Timberwolves open their first post-Garnett seasonby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Timberwolves open a new chapter in their history when they take the basketball court for their season-opening game at Target Center Friday night. For the first time in 13 years, the Wolves will be without Kevin Garnett, who was traded during the off season.
The players who will begin the team's post-Garnett era will be unfamiliar to most Minnesotans. But team officials hope local sports fans will take a liking to the young bunch of Wolves who will carry on without K.G.
Minneapolis — The Timberwolves have had a marketing department for the past 12 years. But if you listen to chief marketing officer Ted Johnson, it sounds like they barely needed one.
"There was really no need to introduce Kevin Garnett's team. He was a worldwide brand. He was a worldwide known commodity," says Johnson.
But things are very different since this summer's trade that marked a change of direction for the Timberwolves. Kevin Garnett's team is now the Boston Celtics, while Minnesota has a roster stocked with names recognizable only to avid basketball fans.
Timberwolves President Chris Wright says the change requires a new approach to promoting the team.
"We're moving from a team that developed an image around one player -- whose image, voice, personality was evident in every report that was talked about on the airwaves, seen on television, or read about in the newspapers -- to much more of a team concept," says Wright.
Wright says the organization is now marketing the team as a whole, rather than promoting individual players. And if it seemed that everyone knew Kevin Garnett, it's a certainty that no one knows the voice of the team's new ad campaign.
Instead of the 6-ft. 11-inch Kevin Garnett, the center of the Wolves marketing campaign is a middle-aged 3-ft. 11-in. guru with short basketball shorts and a tall afro remniscent of the 1970s. Ads on television and the team's Web site show him dishing out pearls of hoop wisdom to Timberwolves players.
The cartoonish character is called Archibald "Sweetwater" Jones. Marketing chief Johnson says he's a figure who can help introduce the public to a group of hungry young Timberwolves who are learning to run together.
"He is the Yoda to the group, to a very young team that's finding its way through the NBA, learning," says Johnson. "And he sort of mentors them and instructs them through the difficult times."
He is also a fictional persona invented by an ad agency, which is a far cry from using a real-life winner of the Most Valuable Player award to promote the team.
Johnson says the use of Sweetwater helps mark the transition from the single-minded intensity of the Garnett era to a new collection of players ready to have some fun, and provide some fun, as they learn the ropes of the NBA.
In reality, the job of helping them win some games while they gain experience is a task that falls to Timberwolves head coach Randy Wittman. Various injuries and trades have had Wittman rearranging his lineup, even in the final days before the start of the season.
Tryouts and practices started a month ago, but Wittman acknowledged after a practice this week that the team needs more work.
"It's still a work in progress, because we just traded two more guys and added two more guys who haven't been here but a couple days. So it's still not a cohesive group where we're all on the same page," says Wittman. "But it's a group that works hard. And that's what we at the outset of all this tried to formulate -- the togetherness of this team and everybody for each other."
Team President Chris Wright says watching the new crop of Wolves come together might be akin to parents watching the athletic progress of their own kids -- some growing pains in the freshman year, improvement sophomore year, and increasing success in later years.
A sampling of opinion in some of the lunch spots near Target Center raises doubts, though, about how much enthusiasm will surround the post-Garnett era's freshman team. Dan Larson thinks the Timberwolves will have to win over Minnesota fans.
"I think people will have a wait-and-see attitude. You put the right product on the floor, then we'll support it, versus go in anticipation of the right product," Larson says.
Roger Johnson says he's a former season ticket-holder who thinks the expense of a pro game limits the number of fans willing to endure a rebuilding project.
"With the price of tickets today if a family comes down -- you bring four, you go to the game, you have dinner, you park the vehicle -- you're looking at big bucks," says Johnson.
Timberwolves officials say tickets to the season opener against the Denver Nuggets are sold out. The Wolves will play in New York over the weekend and return home to host Orlando on Tuesday.
- Morning Edition, 11/02/2007, 7:50 a.m.