As a baseball park, the HHH Metrodome in Minneapolis was an affront, its plastic grass and Hefty-bag curtains producing a version of the national pastime that was the equivalent of playing marbles in a bathtub. For football, much of the joint’s lousy public relations came from the likes of Mike Ditka (“the Rollerdome,” he slandered it) and that remote-camera video of the December 2010 roof collapse, the Teflon-covered dome losing its poof from too much snow and ice.
But for one memorable season, the Metrodome was a basketball Mecca, drawing more customers to the NBA than any other arena before or since.
With Target Center under construction for what would be the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves’ second season, the Dome (as it was known in the Twin Cities) became the new team’s temporary digs for its 1989-90 inaugural home schedule. Like other domed stadiums turned into makeshift gyms – the Superdome in New Orleans, the Pontiac Silverdome north of Detroit – the configuration for basketball wasn’t ideal.
The court had to be snugged up to one section of the permanent grandstand, with portable bleachers on the other sides. The vastness and lighting messed with shooters’ backgrounds. Then there were the locker rooms, accessed through the baseball dugouts, followed by a long trek up into the bowels of the concrete structure.
“The hardest thing about it was the walk from the court to the locker room,” said Sam Mitchell, the former NBA forward and coach-turned-analyst who scored the first points in Timberwolves history. “You could pull your hamstring in the time it took. It took us forever.
“They had to give us an extra five minutes to get from the locker room down to the court. That was a pain in the butt. You had about 200 stairs to go up and down. And it was cold in there in the wintertime. But from the standpoint of fan support … it’s just something I’ll never forget.”
Don’t be distracted by the Wolves’ 22-60 record; this was more than just a lousy expansion team’s first season. The NBA once had been hot in Minneapolis, the Lakers establishing the league’s first dynasty by winning five titles with George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, coach John Kundla and the rest. But the franchise was moved to Los Angeles in 1960, so the Wolves’ arrival tapped into a pent-up demand for an NBA that – with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as its stars – had grown into a monster.
The Dome, with cavernous capacity built for the NFL and MLB and large enough to host the NCAA Final Four twice, was more than capable of accommodating that.
A crowd of 35,427 showed up for the Wolves’ home opener, with Jordan scoring 45 points for the yet-to-be-champion Chicago Bulls. Boston, with Bird and state hero Kevin McHale, pulled in a crowd of 35,713. When the Lakers came to town on St. Patrick’s Day and narrowly escaped with a 101-99 victory – with Wolves coach Bill Musselman pestering Johnson with 7-foot-3 center Randy Breuer defensively – there were 43,606 in that building that night.
Musselman’s grinding, physically-and-mentally demanding style won over fans, too, some of whom remembered his work with the University of Minnesota Gophers in the early 1970s. The Wolves were as rag-tag as you’d expect for a squad built off the league’s leftovers – the starting five for the opener in Seattle featured Mitchell, Tony Campbell, Tod Murphy, Brad Lohaus and Sidney Lowe – but they slowed the pace to a crawl, defended up in their opponents’ grills (No. 2 in fewest points allowed, 99.4) and took on their feisty head coach’s personality. Whether they liked it or not.
“The Wolves used the visitors’ [baseball] clubhouse, on the other side of the laundry room,” said Clayton Wilson, the Timberwolves’ longtime equipment manager, who worked for the Twins before switching over with the move to Target Center. “Tom Kelly [Twins manager] could sit in there and listen to Musselman rip into the players. ‘Lohaus, you [bleep]!’ Muss would get in their faces a little bit.”
Kelly was a season-ticket holder, like Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.
“T.K. loved the Xs & Os,” Wilson said, “so he would go in pregame and listen to them, and then [during the game] he’d say, ‘OK, see how the coaches said they were going to deny this guy the ball and get it to that guy? That’s what they’re doing.’ ”
There were more than a few nights, Wilson said, that Kelly – rattling around his Dome office in the middle of a Minnesota winter – would give the regular laundry guy a night off and wash the Wolves’ sweaty uniforms and socks.
With a clubhouse built for 25 players, the Wolves had space but few creature comforts in their ersatz locker room. Not that it mattered.
“Most of us had not played in the NBA,” Mitchell said over the weekend. “And the guys who had been on NBA rosters, hell, they had barely played. So I would have played in a brier patch. It didn’t matter to me. I would have played butt-naked, outside and barefoot. Just give me an NBA jersey.”
The team’s attendance had been strong all season. It went 17-24 at home and outscored visitors by 0.4 points, vs. 5-36 on the road with an 8.8 points deficit. But that huge Lakers crowd put Minnesota within reach of something special. The NBA’s home attendance mark belonged to the Pistons, who drew 1,066,505 fans in 1987-88 – the first Detroit “Bad Boys” club to reach The Finals.
After 38 home dates, the Wolves were at 937,148, averaging 24,662 per game to Detroit’s 26,012. That’s when president Bob Stein, marketing whiz Tim Leiweke (now the Toronto Raptors’ top exec) and the rest of the front office shifted into another sales gear. Targeting the NBA record, the Wolves packed in 45,458 for Orlando’s visit on April 13, 40,415 to see Utah two nights later and finally 49,551 for the home finale against Denver on April 17. More than 135,000 tickets – some at wildly reduced rates, many with horrible upper-deck sightlines – were sold for a team that lost 60 games and eight of its final nine. Their final count: 1,072,572, an average of 26,160.
It’s a record that still stands, even if the building in which it was set – the Vikings played the final Metrodome game there Sunday and demolition already has begun – soon won’t be.