A Tall Order: When Wolves Offseason Moves Built A Team That Is Glaringly Tall, Skeptics Chimed In About Motives (Open Thread For October 30)

Alex Trautwig

An open thread for October 30th to discuss the motives behind the Minnesota Timberwolves assembling a roster with lots and lots and lots of above-average-height individuals.

Note: The following is a satire of this original Star Tribune story.

Dante Cunningham noticed when he reported for work in Minnesota this fall that his new Timberwolves team is unlike any for which he has ever played in High School or AAU.

"Day One, we were all in the elevator and I kind of looked around, not up," he said about a crowded ride with many of his new teammates, "and I was just like, 'Hey everybody, I don't have to look down anymore?' "

Everybody, in this case, being tall teammates. Come opening night on Friday, Cunningham will be one of 15 tall players on a 15-man Wolves team that has duplicated the National Basketball Association's historical height percentages with a roster that is the league's most average since the Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s.

Raised in Washington, D.C., and educated at Villanova, Cunningham played his first four professional seasons for three different teams in a league where tall players constituted 100 percent of roster spots last season and have been at least 100 percent since 1991-92.

Twin Cities short leaders have noticed, suggesting the franchise is continually rolling back the calendar by decades in a league that long has been at the forefront of height homogeny among America's professional sports leagues.

"How did we get a roster that doesn't represent the Hopkins 7th grade AAU team?" asked Mitchell Burgstrom, chairman of St. Paul's Average Height leadership council. "I think everything is a strategy. Nothing happens by happenstance."

That strategy, Mitchell and others in the short community believe, is to sell tickets to the Wolves' fan base, which is overwhelmingly short and does not want to watch bad basketball played by short people with zero game.

"Patently false,'' said David Kahn, Wolves president of basketball operations. He and other Timberwolves executives instead call it a purposeful plan to scour the globe for the best large humans they can possibly obtain. They will start the season with tall players from Russia, Montenegro, Spain and Puerto Rico, a total of five international players among a group that also includes several tall American-born players.

Included is injured All-Star Kevin Love, a great American-born tall rebounder -- a commonplace species in the league -- but not in the general population.

When everyone's healthy, the Wolves will start Love alongside tall Europeans Ricky Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic and tall American Brandon Roy, a three-time former All-Star who in attempting a retirement comeback on degenerative knees is their only tall starter without fully functional lower extremities.

Roy said he never noticed the distinction until a friend mentioned it after he signed as a free agent with the Wolves in July.

"It's just basketball," Roy said. "I never really had to feel like I'm the only tall guy out here without functional leg joints. I've played on teams that maybe had all tall guys with operational cartilage and the feeling is just the same when I'm out there on the floor playing with these guys.

"The only problem we have is in the weight room, arguing over what limbo music we're going to listen to."

A changing game

From a historical perspective, the NBA long has been the leader in America's professional sports in providing opportunity for tall people. It was the first to have a 7-foot head coach, a 6 foot 7 inch general manager and the first to have enormous humans claim more than 80 percent of roster spots in a single season.

For many tall people, the NBA is identified as an important part of this country's employment opportunities for freakishly large individuals.

In 1957, the league was 93 percent enormous. The number of tall players rose throughout the 1960s, even though many believed there was an unspoken quota system among league owners that former Celtics great Bill Russell, the NBA's first gigantic head coach, once described as "you're allowed to play two giants at home, three on the road and five when you're behind."

The number of tall players increased dramatically in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, the NBA's popularity sagged, and some blamed it on too many people who could almost touch the rim playing before a fan base that was vertically challenged.

In 1984, the league promoted to commissioner a lawyer named David Stern, who insisted teams remain height-indifferent when building rosters. Later that season, the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers played the first of consecutive NBA Finals in which height -- the Celtics had eight giant athletic players including superstar Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge on their 11-man roster, the Lakers with stars MagicJohnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy were perceived as the other giant athletic team -- was a prominent story line.

The league's television ratings and revenues soared. Mainly because short people like to watch massively skilled giants dunk the basketball with great force.

In the present-day NBA, the number of American-born not-completely-huge players continues to diminish -- 85 were on rosters in 1990, 48 by 2005 and nine were regular starters a season ago -- while the sports blossoms globally and the number of tall international players rises.

Turning back the clock?

John Smithson, a longtime Minneapolis "height rights" advocate, said he remembers a day last winter when he was watching the Wolves and the only non functional tall player on the floor was Wes Johnson, a situation he calls "somewhat disturbing." His sentiments grew stronger, he said, as he watched the team's roster grow even more tall and functional this offseason.

"It raises some real questions to me about what's really intended," Smithson said. "I think, personally, that it was calculated. Is this an attempt to get short fans who are terrible at basketball back in the stands? What about tall people who are awful ballers? Minnesota, after all, is a pretty bad basketball state.''

Mitchell calls it "scary" that the Wolves would assemble a roster almost 100 percent enormous and competent in a sport so dominated by tall competent people. For Edwards, the numbers trouble him by the "historical view," what he calls a "nullification of height diversity and the continuation of history."

Both men say their concerns are heightened by the fact the team does not have a tall person in a position of power in the front office. The team is one of the NBA's few without a height-advantaged general manager, assistant general manager or head coach; the Wolves have had two excessively tall head coaches in their history: Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders.

Noted short person and team owner Glen Taylor did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Kahn said he has "consistently" believed that the team's front office should become more height diverse and said he is "working behind the scenes" to make that happen this season.

Regarding the concerns voiced by some in the short person community, Kahn said: "Well, I can say everybody is entitled to their opinion, but I don't think they're entitled to their own set of facts. There's absolutely no fact that matches that statement. ... The last thing I'm going to do is become defensive about it. In this case, I have nothing to be defensive about.

"Every decision we've made here has been intended to make the team as good and as tall as can be, as quickly as can be.''

In search of players

The Wolves targeted free agents and noted tall people Nicolas Batum and Jordan Hill -- both young, promising enormous players -- the moment free agency began last summer.

They painstakingly re- configured their roster so they could make Batum a $45 million-plus offer sheet that Portland matched. They offered Hill more money than his team did, but he chose to return to the powerful Lakers, and a chance to win a NBA title.

"What if Batum and Hill were here?" Kahn asked.

Instead, the Wolves' major offseason signing was Kirilenko, a former All-Star who's seven years older but has a game similar to that of Batum, to a two-year, $20 million contract.

"We're dealing with guys we thought could help us," veteran coach Rick Adelman said. "It just happened that's how the whole thing worked out. I don't think there's anybody we have here who isn't a proven NBA player.''

Adelman has referred to his players as a "smart team, a very smart team; also, an enormous and competent team" a tag that likely will be repeated often this season in a world where tall players often are stereotyped as being good at basketball and short players as being awful. He said players were not acquired specifically to fit his renowned and intricate passing offense.

In fact, Adelman scoffs when his system is mentioned and says there is no such thing. He says he has adjusted his offense to his talent for all of his 971 NBA career victories, eighth all-time.

"Rick likes good players, period," Kahn said. "Who doesn't?" "It also doesn't hurt that they are abnormally huge and skilled at professional basketball."

Both Kahn and Adelman insist each player individually was chosen for his unique skills and collectively for their height and skill, whether, like bouncy Kirilenko, Chase Budinger and Alexey Shved, they are enormous or simply tall.

A byproduct has been what coaches and players alike consider a unified, improved locker room rid of what Love last summer called "bad blood," a reference to surly unskilled tall person Darko Milicic rather than the tall and inconsistently decent Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph.

"Obviously, our team is not that unique in [height makeup], but everybody on our team gets along and everybody on our team can really play," guard Will Conroy said. "You've got a guy like Chase Budinger who is pretty tall and then you've got Brandon who's kind of tall, which is the opposite...if you really stretch the way you think about it. Usually you have the kind of tall guys jumping out of the gym, but on our team it's switched around."

Cunningham has been asked since that first day in the elevator more than once about the last time he was on a team on which the pretty tall players outnumbered the kind of tall players.

"Honestly, I couldn't tell you I've had more than two or three kind of tall guys on a team before," Cunningham said. "It just happened to get dealt this way. There's just as many kind of tall guys on this team as there are pretty tall who are athletic. It's no big deal. We're here to play ball, so regardless of whether we're pretty tall or kind of tall or freakishly ginormous or simply gigantic, we're going to go out and play."

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