’s growing internet popularity. By the time they went to bed the next night, the Timberwolves’ YouTube video had 1,000,000 hits and would soon be the No. 1 video on Reddit for 30 hours in a row.
“Then it just went nuts,” Sweeney said.
The video was on ESPN’s homepage for almost a day and a half, and Sweeney doesn’t remember doing much aside from taking interview questions for the next two days.
However, he does remember the bit of inspiration Jiggly Boy gave him the following afternoon.
“I think the most miraculous thing about Jiggly Boy that happened happened at about 3:15 p.m. the day after,” Sweeney said. “I’m sitting there and I’m trying to work but I’m getting all of these emails for interviews and all day long, I could not get the word smile out of my head. It got to the point where I’m getting teary-eyed.”
After inspiring thousands of smiles in Target Center, Sweeney couldn’t help but think of the children born with cleft palates who were unable to express their happiness in the simplest, purest way possible.
Sweeney had recently met Kim Valentini who founded Smile Network International, a Minnesota-based non-profit that provides cleft lip repair surgeries to underprivileged children and young adults and was determined to put Jiggly Boy’s popularity to good use.
With the help of a few PR firms, Sweeney was able to get JigglyBoy.com up and running within 24 hours. The site includes a link to the viral Timberwolves YouTube video that’s been viewed over 14,000,000 times but also asks those who’ve smiled from Jiggly Boy’s antics to spread their joy in the form of a donation to Smile Network International, the recipient of all JigglyBoy.com proceeds.
As of Wednesday, JigglyBoy.com has funded 379 cleft palate surgeries to children in third-world countries.
“In my keynote speeches, I always say, ‘If you’ve got the chance to do something that’s got the possibility of helping others, do it because you never know. You might actually dance with your shirt off at a Timberwolves game and help 200 and some kids change their lives,’” Sweeney said.
On the outside, Garnett and Jiggly Boy may appear to share very few similarities. But in their own very unique ways, they’ve both shown us all the good that can come from accepting our true inner beings, never holding back and sharing a smile.