Minnesota Timberwolves: History of non-Wolves professional men’s teams in Minnesota

Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has been the longest-tenured owner of a pro basketball team in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has been the longest-tenured owner of a pro basketball team in the Twin Cities. /

The Minnesota Timberwolves will miss the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 years, and even though they just went on a four-game winning streak and have won six of their last nine games, it doesn’t mean much for this season.

Let’s look back on the various iterations of ABA basketball in Minnesota and their successful runs that ended all too quickly.

To help set the stage: Minnesota basketball fans love to claim the Lakers’ first five championships, and rightfully so. But that team history resides in Los Angeles now, and so do those banners, so they are excluded from this article.

Before the Minnesota Timberwolves, there were the Minnesota Muskies

Even though Minnesota was the face of basketball during the ’50s, once the Lakers left in 1960, the state was without a team for seven years — until the Minnesota Muskies came along in 1967.

The Muskies were an American Basketball Association (ABA) franchise and were one of the 11 teams formed in the inaugural season.

Minnesota Legend George Mikan, was the commissioner of the league and his office resided in Minneapolis, so of course, Minnesota needed a team. Jim Pollard, another Minneapolis Laker legend, was hired to coach the Muskies, and the Metropolitan Sports Center was their home arena.

The Muskies struck gold in their initial off-season convincing center Mel Daniels, who was a first-round selection in the NBA, to sign with the ABA. Along with Daniels, the Muskies found two more pillars in guard Donnie Freeman and Les “Big Game” Hunter. All three were selected for the first ABA All-Star Game.

The Muskies started slowly in their inaugural season and found themselves sitting with a 1-4 record. After a week of play, however, the young team found their chemistry and won 16 of their next 19 games.

Finishing the season with a 50-28 record, Pollard’s best season of coaching by far, the Muskies were the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Division and held the second-best record overall. Mel Daniels was named the first-ever ABA Rookie of the Year.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Muskies faced the Kentucky Colonels, a team they traded wins with the entire season, ultimately going 5-5 vs them.

The first round proved to be no different with both teams trading victories and neither team winning two games in a row. Luckily for the Muskies, they took game one of the five-game series and advanced 3-2 onto the next round to face the Pittsburgh Pipers.

Although the Muskies beat the Pipers four times that season, the Pipers had their number securing seven victories, and that dominance continued in the playoffs.

With every defeat being decided by single digits, the Muskies were only able to prevail in game two 137-123 and lost the series, 4-1. Losing Game 1 and Game 3 by eight points and Games 4 and 5 by nine.

The Pipers went on to defeat the New Orleans Buccaneers in Game 7 in an incredibly tight series where every single contest was won by single digits.

Even though the Muskies almost made the championship games, they struggled to get fans interested, reportedly only having 100 season ticket holders and an inflated 2,800 fan average in the Metropolitan Sports Center, which sat 15,000. It was estimated that the Muskies lost $400,000 in their first season.

Muskies management decided to move the team for its second season to Miami to become the Miami Floridians, and the champion Pittsburgh Pipers were forced to come to Minneapolis to take the Muskies’ place as Minneapolis attorney Bill Erickson bought a majority share of the team.

This marked the beginning of the Minnesota Pipers.

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The Minnesota Muskies become the Minnesota Pipers

Led by league MVP Connie Hawkins, the Minnesota Pipers looked to run it back, and, in turn, attract more fans than the inaugural season of the Muskies.

The Pipers started hot, winning seven of their first nine games under coach Jim Harding.

But four of the team’s starters suffered serious injuries at least in part due to long, difficult practices: Hawkins, Charlie Williams, Chico Vaughn, and Art Heyman suffered serious injuries due to long and frequent practices run by Harding. (The Tom Thibodeau before Tom Thibodeau?)

Harding was selected as the All-Star coach, but according to Basketball Weekly, he physically attacked Pipers’ chairman Gabe Rubin and was immediately released.

This began the downfall.

The Pipers started 18-8 under Jim Harding but were unable to find a new coach right away and General Manager Vern Mikkelsen filled in until they found Verl Young to coach their team. Young did not nearly have the same amount of success, and they finished the season 10-23, including an eight-game losing streak.

The Pipers season ended with a 36-42 record, but they started just well enough to just sneak into the playoffs.

In the first round, ironically enough they faced the Miami Floridians, formerly known as the Minnesota Muskies. The Pipers fell in Game One but bounced back in both Game Two and Three, winning by scores of 106-99 and 109-93, respectively.

The Floridians sneaked away with a win in Game Four and dismantled the Pipers in Game Five, 122-107.

With the series on the line, Connie Hawkins dropped 33 points in Game Six, and five other Pipers scored in double figures to secure the 105-100 victory. But in the end, it was the Floridians who prevailed 137-128 in game seven.

Yet again failing to get fans interested, even after lowing ticket prices to $2, the Pipers lost an estimated $400,000.

The Pipers moved back to Pittsburgh after the season.

The brief history of the Minnesota Ripknees

Another ABA team did not come to Minnesota until 2006, the inaugural season of the Minnesota Ripknees. Yes, the Ripknees.

The Ripknees, owned by father-son duo John and William Jurewicz, played their games at the Gangelhoff Center in St. Paul, home to the Division-II Concordia Golden Bears.

They had a successful first season, going 24-8 and earning first place in their division, but financial disputes prevented them from ever playing in the playoffs.

In their second and last season, the Ripknees joined the Premier Basketball League, but the team was immediately sold and the relationship with the PBL was terminated. The team folded in 2008.

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Even though the Timberwolves haven’t exactly had a lot of success, at least they are still in Minnaepolis. It seems like teams that do end up succeeding either leave or end up folding, so here’s hoping that isn’t in the cards for the current iteration of men’s professional basketball in the Twin Cities.