ALL TIMELINES FOR THE MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES RELATE BACK TO SOMEONE NAMED KEVIN
I have stories that I tell more than other stories. There is that time that I went swimming in a lake with my parents. I was three years old. I don't remember a lot about being three, but I do remember that day and seeing an octopus peek its head out of the water and look at us. I swam to the shore immediately. "There's an octopus in the water," I told my parents. If I knew anything at three years old it was how to identify animals. "Octopi can't swim in fresh water lakes," my parents told me and laughed. They thought I was making a funny joke. People often think I am joking when I'm not. There is something about the cadence of my Minnesotan accent. Something about the way I say boat or bag or Minnesota.
Sometimes there are certain bodies where we do not expect these bodies. I was three in 1991, the year I saw the octopus in the lake. I did not expect to see the octopus in the lake, but there it was. I was three in 1991 and my dad had season tickets to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Another story I like to tell is the story of the Minnesota Timberwolves as werewolves. People laugh the same way that my parents laughed at the story of the octopus in a fresh water lake. They think I have a bad misunderstanding of what bodies can do. They laugh at the word werewolves. They think that I am making a joke. Jokes are stories that make people uncomfortable, so maybe I am joking. But I did see an octopus in the lake that day. Who is to tell a body what it can do and what it can't?
One time my father, my brother, and I tried to climb a mountain. Sometimes I talk about metaphorical mountains, but this was a literal mountain. None of us had ever climbed up a mountain before. The path was only accessible at certain times of the year. None of us were sure if this was that time. We only had four bottles of water. We passed other hikers who had full backpacking gear and walking sticks. We were walking only with our feet. In my family, we have chronic foot problems. Plagued with falling arches and sprained ankles and fractured bones.
We did not make it to the top of the mountain. This is not a metaphor either. We passed the tree line. There was snow on the ground. I said, "What a beautiful view, we should turn around now before we run out of water." My brother Kevin said, "We should keep going: I will drink the snow."
My brother was born in 1994, the year that the Target Center hosted the NBA All-Star game and the year that Isaiah Rider won the Slam Dunk contest. My brother Kevin doesn't remember this. When I ask him about the early years of the Timberwolves he says, "Was that before Kevin Garnett?" All timelines for the Minnesota Timberwolves relate back to someone named Kevin.
The entire way back down the mountain my brother Kevin explained to my father and me all the ways in which our bodies had failed us. We were not driven enough, he said. We had not spent enough time conditioning our bodies to climb a mountain. We were from Minnesota. What did we know about climbing mountains?
I am not good at lifting weights or opening doors or running quickly. We all have our flaws. The Minnesota Timberwolves are historically bad at playing basketball. We are each trying to fix these things in our own ways.
I started competing in triathlons when I was 23. When I first told my father that I wanted to do a triathlon he laughed at me. My body is not the right type of body for an athlete. My other hobbies include watching television, eating pizza, and knitting. My body on a triathlon course is like an octopus in a fresh water lake. I wanted to do a triathlon because I thought it would transform my body. I wanted to be something that I wasn't. I wanted to do things I thought my body couldn't do. A friend once told me that people in Minnesota are the hardest workers because people in Minnesota have to live through the winter each year. To live in Minnesota is to know that life is hard.
The Minnesota Timberwolves started playing basketball in 1989, 29 years after the departure of the Minnesota Lakers. The movie Teen Wolf was released in 1985. The early Timberwolves were nothing like a wolf playing basketball. Each year I try to make myself more like a triathlete. Each year the Minnesota Timberwolves try to make themselves more like basketball players.
My first triathlon was a sprint distance on Lake Minnetonka. People who are not from Minnesota know the name Minnetonka. Minnetonka Moccasins and Minnetonka of Purple Rain.Rumor has it the waters are purifying. I finished, but not quickly. I developed a foot injury along the way. A month later I did the Heart of the Lakes triathlon. My father referred to the race as "homegrown" the distance dictated by the landscape. Many people believe that it never gets warm in Minnesota, that despite its proximity to Milwaukee or Chicago it stays buried under the ice for the entirety of the year. On the day of the triathlon it was 93 degrees outside. Wetsuits were banned from the competition. Instead of just drinking at the water stations I dumped cups over my head. I lost sight of everyone on the course with the exception of one lone man alternating between running and walking in front of me. I was running, but barely. A flock of geese nearly attacked at one point. A man in a golf cart drove by and asked if I wanted some water. "No," I said. He circled back again and again until I took the bottle. "I was getting worried," my father said when I finally finished. "It was a tough race," I said.
I try to combat the faults of my body through constant exercise and by eating spinach. I watched a lot of Popeye the Sailor Man as a small child and it taught me the ways a body can transform through eating greens. I want my muscles to swell the way that Popeye's did after he downed all those cans. I look for signs that the spinach has fused with my body: a greenish tint to my skin, a bulge in my arms, but I remain the weak person I have always been. I am trying to turn my body into a vegetable, something fueled by the sun. Becoming spinach seems equally as attainable as becoming an athlete. I feel uncomfortable with the term. I feel the need to hedge my activities. Yes, I do this, but I do it slowly. Yes, I do this, but it is nothing like the way that you picture it being.
The answer for the Minnesota Timberwolves lay not in spinach, but in apples. The Honeycrisp apple was designed in the 1960's at the Horticultural Research Center at the University of Minnesota. One of the goals of the research center was to breed apples that could withstand the harsh climate of Minnesota winters. The Honeycrisp apple is a hybrid of two different types of apples. Together, they are more resilient than the previous types of apples. Together the Honeycrisp apple can survive the tough Minnesota winter.
Rumor has it that it started with a rogue scientist, someone who wasn't satisfied with the mere merging of two fruits. It is one thing to put two apples together and make another type of apple. It is quite another to take a human body and a wolf body and make those the same body. It is uncertain whether the movie Teen Wolf came first or whether it was a wolf that was suspiciously like a teenager and played basketball that inspired the movie. Something about a chicken and an egg, except that it was scientists who took the egg and turned it into a chicken.
After a long workout I drink a protein shake. It's supposed to help with recovery. My protein powder is made from grass-fed cows. It doesn't say which part of the cow and I imagine them, their strange cow bodies, put into a blender whole. We are constantly consuming other things in order to make these things a part of ourselves. This idea is not so strange. I am five bananas a week. I am 14 eggs. I am seven turkey sandwiches. I drink the powder, but I do not become a cow. I am still human. I wait for my muscles to grow, but they are static. I flex and push upon the squish in my arms. I swim laps in the pool like it does something.
The Honeycrisp apple was designed in the 1960's, but it was not released until 1991. The process of hybridization is a long one. The apples are given numbers instead of names. Before the Honeycrisp was a Honeycrisp it was the MN 1711. Before the Honeycrisp reached its status as a desired fruit, the University of Minnesota declared it a failure and slated it to be discarded. Not all apples can be good apples. Not all humans can be wolves who play basketball.
MN 32 was named Christian Laettner. Christian Laettner was named MN 32. They had a whole team of subjects on the field that year, but Laettner was the most promising. They began testing him in the field in 1992. Laettner is most famous for his last second, back-to-the-basket jump shot during the 1992 NCAA tournament during the East Regional Finals between Duke and Kentucky. Because of Laettner's shot, Duke beat Kentucky with a score of 104-103 and went on to beat Michigan to become the champions of the tournament. It was after this that he was drafted to the Wolves. To become a professional basketball player is to put certain demands on the body. You cannot say no when a professional basketball franchise asks if you want to be a wolf and slaps a number on your back. You cannot say no when a scientist sticks a needle in your arm and says, "This will help."
My brother Kevin was a promising athlete. He was on the swim team and the cross country team. He ran his first half marathon at the age of 12 and went straight from the race to a swim meet. He started competing in triathlons at the age of 14. The announcer on the course said, "Look at this 14 year old up in the front with the professionals." One time while watching a playoff game in the 2013 NBA finals my brother said, "Lebron just doesn't have what it takes to be a winner. He doesn't have enough drive. If I were Lebron, I would work so much harder than he does." My brother stopped competing in triathlons when he was 18 years old. He's had a broken arm, a broken wrist and fractured his collarbone while biking. His body remains thin. He still looks like an athlete, but he wasn't even able to run in college. "I didn't drink enough milk as a child," he says when I asked him about his bones.
"A disappointment," my father says when I mention Laettner's name. My father can barely remember who Laettner was. "Was that before Garnett?" he asks. All timelines for the Minnesota Timberwolves relate back to someone named Kevin. Despite all his promise, MN 32 was declared a failure. They made him more than human. They made him a wolf and his body still failed him when he reached the summit. This is a metaphorical summit. The Minnesota Timberwolves have rarely reached the playoffs. Laettner was traded to the Atlanta Hawks after that. Don't even ask if he was turned into a literal hawk. Everyone knows humans can't fly.
MN 21 and MN 42 were more successful subjects. 21 and 42 were variations of the same wolf. They both originated as Kevin, but one was Kevin Garnett and the other Kevin Love. These subjects were named Kevin after the longtime General Manager Kevin McHale. It might seem like a coincidence, it might seem like they were named Kevin because that is what their parents named them and that is what the scientists want you to think. People are uncomfortable with the idea of lab experiments. People don't like it when different genes are combined. If word got out there would be called for GMO labels on basketball players. "GMOs are bad for your basketball team," people would say. "Don't you want players who are organic?"
Throughout both Garnett and Love's careers on the Timberwolves, announcers and critics lamented that they were not playing for better teams. The Timberwolves were not worthy of their talent. What these commentators failed to realize was that the Timberwolves made them what they were. That once they joined the team they became the hybrid of a good apple and a better apple to become the best apple. It was not their fault they were stuck on a team with some bad apples. Not all hybridizations are successful hybridizations. Perfection comes slowly and at a cost.
The question remains, how does an octopus hide in a freshwater lake and how do wolves hide on a basketball court? How can there be all of these Wolves, just walking around in the NBA, showering with human NBA players, letting their giant Wolf bodies crash into those players that are still human. How can they hide in plain sight like that? Like a single Honeycrisp hiding in a bag of Red Delicious.
When I first started running I was worried people would see me. "You're not a runner," they would say in my imagined fantasy. "Take off those shoes and that ankle brace. Stop posturing," they would continue. No one has ever said this to me. I watch my figure in the reflection of buildings. I flex what muscles I have in the mirror. In the water I pretend I am a fish or an Olympic swimmer, species that are not as far apart as they seem. The bodies of Olympic swimmers are disproportionate. Their arms are too long, their feet too wide. My body is disproportionate too, but it all the wrong ways. My hips are too big and my feet too narrow. I am self-conscious about the size of my thighs and the inability to flex my back as I do the butterfly. I am not good at imitating things outside of myself.
Isaiah Rider was drafted by the Wolves in 1993, straight out of college. Rider was supposed to be fresh blood for the Wolves. He was featured on two versions of NBA Jam with Christian Laettner and he won the Slam Dunk Contest in 1994 with a dunk called "The East Bay Funk Dunk." He later recorded a track on the rap album B-Ball's Best Kept Secret called "Funk in the Trunk." Rapping has never been basketballs best kept secret. Every basketball player knows this, particularly on nights when the full moon hits, when all of the Wolves players claim to be out on injury. The problem with injecting fresh blood into the Wolves is that the Wolves inject their full moon fever right back into them.
Rider did not take well to being a Wolf. This happens sometimes. Problems with the transfusion. A rejected experiment. He was with the team for three seasons before joining Portland Trail Blazers. He might have been okay. He might have moved on, except some things are impossible to move on from. His basketball career ended in 2001. In 2007 he was sentenced to seven months in jail for cocaine possession. This might be unrelated. There are people who have been arrested for cocaine possession that have never been Wolves at all. There are a lot of coincidences in the NBA. There are also no coincidences in the NBA.
During Minnesota Timberwolves games, it is custom to howl during the other team's free throws. When I attend Wolves games I do this wholly and with all my heart for I am an enthusiastic sports fan. This is supposed to be a distraction technique and it is a distraction, but what it's distracting from is not the player who is shooting the ball. What it's distracting from is the way that Minnesota players, whenever their home court is threatened, howl at the moon to stake claims on their territory and sprinkle a little urine around the boundaries of the court.
I have never done an Iron Man triathlon. After persistent injuries my doctor advised me to only do sprint distance competitions because my body is not resilient. In defiance, I continue to do Olympic distance races. In 1870 a scientist mistakenly claimed that spinach had an iron value ten times higher than it actually does. This mistake was not rectified until the 1930s, leading to decades of false belief in iron properties of spinach. Thus despite my greens intake, I am not yet an Ironman. I remain wholly myself. I have mantras that I repeat when I run. I tell myself I am stronger for constantly battling insecurities about my body. I tell myself it's harder for an octopus to swim where it does not belong.
It took 30 years for the Honeycrisp apple to be put on the market. The Wolves have only been in existence for 25. "We need to give up on the Timberwolves," my brother Kevin tells my father. "The Twins are the Minnesota team of the future." Yet despite all the failures we persist. I continue to run six days a week. I bike and I swim through exhaustion. People marvel. "You're the hardest working person I know," they say, but they never tell me I'm the best. My brother Kevin reads articles about the Timberwolves on the daily. He looks at numbers and stats. He tastes the apples on the tree and evaluates them for their goodness. He will know when the Wolves have enough drive. When they can climb up the metaphorical mountain. "Kevin will never forget about that time we didn't climb up that mountain," my father says and laughs as we look over the fresh water lake filled with octopi. It's a joke, but it's not a joke. You never forget when you see an octopus in the lake. You never forget when you see a Wolf on the basketball court.
This essay is part of a collaborative book project with Brian Oliu titled "Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping" about the video game NBA Jam. Essays by Brian Oliu fill the space of "Player One" and essays by collaborators are "Player Two."