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Inside KG's Return: The Kind Of Memories That Last Forever
If you were there, you know.
The 2014-15 season wasn’t particularly noteworthy for the Timberwolves.
They were a young team. Flip Saunders had constructed a roster of youth, led by Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. The goal was to develop these players and if it ended up with the team landing a high draft pick (like Karl-Anthony Towns), so be it.
But there was a moment in this season powerful enough to capture the entire fanbase.
How did a 16-win team bring Timberwolves fans a game and a moment that they’ll never forget?
When Saunders made moves, he would work hard with his Basketball Ops department on scouting and all other basketball-related things, like any executive of a team would do.
But it wasn’t uncommon for Saunders to take the temperature among the team’s upper management regarding certain moves.
What would the fans think of this move? How about the media?
Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest when you’re in the trees. Saunders likely wasn’t the only executive to do something like this, but he is probably the most social.
Before the 2015 trade deadline, there weren’t many huge moves expected to be made by the Timberwolves. Maybe a buyout here. Perhaps trading a veteran for a second-round pick there.
But as the deadline approached, there was more and more chatter that Kevin Garnett, the best player in franchise history, was coming back home.
Jeff Munneke, the team’s Vice President of Fan Experience and Community Youth Basketball at the time and the current Vice President of Fan Engagement, might have known before anyone else, perhaps a few weeks before the deal went down. Munneke had been with the franchise from the very beginning and was there during Saunders’ first stretch with the Timberwolves. Saunders was also Munneke’s basketball camp coach when Munneke was in seventh grade. The two had grown close and Saunders trusted Munneke. Trusted him enough to tell him pretty much anything. Munneke knew about this deal before Woj.
“One day he came in, this is probably a week to 10 days prior to the trade and he said, ‘Hey, I want to show you something’ and it was a press release that was more or less ready to go,” Munneke said. “We were trading for KG and I read it and I was like, ‘Come on,’ he was like, ‘No this is going to happen,’ and I’m like, ‘Flip, how in the world are you going to orchestrate this?’ So, I actually had a little bit of a run up to it, but I was sworn to secrecy, so I couldn’t say anything at the time about it. And you know, I’m just sitting there, chewing my fingernails off just in nervous anticipation saying, ‘Oh my God this is happening.’”
Eventually, as Munneke’s nails became shorter, the trade deadline approached.
Saunders could finally use that press release that he had ready to go. On Feb. 19, 2015, the Timberwolves acquired Garnett from the Brooklyn Nets for Thaddeus Young.
Surely, Young was a better player at this point in his career. But it wasn’t about that.
It was about bringing back someone who meant so much to a franchise for 12 seasons. Someone who quite literally gave his blood, sweat and tears for a franchise and its fanbase.
For Saunders, this wasn’t so much of a basketball trade. But a legacy trade.
“He looked at that as maybe even a responsibility not just to the organization and its fans, but to the community to bring Kevin back and make sure that Kevin finished his career as a Minnesota Timberwolf where he belonged,” Ryan Tanke, the team’s Senior Vice President of Ticket Sales at the time and current COO said. “I think Flip knew that this was going to be a big deal. He certainly wanted to bring fans and people in the community in to celebrate that with because that move was bigger — I don’t remember what our record was then that year or where we sat, but we weren’t going to the playoffs. That was never, I don’t believe, the point. It was about celebrating a Minnesota icon and the greatest player to ever wear a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey and to bring him back home with his family. That part was this undeniable sort of emotion that everybody had, including Flip.”
What Was Next?
After the trade, the Timberwolves gave Garnett his time to process everything and get things settled in Minnesota. Garnett wasn’t one who particularly liked change – especially sudden change in the middle of the season.
Five days after the trade, the team held Garnett’s introductory press conference on the skyway level of the Target Center.
Garnett didn’t miss a beat. He took over the room in all the right ways. Everyone knew Garnett wasn’t going to play in many games for the Timberwolves. His knees had gone through more than 55,000 minutes at this point in his career. If he could bring the infectious attitude to a young and impressionable team, that would serve as a win. And to get a fanbase back bought in on the franchise, that was a bonus.
At the press conference, Garnett remembered the familiar faces. Of course, there was Sid Hartman. Harman, who was 94 at the time, was known to give pretty much everybody grief. Not for KG, though. Instead, Hartman literally bowed to Garnett.
Garnett gave a shout-out to Kare 11’s Eric Perkins, “What up, Perk?!” Garnett said flashing his pearly whites.
There was a younger reporter who tried to ask Garnett a question. Instead, he fumbled his words and let out a little squeak. Garnett laughed and said, “Take your time.”
Saunders, “He has a tendency to get media like that, just speechless.”
There were some laughs, but everyone there understood.
“There’s just so much emotion. You grow up like idolizing certain people,” Tanke said. “So to be on the other end asking a question, it’d be like sitting down with Michael Jordan. I’d be speechless.”
I was at this reporter’s wedding a year or two after. His speech was much better than his question to KG.
Garnett was curious about his favorite spots to hang out downtown. A lot can change in seven-plus years.
“I'll be honest … I don’t even recognize downtown,” Garnett said. “There were one-ways that are two-ways now. I'm asking about some of the restaurants from when I was here and some of those have closed or moved. I just got to get reacquainted with the city.”
One thing that was apparent throughout the press conference was how happy Garnett seemed. For Saunders, that’s what was most important. Saunders wanted Garnett’s career to end where it started.
“He’s really happy,” Saunders said. “I know that. He showed excitement coming in seeing people. He’s excited to be back here and that’s as important to me as anything.”
The Game Of The Season
Garnett’s first game with the Timberwolves was nearly a week after being traded. That’s not a normal thing, but Garnett is also not a normal guy.
Nothing about the game Garnett was playing in was particularly noteworthy. The Timberwolves were going into the game with just 12 wins at that point. Their opponent, the Wizards, were solid, but they weren’t a huge draw for an audience.
Again, this wasn’t about basketball. Timberwolves fans had nearly a week to try to figure out how they could score tickets to this game. For the entire season, getting tickets to a game wasn’t exactly hard. For this game, though, it seemed nearly impossible.
Everyone wanted to be there.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got a surge of season ticket holders who may have already given away or sold their tickets,” Tanke said. “How do you take care to make sure those people who are closest to the franchise can actually come in and be a part of that celebration?”
Timberwolves fans are typically late-arriving fans. With tipoff at 7:07 p.m., fans generally arrived at 6:45 p.m. Not on this night.
Fans were in the arena as soon as the doors opened, just waiting to see Garnett step on the Target Center floor again wearing a Timberwolves jersey.
“I just remember it being such a stark contrast from the games we had played up to that point, especially recent games to that point because this was late in February and when you have a team that is not in a playoff race, games just don’t really have a lot of energy and life to them, typically,” Fox Sports North’s Marney Gellner, who had been covering the Timberwolves since 2002, said. “Then this one came along and I just remember being in a back hallway by the media room before I had even gone out to the court and hour before the game, and I could already feel it there because there were so many more people around there was a buzz around, just the atmosphere even long before we saw KG was there, it was a really weird feeling and then I remember turning the corner of the back hallway to the point where I could see the court and walking onto the court, and this is still probably 45 minutes before the game. KG had not come out to shoot warmups. Nobody had seen him, but the crowd had already started to file in. There were so many people that early and there was such a buzz and an electricity and just this energy. It was the weirdest feeling because I remember thinking ‘this night is going to be special’ but I honestly didn’t expect it to be that way an hour before the game.”
KG finally stepped onto the floor and the place went absolutely nuts. There was so much emotion from everyone in the building. There were grown men wearing KG jerseys . . . and crying. The Kid was back.
As expected, Garnett’s introduction was about as passionate as it gets. There was Kanye West’s “Homecoming” playing in the background.
With the fifth pick in the 1995 Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select . . .”
“You felt like you were in a movie,” Tanke said.
Munneke added on.
“The whole place just blew up. I’m getting chills talking about it right now. It was just so cool. I was in the section 101 tunnel, all the staff members, nobody wanted to miss anything about that return and how electric it was.”
The Target Center was sold out. While the building’s capacity is just over 19,000 people, you could have convinced anyone that 40,000 people were in the building.
For Gellner, this was a long season. Being on-air for 82 games when a team isn’t winning can be challenging. The dog days of February can be a real thing in an NBA season, and this was a chance for everyone to snap out of it. But for her, there weren’t any thoughts of the impact a game like this would have on TV ratings nor were there thoughts on how many more eyes would be on the broadcast on this given night.
“I don’t think I ever thought once about how many more people might be tuned into the game. I was just embracing the significance of it and the excitement of it and we needed a jolt at that point and this was like the double-paddled jolt to the chest instantly,” Gellner said. “I don’t remember at all thinking about being nervous or any ramifications of TV ratings or anything like that. I just remember thinking how much fun it was and how much fun it was to talk about. It was a completely different storyline. The relevancy of KG’s return and just like what would he be like. How would he embrace it? What would we see? How was he going to look in his uniform again?”
Garnett started and there were no signs of him being 38 years old or having bad knees. While he wasn’t as springy as we remembered from his MVP days, if you squinted, you could see the same KG we all grew to love.
Just 69 seconds into the game, Garnett blocked a shot from Nene and the crowd went absolutely nuts. His first field goal came with 3:32 left in the first half. Longer than he probably would have liked, but it was the 17-foot jumper that Garnett basically had patented during his prime. That being his first shot made with the franchise that drafted him seemed about perfect.
It was clear that Garnett’s energy was rubbing off on his teammates. There were more cuts offensively. Defensively, there was attention to detail. By watching Garnett and his body language, you would have thought he was playing with this group for five years rather than five minutes. There were head rubs, butt taps and the pull-aside tutorials throughout the game.
“His numbers weren’t the huge numbers that we were all accustomed to, but you could just see from a defensive standpoint, just his presence, his talking on defense,” Munneke said. “He had the will to win."
There are a lot of memories throughout this game, but the one that sticks out the most for people was the Jiggly Boy skit.
During the second timeout in the second quarter, Timberwolves fan John Sweeney brought back the “Jiggly Boy” that he created back in 2003.
Our Katie Davidson is writing more on the Jiggly Boy experience, but it’s something you can’t ignore if you’re discussing this game.
Normally, Garnett isn’t one to look up at the scoreboard or to the crowd during a game. It’s all about the game for Garnett. No distractions.
This night was a little different, however. After Jiggly Boy took off his football-styled Timberwolves jersey to reveal the “Welcome Home KG” painted on his chest, Garnett gave Jiggly Boy a salute.
“Usually, he is so locked in that he pays zero attention to fans or scoreboard activities or anything that’s going on outside of the actual game so I remember looking up at the jumbotron and seeing Jiggly Boy and first of all, even that the crown reacted to him the second they put the camera on him while he had his shirt on. He had the 15 jersey. For the fans to recognize who he was though was just hysterical,” Gellner said. “And then they kept cutting back to him. I thought, ‘Oh, this is a cute little bit,’ and then he stood up and took his shirt off and of course it was Jiggly Boy and we all got a good laugh. And then I was watching KG for his reaction and honestly was stunned that he pointed up to Jiggly Boy and they had this interaction. And it wasn’t done. If I remember correctly, Kevin beat his chest a couple of times and smiled and pointed at him like twice. I just thought that was the moment.”
But that salute wasn’t just for Jiggly Boy.
“That was him not just acknowledging that particular person, that was him acknowledging Minnesota.”
That video has more than 14 million views on YouTube. Basketball fan or not, you can feel the love and raw emotion in the video from Garnett.
‘I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It’
Behind an energetic Target Center and Garnett’s spirit, the Timberwolves won 97-77, just their 13th win of the season. Garnett finished with a modest line of five points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks. What he brought to the team on this night didn’t show up in the box score. Much like his entire career, the most valuable part about Garnett’s game were the things that didn’t show up in the box score (although, he’s filled up a few during his day).
For as much as the crowd felt they owed Garnett, he made it seem like it was the other way around. Garnett, as seldom as he does, was embracing this moment.
“It felt like my rookie year, I’ll be honest,” Garnett said after the game. “With the energy and the anticipation. I looked in the crowd, I saw my friends and family. I’m glad my daughters were here to see that. It was just a special time. I can’t even put into words.
“I didn't know the city missed me like this. I don't think you could ever wish, or ever think that a city loves you like this but to see it is reality and I am very appreciative."
There’s a good chance the city didn’t know it missed Garnett as badly as it did until he was back. For better or worse, that’s how it goes sometimes. If one person who didn’t need that reminder, though, it was Saunders.
“One of the reasons I came back and talking to Glen (Taylor) about coming back was because of the fans of Minnesota and that’s what it is,” Saunders said. “ . . . I’ve never seen anything like that for one guy. Every time KG stood up, it was a great feeling . . . I just knew that he’d have an impact with everything. He’d have an impact with our players, with our fans, with our community.”
Garnett would play in just four more games that season and 38 the next, but Timberwolves fans just needed that one game. They wanted just one more moment with the player most had grown up watching. The player they watched turn from The Kid to the MVP to an NBA champion with the Celtics.
Who knew one game could create so many memories?
Fox Sports will be replaying this game on Apr. 1 at 7 p.m. CT. Gellner will be live-tweeting the game.