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In a Flyover State: It’s FAAAANTASTIC (Again)

You think your life is rough? Try being a fan of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. That single affiliation has given me many, many years of misery. If you’re not a hoops fan, here’s your analogy: Imagine what NBC was like before the Bob Greenblatt regime came in. Once it was great, then things went in the tank hard. Every year, you brought in new leadership, new players, tried everything, but every night, you just kept getting spanked by the competition. Season after season ended in last-place finishes, and the fans bailed in droves.

But funny enough—much like the optimism at NBC—the last year has finally brought a sense of impending hoops-inspired hope to the greatest state in the nation. Both have brought in new leadership, gotten hold of some flashy new players, and while neither is near a turnaround, there are finally some positives to look forward to.

And coincidence or not, the re-emergence of my once-downtrodden Timberwolves has come just as I have apparently reignited my past love for NBA basketball. And judging by the television ratings—as you will see in our cover story—I am not alone.

I grew up a huge basketball fan—this goes back even before the Timberwolves came to Minnesota in 1989. My teams were the Phoenix Suns (where I spent some time as a kid) and Boston Celtics (who had Minnesota-born star Kevin McHale and my favorite player of all time, Mr. Larry Joe Bird). Then the Timberwolves came to town and I adopted them as they stunk through the early years and then became a title contender for a stretch.

But as the Wolves started to fall off, so too did my love for the NBA, for many reasons. As drafted players left college sooner—or skipped it altogether—the level of fundamental basketball in the league dropped off. The players just weren’t being coached long enough before they hit the pros. It became all about one-onone and showmanship, and it got bad.

And too many of the players seemed like jerks or thugs. There were players getting Tasered by cops, fights in the stands and guns in the locker room. The best players, like Kobe Bryant, seemed like total jerks; or else they were like Tim Duncan, an awesome and non-flashy player who sadly seems to have the personality of an empty pair of high-top Chucks. The utterly detestable LeBron James “Decision”—which was actually good for the league because it created a villain and a new super-team—seemed a final straw. I wanted no part of the NBA.

But somehow, even after a work stoppage, the NBA is now more fun to watch than it has been in years. I bought the NBA out-of-market package this year and have loved watching my resurgent Timberwolves. (Remember the name Ricky Rubio, by the way: a Spanish import who will be among the game’s elite—and most marketable—players within a couple years.) And obviously, with that package, I have gotten my personal dose of Linsanity, which has been incredible. This is not a Tim Tebow thing; that was about debates over religion as much as football. No matter where his parents are from, Jeremy Lin can play basketball and he is a fantastic story, period.

And he seems like a great guy. And I think that is actually as much a factor in the NBA’s great ratings momentum as anything. In fact, most of the rising or top players right now seem like good guys. The new breed of superstars like Blake Griffin in Los Angeles and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City aren’t jerks.

I actually had a fun exchange with Durant recently when his Thunder visited the Golden State Warriors. I was sitting in a fl oor seat near midcourt (yeah, I know, #humblebrag) and just a few feet in front of me, Durant threw a pass as a Warriors player clipped his hand. The ref blew a foul and the fans exploded in protest. Durant suddenly turned around and, as if seeking an ally, said to me, “You heard that slap, right?” Now, I didn’t have a horse in this race, so I matter-of-factly answered in a calm voice, “It’s kind of a weak call, Kevin.” He shot back, “But you heard it, right?” And I just said, “This is the NBA, Kevin.” Durant actually started laughing and said, “I like you, man.”

The funny thing is, I liked him too. And more so, the league he plays in. And that’s the first time I have been able to say that in many, many years.

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