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Learning to Love Again

During Wiggins' rookie season, I learned to love again.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Letting go of Kevin Love two summers ago was anything but easy for a Wolves junkie like me. Over his six seasons in Minneapolis, my affinity for him grew each year just as his game did; every offseason Love added a new move to his arsenal and continued fine-tuning his body — from pudgy rookie to chiseled franchise cornerstone.

He went from being told not to shoot 3-pointers during his rookie season (Randy Wittman!) to becoming one of the league’s premier stretch four’s, beating out Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant to win the 3-Point Shootout during the All-Star festivities in 2012. He made 190 triples on 505 attempts (37.6 percent) in his last season for the Wolves (2013–14).

Those beautiful outlet passes that soared from one baseline of the Target Center almost all the way to the other aged like fine wine over the years. He was my favorite player for six seasons, the outlier in an organization filled with drafts busts that never developed and free agent acquisitions that rarely outproduced their contract.

Kevin Love brought legitimacy to the on-court product and represented hope for competitive professional basketball in Minnesota, at least for me, and during his last season the team could have made the playoffs if it weren’t for perhaps the worst clutch performances of all time. They consistently handed away wins in crunch time. Kevin Pelton of wrote about their point differential at the time, specifically how they could be the best team ever by this measurement to miss the playoffs.

No matter how Wolves fans felt about Love — and many never truly connected with his personality or cared for him as I did — nobody can deny the amazing development he made from year to year, eventually becoming an outside MVP candidate in his final season, a three-time All-Star, and leading the organization to their best record since 2004–05 when they won 44 games (40–42 in 2013–14).

And then all of sudden that last competitive season ended, the Wolves again missed the playoffs and whispers of Love’s dissatisfaction intensified.

I wanted to believe the team could make a few tweaks here and there and ride Love’s coattails to their first playoff birth after another offseason of development for Love, Rubio, and Pekovic, along with rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad. I wanted to think that better health for Chase Budinger, more consistency from Corey Brewer (51 points!), a new backup point guard that didn’t butt heads with Love (looking at you, J.J. Barea) and an understanding that Kevin Martin shouldn’t get the ball in super clutch situations, as his foul-inducing mindset isn’t fit for end of game moments when referees are known to swallow their whistles and let the players decide the fate of the game.

I wanted to believe Love would stay in town, that his mission to take the team to heights not reached since Garnett left Minneapolis would eventually come to fruition, but in the back of my mind there was real doubt. It had become clear his relationship with the organization was rocky and his future was more than uncertain as the impending max-level contract he was in line for hung in the balance.

If there was a time to trade him, the time had arrived. But for a Love fanatic like me, someone that would argue his effect on the game for hours with those more interested in focusing on his defensive shortcomings than his supporting cast, I started to fall out of love with basketball during the infamous Summer of Love.

Pushing reset on all that progress, losing the best player that graced the hardwood in our state since KG, and entering another rebuild after multiple failed rebuilding attempts. None of this was intriguing. In fact, the idea greatly frustrated me. Even if a team built around Rubio, Love, Pekovic, Martin, and exactly the right supplementary pieces, would have had a clear ceiling as a perennial early playoff loser in the West— if they eventually cracked the postseason like I imaged they would— that was enough to satisfy me.

Playoff basketball had become the sole concentration of my fandom. Getting to that point was more important to me than how they actually fared. I wanted to say my team was a playoff team instead of the NBA’s perpetual punching bag.

When the Summer of Love was officially in full force, rumors were flying around the interwebs as quickly as they could be cooked up by any outlet searching for clicks while Flip Saunders, President of Basketball Operations, stuck to his guns: the Wolves were not afraid to keep Love and have him play out the final year of his deal;  the organization would not be taken advantage of simply because he wanted out and everyone knew it.

I often dreaded the thought of trading him for the wrong package. Having to trade him alone was infuriating. There were many times I pondered, "Why not keep him another year and see what happens before the trade deadline?" even if that was insanely risky with numerous team’s coming hard with offers for him, slowly upping the ante on his services.

I found myself growing more frustrated by the day. The Wolves were so close to being relevant again, taking five steps backwards was seriously unappealing and losing Love meant adding fuel to the fire that the organization could never build something special because they aren’t a big player in free agency, they can’t keep their stars, and ownership isn’t serious enough about ending the drought.

LeBron Changed Everything

When LeBron announced he was leaving Miami to return to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, shock waves were felt across the Association. When he released his stunning "I’m Coming Home" piece on Sports Illustrated, as told to Lee Jenkins, he clearly omitted one obvious name: Andrew Wiggins.

Immediately, the conspiracy theories began. Why would LeBron not mention the newly minted No. 1 pick and franchise cornerstone in his letter? Something was going on. 42 days later, everybody’s suspicions became reality. The Cavaliers consummated arguably the biggest trade in team history and potentially (a decade from now) one of the most fascinating trades in NBA history.

All-Star forward Kevin Love would be going to Cleveland to team up with LeBron and Kyrie Irving in a deal that netted the Wolves Wiggins, Anthony Bennett (who ultimately played terribly and was bought out in late September before the new season began) and Thad Young (traded for Kevin Garnett last season).

Eventually all of the noise became reality; Love was gone and another rebuild was set in stone. But for all the trepidation I felt during the time Love had one foot in the door and one foot out when I fell out of love with basketball, the politics, the business side of professional sportsthe intrigue of watching another talented young prospect in Andrew Wiggins took over and washed my saltiness down the drain. During his rookie season, I learned to love again.

Watching the player many people call "Maple Jordan" be the focal point of the Wolves on his way to rookie of the year, a feat never accomplished before in franchise history and something he did in a landslide, reminded me of the joy of seeing a young player with such immense talent in the beginning of his career (he received 110 of 130 first-place votes for 604 points in the voting. Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic finished second with 14 first-place votes and 335 points).

Tonight, as Kevin Love makes his way on to the Target Center floor for the second time since that blockbuster trade in August 2014, I won’t think about how he and Wiggins will always be connected and compared. I won’t plot the two against one another in my recap of the game. I will watch Love with a smile on my face, remembering the good times like his 30–30 game, that first All-Star appearance, how he played a significant role in my fandom and how gave me hope for the franchise when countless other players never did; he made me love the game on an entire different level from the time he first set foot in Minnesota and I will never forget the way my passion for the team grew in unison with his game through the years.

I will enjoy watching Love play basketball again tonight, at the place I’ve been watching games since I was a little kid. He will always be one of my favorite players, and I’m happy he acted as another example in my life that it’s okay to move on from things you once loved, carrying those memories with you while making new ones. You might even find the next chapter to be even more exciting, filled with higher ceilings and rousing characters that quickly become new favorites.