Just a little more than three years ago, the fortunes of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball franchise hit rock bottom—which, if you know anything about the team’s checkered 23-year history, is very low indeed. By any currency of success—victories, profits, hope for the future—the Wolves were flat broke.
A Glen Taylor Timeline
Taylor signs purchase agreement to buy Timberwolves franchise for $88.5 million.
The NBA Board of Governors approves sale to Taylor.
Taylor’s purchase becomes official after a delay required for the City of Minneapolis to close on its purchase of Target Center.
Taylor shocks fellow owners by signing Kevin Garnett to six-year, $126 million contract, seen as the catalyst for the 1999 collective bargaining agreement that caps salaries at a level that makes future contracts like Garnett’s impossible.
Taylor is caught trying to circumvent NBA salary cap rules. NBA Commissioner David Stern restricts Taylor’s activities for a year, fines the team $3.5 million, and takes away five first-round draft picks (two are later reinstated).
Taylor approves General Manager Kevin McHale’s decision to fire Coach Flip Saunders less than a year after the team advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first and only time in its existence.
Taylor is elected chairman of the NBA Board of Governors.
Taylor hires David Kahn to become the new president of basketball operations. A month later, Kahn fires McHale as coach, ending McHale’s 15-year relationship with the franchise.
Taylor is unanimously re-elected chair of the NBA Board of Governors in the midst of a lockout of NBA players.
Taylor plays a key role in establishing new revenue- sharing, luxury tax, and salary cap rules in a new collective bargaining pact.
The Minnesota Legislature authorizes a public-private pool of money that can be used to upgrade Target Center.
Taylor tells Twin Cities Business that he expects to announce a new minority partner who will become majority owner and keep the franchise in Minnesota.
After the 2008-09 season, erstwhile hometown hero Kevin McHale, the longtime general manager who also served two brief stints as coach, was mercifully let go amid a torrent of derision after years of questionable draft picks and player acquisitions, and failing for five straight seasons to get the Wolves into the playoffs. The new regime—player personnel boss David Kahn and Head Coach Kurt Rambis—then proceeded to tie an 18-year-old record for the fewest wins in franchise history, finishing 15-67 in the 2009-10 season. Construction of a gleaming new Twins ballpark was proceeding apace across the street from the Wolves’ aging and increasingly outmoded home at Target Center, and even the Wild still had the luxe Xcel Energy Center as cover for their own dysfunction.
This was also when the economy tanked, a “Great Recession” that compelled the Wolves to dramatically discount the price of season tickets. The previous year, season-ticket-holders could secure a seat in the team’s upper bowl for the price of a large candy bar—$3 per game. But now prices were being cut across the board, with seats that had cost $100 being offered for as little as $40. In March 2009, Wolves owner Glen Taylor also announced a guaranteed refund of any unused season tickets if the buyer lost his or her job during that calendar year.
Reminded of the Wolves’ gambit in a phone call this summer, NBA Commissioner David Stern called it a “shock treatment that was necessary to show that the team cared about the community.” But the biggest shock was likely the amount of red ink on the bottom line. A credible team source says the Wolves lost approximately $25 million in 2009, easily the worst financial year in franchise history.
This sordid trip down memory lane makes the flow of positive news and activity emanating from the Wolves organization throughout this past summer all the more remarkable. In late April, Taylor began soliciting offers from parties interested in succeeding him as majority owner of the franchise. As of early August, Taylor said he had received “seven serious inquiries.” While a majority of them were ultimately rejected because they wouldn’t guarantee that the Timberwolves would stay in Minnesota, Taylor told Twin Cities Business he was confident that he could publicly announce a succession plan involving a new partner sometime before the opening game of the 2012-13 season on November 2.
The new partner would commit to keeping the Timberwolves in the state and have sufficient financial means to be approved by the NBA as the team’s controlling owner. He would be someone Taylor enjoyed working with, committed to keeping the Wolves in Minnesota (despite leaked reports that he lives in California), and content to allow Taylor to retain majority control for a number of years while slowly but surely amassing a majority stake in the franchise. Much of this investor’s initial 25 percent share would come from buying out some of the dozen limited partners in the ownership group who have wished to end their involvement with the team after years of cash calls and losses. “After he acquired 50 percent, I’d be the [minority] partner for a while until he eventually bought me out. The whole transaction would take perhaps six years,” Taylor said in August. At that point, Taylor would be 77 years old.
Of course, back in 2009, Taylor was already 68 and well aware that he needed an exit strategy. “Unlike my other businesses, I knew when I bought the Timberwolves that it wasn’t going to stay in the family,” he says. Consequently, even as the franchise was hemorrhaging money, Taylor began to formulate how he could make the Wolves presentable for sale while cementing his legacy as the man who saved, then resuscitated the franchise.
“I remember thinking three things had to happen. First, we needed to be a competitive team that the fans would be excited about coming to see. No. 2, we had to get Target Center improved so that we are competitive with other arenas across the country. And No. 3, we had to have a new contract between the players and the owners that allows
Those three elements crystallized and coalesced more rapidly than Taylor or anyone else could have reasonably expected. What follows is a detailed look at how Taylor, once portrayed by the media and other insiders as increasingly ineffectual, brought much of it together.