Wolves color analyst Jim Petersen understands how difficult it can be to find a place in the NBA. That includes hearing your name called on Draft night.
Back when Petersen entered the league in 1984, there were 10 rounds of picks; today there are two. In either case, many players year their name called on Draft night and never make it to the NBA. Often times, it is the preparation a player puts in between his final collegiate game and Draft night that makes the difference in whether or not he has staying power in the league.
“It was really a long shot, really, for me to come in,” Petersen said. “And I think if you asked anyone at Williams Arena during my senior season at the University of Minnesota if I’d be playing in the NBA Finals in 1986, two years later, they’d absolutely say no way. I kind of beat the odds. I always believed in myself, and I put the work in to get it done.”
Petersen did just that. After four years with the Gophers working on his game yet never being able to put bulk onto his 6-foot-10 frame, the summer after his senior season was a different story. He worked tirelessly on his footwork, his shot, his conditioning and his strength. By the time he arrived in the NBA’s pre-draft camp during the offseason, he had bumped his frame from 215 to 238 pounds.
[Related content: Jim Petersen's full interview on the 1984 Draft in this week's special podcast]
Throughout the process, he had a strong support system helping him achieve his goals. His coaching staff helped him with his on-court preparation, while future Wolves strength coach Sol Brandys worked on Petersen’s physical stature and future Wolves President/CEO Bob Stein—a fellow St. Louis Park native who became Petersen’s agent—gave him strong support and helped build his confidence that he could succeed in the league.
Petersen continued honing his skills. He always had the potential—Petersen showed that in particular during a game against Michigan State’s Kevin Willis in East Lansing, which he said caught Rockets then-scout Rudy Tomjanovich’s eye. But when Petersen arrived in his post-collegiate workouts with that extra muscle, it not only showed he had strengthened his body but showcased the work ethic necessary to have staying power in the NBA.
Tomjanovich, who by then was a Rockets assistant under Bill Fitch, recommended the team take Petersen with the 51st overall selection, a third-round pick that afforded the 6-foot-10 Petersen the opportunity to make a Houston squad that already featured Hakeem Olajuwon (1984’s top overall pick) and Ralph Sampson.
On June 19, when the NBA Draft took place in the afternoon on the USA Network, Petersen was at home by himself. Unsure if or when he’d be selected, his parents were at work and his siblings weren’t at the house. Petersen remember that surreal feeling watching the Draft, then receiving a phone call from longtime Rockets announcer Gene Peterson—an Albert Lea native—letting him know Houston selected him with that 51st pick.
“When they saw me at the pre-draft camp and they saw how much my body had changed, and it was just helpful eating,” Petersen said. “People accused me of taking steroids. Steroids weren’t big in 1984, and I certainly wouldn’t do that. But it was just an act of god. It was one of those things where I put the work in, but all the weight I tried to put on in those college years really went on in those three months.”
That added physical stature combined with the work Petersen put in on his style of play made the difference. Later that summer, during what amounts to a version of today’s Summer League schedule, Petersen played well enough that Fitch called him to the front of the bus on the way back to Houston and offered him a guaranteed one-year contract. At the time, Petersen expected to try and earn a spot with his third-round, non-guaranteed contract. Fitch showed he believed in Petersen enough to offer him a roster spot right there on that team bus.
Petersen took the opportunity and never looked back.
He’d play eight years in the league for the Rockets, Kings and Warriors, and that included a trip to the NBA Finals during the 1986 season. They’d lose that series to the Celtics, but that Finals run cemented Petersen as a big man that could really help teams off the bench. He averaged 10.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game during 20 playoff contests that season.
He became known as a physical member of his teams’ front court—one that made players think twice about making their way to the lane.
“Physical—guys like that would foul out in this era,” Hall of Famer Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins said. “He’s too physical. When I saw Pete under the basket, I took jump shots. He was just a physical guy. When you go back and look at history, look back at this guy. Pete could play. He was tough inside. He was a good defender, good rebounder. He was one of those guys you go to war with.”
It all goes back to his work ethic and the time he put in honing his skills with the Gophers and beyond. Steve Brown, who currently runs the Wolves and Lynx Basketball Academy for area youth, was an assistant coach for the University of Minnesota when Petersen was on campus. He said Petersen’s unique athletic ability, size and length made him an intriguing NBA prospect. His work ethic put him over the top.
“He’s big, he’s tall, and he could run—and you couldn’t run with Pete,” Brown said during an interview with Timberwolves.com last year. “He could get out and fly.”
The 1984 NBA Draft was filled with future Hall of Famers and surprise picks. Hakeem Olajuwon went first overall as expected. Michael Jordan fell to third, landing in Chicago. Charles Barkley went fifth to the 76ers, John Stockton went 16th to the Jazz and Oscar Schmidt, an international sensation from Brazil, never played in the NBA but was selected by the New Jersey Nets and played his entire Hall of Fame career in Europe and South America. He scored 49,000-plus points during his professional career.
Sam Perkins, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, former Wolves’ standout Tony Campbell and Jerome Kersey were all in that draft. Guys like Rick Carlisle, who became one of the most respected NBA coaches of his era, was a guard drafted 70th overall in the third round.
And Petersen, who put together a solid playing career before joining the Wolves as a TV analyst and the Lynx as a two-time WNBA champion assistant coach, was right in the mix. He’ll forever be known as part of one of the greatest NBA Draft classes of all time.
Looking back 30 years later, Petersen is not only proud to say he’s part of that 1984 Draft class, but he understands and appreciates how much work it takes to get to the NBA and how many people are necessary to help you achieve your goals.
“Any player who can make it in this league, they’ve got a lot to be thankful for and a lot of people to thank,” Petersen said. “It takes a lot of people to get you there. But you’ve got to be able to put the work in, and that’s one thing I’m proud of.”