Feeling the love in Minnesota

Updated: March 7, 2004, 7:25 PM ET
By David Aldridge | Special to ESPN.com

How do I love the Timberwolves?

Let me count the ways.

  • Way One: Sam Cassell is pestering Kevin Garnett to sign a jersey.

    "Who is this for?" Garnett demands.

    "It's for my boy," Cassell says.

    "Who's your boy?"

    "Man, don't worry about it. Just sign it."

    "Don't be showing your ass in front of all these people," Garnett warns.

    And then, one of the Wolves' equipment managers joins the fray.

    "I agree with Kevin," he tells Cassell.

    "Why you sucking up to Kevin?" Cassell asks.

    " 'Cause Sam, my man, you bring me hot dogs," the equipment manager says. "But Kevin, he brings me steak."

    Everyone laughs. And Garnett signs.

    I cannot imagine Kobe and Shaq having this conversation.

  • Way Two: Cassell is running back on defense, trying to pick up T.J. Ford. He is, of course, talking. Actually, he's screaming, because the Bucks have just scored on three straight possessions.

    "We need to stop this (expletive)," he says. "Let's tighten up, right now, G-dammit!"

    It is the middle of the first quarter.

  • Way Three: The refs are wearing Spree's shoes! Before all the business with Michael Henderson started, the officials signed a deal to sport Latrell Sprewell's Dada shoes, with the spinning rims in the heel. "We're doing whatever we can to promote 'em," Spree says. Now, the Wolves add Ref Karma to the list of pluses on their side of the ledger.

    For the past seven years, Garnett has been the sole amount of spice in the Twin Cities. Minnesota has always been a good team -- Flip Saunders is too good a coach for the team to play otherwise -- but the Wolves, as we all know, have been oh-fer the playoffs. So Kevin McHale rolled the dice and brought in Cassell and Sprewell in the offseason, and the result has been, well, an unshakable feeling that these guys should have hooked up years ago.

    "Everybody's talking about, is this the year the T-Wolves get out of the first round?" Cassell said. "Me personally, and Spree, I want more than the first round. What, we get to the second round and then get eliminated? I'd still be a miserable cat. I go and see my friends play in the playoffs. I don't want to do that. I want all my friends to come see me. The Nick Van Exels and the Steve Francises, I want them to come see me play. I don't want to see them play. Damn that. I want to buy them tickets."

    The Wolves have never played better defense than they are playing this season. They have never been deeper than they are this season. They have never been tougher on the road than they are this season. They have never had a better chance to get to the Finals.

    With Sprewell and Cassell handed starting spots, playing time should have been an issue. Except that Wally Szczerbiak had plantar fasciitis all season, Troy Hudson sprained his ankle early on and missed 25 games and Michael Olowokandi had knee surgery late and is just getting back on the floor. By the time they all returned, the Big Three were rolling, and no one could complain about playing time.

    "It's not about one person here," Garnett said. "It's about this team. If one guy makes a mistake, if another guy makes the same mistake, it's still a mistake. Our strengths are that we can adapt to each other, and Wally and Kandi are no exceptions to that. We all adapt. We're all trying to adapt a little bit."

    Said Cassell: "Everyone on this team understands their roles, and everybody is accountable for their roles. If Mark Madsen's not getting major minutes, he's getting 12 minutes a night, in those 12 minutes he's got to do a damn good job in those 12 minutes. Because that 12 minutes could easily be reduced to five minutes. Reduced to no minutes."

    Garnett, of course, seemingly can play 48. Well on his way to an MVP award this season, Garnett has added regular burn at center to his seemingly endless list of duties. Now, the Wolves like Garnett in the hole and can envision him playing at the top of a zone against teams like Sacramento that can overload the floor with shooters.

    "When I got traded to Minnesota, I was like, OK, they gave me an opportunity to play with Kevin Garnett," Cassell recalled. "Thank you, Ernie Grunfeld [then the Bucks' general manager]. And Ernie's my man. He'll tell you himself. I told him thank you."

    But ... there's April. Which has been the cruelest month in the MSP.

    "They always say pressure bursts pipes," Cassell said. "If you don't like pressure, this isn't the situation for you to be in."

    Mailman's happiest route

    If Gary Payton is having second thoughts about joining the Lakers, Karl Malone isn't.

    "People think it's been total chaos, and that's from the outside looking in," Malone said. "You only read what you hear. But these guys have been professionals. And I don't use the word 'professional' lightly. There's people that's not professional. I can't say there are a lot of things that took me aback. I knew what I was getting into."

    ALDRIDGE'S NBA RANKINGS
    THE TOP 10
    1. Sacramento Kings
    2. Minnesota Timberwolves
    3. Indiana Pacers
    4. San Antonio Spurs
    5. Los Angeles Lakers
    6. Dallas Mavericks
    7. New Jersey Nets
    8. Detroit Pistons
    9. Memphis Grizzlies
    10. Houston Rockets

    THE BOTTOM FIVE
    25. Golden State Warriors
    26. Atlanta Hawks
    27. Phoenix Suns
    28. Chicago Bulls
    29. Orlando Magic

    THE MIDDLE FOURTEEN
    11. Milwaukee Bucks
    12. New Orleans Hornets
    13. Denver Nuggets
    14. Toronto Raptors
    15. Philadelphia 76ers
    16. New York Knicks
    17. Utah Jazz
    18. Portland Trail Blazers
    19. Miami Heat
    20. Cleveland Cavaliers
    21. Seattle SuperSonics
    22. Washington Wizards
    23. Boston Celtics
    24. Los Angeles Clippers

    The 40-year-old has loved every second of his Southern California tour so far, saying he has heard more from owner Jerry Buss in six months than he ever heard from Utah management.

    "From top to bottom, I've never been in a better situation, where guys genuinely appreciate you," he said. "I've never had the feeling I've had from a group of people than right here. The whole situation, top to bottom, I'm talking organization, all the way down. I've never felt more good about a situation. Other than my injury, I would do the same thing over a thousand times. Knowing what I know now, knowing everything that went on, except [for] my injury, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I think that says a lot."

    Out since December with a knee injury, Malone desperately wants to play this Monday in Utah against his old Jazz team. He was out of commission when the Lakers made their first visit to Salt Lake City in January. It was on that night that the Jazz unveiled during a timeout a boorish skit in which the team's mascot, Bear, took a "phone call" from a seemingly despondent Malone. At the end of the skit, "Malone" says that things could be worse -- he could be Kobe Bryant.

    Six weeks later, Malone says he hasn't heard from anyone in the Utah organization.

    "They put all the blame on the Bear, who actually is a friend of mine," Malone said. "I know he had to get approved from somebody higher up than him, I know. We got letters. I had a couple of people go through a friend of mine in the Jazz organization to try to let him smooth it over and say that it wasn't meant like it was."

    Malone says the letters of apology were sent not to him but to Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. And he says he still hasn't heard from Jazz owner Larry Miller, who has his number -- the two are still in business together in Salt Lake City, as tri-owners (along with John Stockton) of a car dealership.

    Malone says he doesn't harbor grudges, but I know better. When he gets inducted to the Hall of Fame, I suspect he'll remember.

    Maloof's winning hand

    It was a good week for Kings co-owner Joe Maloof.

    Yes, Chris Webber came back, but first, Maloof and his brother Gavin took part in a 48-man, invitation-only blackjack tournament in San Diego -- with the winner pocketing a cool million. Each participant had to ante $10,000 to play and played 30 hands per round. After three rounds, Joe was one of six finalists.

    "I lost 10 of 13 hands," he recalled.

    But he rallied to make the Finals. "Me and this guy that looked like Kenny Rogers," Maloof said.

    They played 29 more hands, and Maloof fell behind $16,000 to Kenny Rogers -- at which point KR asked Maloof if he wanted to split the million bucks instead of playing the last hand. "But you tell your players, take the last shot," Maloof said. "So you've got to play the last hand."

    We don't need to tell you what happened, do we?

    Ten of clubs. Ace of hearts.

    A million bucks.

    He gave his brothers a cut of the loot, and tipped the dealer 25 large.

    "I couldn't face myself taking that half million and not going all the way," he said.

    Around the League

  • The Wizards have climbed back to the periphery of the playoff race in the East after Kwame Brown called out Gilbert Arenas for playing selfishly. Since then, Arenas has hoisted up as many rocks as ever, but he's also dishing out assists.

    Gilbert Arenas
    Arenas

    "I'm not the same player if I'm not attacking," Arenas said. "When I'm in attack mode, I'm an all-around player. It's hard when you're another player looking in. The two games I tried just passing the ball, I had no assists. When I'm more aggressive, I've got to get 20 shots, but I'm having my seven, eight assists, eight rebounds. When I'm active, I'm doing more."

    Arenas missed more than a month after pulling a stomach muscle in December, which just about killed his preseason prediction that the Wizards would make the playoffs. "I didn't recover for a while when I was coming back," he said. "That's why I was coming back so fast, because I wanted to get us to the playoffs. I think we can still do it."

  • The Bucks are very happy with their end of the Keith Van Horn-Tim Thomas deal.

    Keith Van Horn
    Van Horn

    Terry Porter is enamored with KVH's perimeter skills, and he loves his work on the boards. Plus, the Bucks feel that Van Horn may be able to relax in the less-stressed environment of the Midwest.

    "I told Keith, 'We have one reporter,' " a Bucks bigwig says.

    David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.