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Following the Footsteps of a Face of an Era: Pek, Naz and the Role of a Hero

Current fan favorite Naz Reid embodies the spirit of a new era of Wolves basketball, much like a cult hero of old: Nikola Peković.

It’s hard to establish a team’s history. To this point, I’d say that every team has their own legends, sardonic or otherwise, and their own eras. Expansion teams have had to scrape and claw to claim those generations as relevant to not just the league but themselves as well. In order to do that, you need faces. You need people. You need catchphrases.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, to this point, have had maybe four or five eras. They’ve had the Musselman years that stretched into the Isaiah Rider and Christian Laettner gasp for legitimacy. It was a first era that followed what most teams go through in their first ride around the block: grouchy old men from the expansion draft, grouchy old men coaching on the sidelines, the threat of relocation, and a couple of 20-somethings left to inspire fan interest and protect fan hope.

Mavericks v Timberwolves

Then, in 1995, the Wolves finally accomplished the first step of creating a volume of the past. They took a gangly, charismatic, attitude-filled high school student who would change the image of Minnesota in NBA circles and give the franchise its only truly successful period. Yes, the Kevin Garnett era established the Wolves as a real team. Long gone were the table scraps of the ‘89 expansion, this was built here. It was a Minnesota Timberwolves original project.

However, even that era was not perfect. Through failed co-stars, unlawful contracts, and scandal after scandal after scandal, the Wolves fumbled away their first real chance at playoff success. Just as quickly as it came, that era ended. The high schooler had grown into an MVP, a Hall of Famer, and a polarizing superstar. He hadn’t outgrown the Minnesota market. He had simply grown. Eventually, you realize when things simply aren’t working out. KG knew. The Wolves knew. The NBA knew.

It was KG’s trade to the Boston Celtics that marked a new era not only for Minnesota, but for the league as a whole. For the NBA, it was a transition to player movement, pushed for by stars and the leverage they were justified in using. For the Timberwolves, it was a transition that never ended. I don’t know if I can call the Al Jefferson years their own era. Those years dripped into the Kevin Love years which dripped into what we thought would be the Ricky Rubio years before eventually, unfortunately returning back to being firmly the Kevin Love years.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

It was the rebuild that never ended. Somehow, this era had some of the highest highs for younger Wolves fans. This era was kneecapped by poor management, from executives and owners, and terrible decisions on coaching hires, but contained multitudes. From the slow growth of Kevin Love to Ricky Rubio’s time pre-injury and the peaks brought along with the joy of convincing yourself that something will work to the short-comings of David Kahn and the regular missed swings in the draft. But, it was fun. For the first time since Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves basketball was fun. It wasn’t necessarily good, as the Wolves didn’t make the playoffs with that core. But, man, was it fun.

That leads us to what I’d call modern Timberwolves chronicles. Karl-Anthony Towns alone muddies this. Is the Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and KAT triple-headed monster of the future its own generation of Wolves basketball? I would say so. It was an era defined by hope. We had songs coming from our fanbase, clamoring over what would be. We had two first overall picks, the next generation’s Kobe and Shaq. We had hope.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Isaiah Rider and Christian Laettner had saved it, protected it from winter winds. KG had realized it, giving us our first taste of what a real team could be. Kevin Love had left us unfulfilled, of no fault of his own but by freak misfortune and fate that left him, and fans, jaded. There we were, more than two decades in, and we still had hope.

Ultimately, the Wiggins years left us fretting. The next era, it seemed, was one that would have to be one to carry the world. It would have to carry the disrespect of being a small market expansion team. It would have to carry the summit of KG’s mountainous reputation and the second range of how it ended, with cliffs, crags and all. It would have to carry the empty feeling of two past rebuilds, both failed, that once looked much like the immediate future, the feeling of deja vu, of a dream once dreamt that ended waking with a scream. Most importantly, it would need to carry the ridicule of the Jimmy Butler year, which might be its own era. It would need to support all of that, and more. It would need to be not just defined by a single, monolithic great player, but by their support as well.

And you know what, they’ve got that. Anthony Edwards is a transcendent star, maybe even a superstar. Towns has slowly transitioned to being in a more secondary role. He’s not perfect in that position, but his welcoming and eager acceptance of Ant has been incredible. Edwards’ draft mate, Washington Husky Jaden McDaniels, also became his partner starting on the wings. Draft picks, players, and prospects were sent out to bring in Rudy Gobert. Months later, he was joined by Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander Walker.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Eras are defined by faces, by people, and by catchphrases. First, it was Isaiah Rider. Then, Kevin Garnett. However, even through Kevin Love’s All-NBA play and Ricky Rubio’s ascension to borderline idyllic posture, neither star defined the era. See, sometimes there are special players who aren’t their team’s best, but claim the face of the franchise label nonetheless.

In the early 2010s, that man was Nikola Peković.

Pek was the face of the Wolves. Love complained too much and showed too many early signs of discontent to be the franchise’s face. Rubio was forced to be a figurehead for an organization that had put him in place to fail, a determination he evaded, and was unfortunately injured too often to claim the title. Derrick Williams, the team’s second overall pick in 2011, struggled to recreate in the NBA the success he had at Arizona. Corey Brewer’s time had run on too long to be taken seriously.

New Orleans Hornets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

That left the burly Montenegrin man from Serbia. Pek was so beloved because he was just a strange player to watch exist. In the same way cult-like followings build up around movies like Slapshot or Clerks (to name a few personal examples), Pek’s body-bruising post game contrasted with the videos of him on safari were somehow human. They were imperfect but they were beautiful. They came from nothing, from a 2008 second round pick, arrived two years later, born in a country that no longer existed. There were few hopes pinned on Pekovic, but he delivered when asked. And he was beloved.

He was a fan favorite, goofy, and no one could ever figure out how good he was. He was that era of Timberwolves basketball: zany hijinks like knuckle push-ups; a center with mob-ties; using cash considerations to fire a coach; the lows of a 98-173 record that was punctuated by a 2-10 stretch to end his career; the startling surprise and joy of a Western Conference Player of the Week that ironically fell on April Fool’s. Pek wasn’t a Wolves player. He was the Wolves. He was that era.

That situation is rare enough. And yet, here we are. Yup, it’s time to talk about Minnesota’s prodigal son, because it is not Conley that is at the heart of this era, though he has enchanted many. It’s certainly not Towns, despite his position as longest-tenured Wolf. It’s not even franchise savior, first overall pick, and All-NBA talent Anthony Edwards.

It is Naz. F***ing. Reid.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Twice within a 15 year span, Wolves fans have put an unheralded, lovable, and goofy big man front and center for a team that has once again inspired hope.

I think it comes down to this: hope has been pinned on high draft picks. It has been pinned on coaching hires, on jersey releases, and on lottery balls. All of those have disappointed. In the Wolves case, it has done so on a regular basis. However, putting your hope into players that will smile through the awful moments, ones who are silent and stoic and still somehow humorous has never failed.

It may also be their humble beginnings. Naz grew from entering the league with the highest body fat percentage in combine history into a slimmed down, creative ball-handling center that dribbles in a way only the North Jersey faithful could’ve envisioned. His ascension reminds me of the same way the Wolves came into this era with a 20-year playoff drought (only recently in the rear view mirror) and yet still somehow facing more humiliation that when it was still active, only to be on the doorstep of the best three-year stretch in Wolves’ history.

Pek was the Wolves. But, Naz is something Pek never was. He’s contributing to wins. He’s definitely, certainly, concretely good.

Naz is the Wolves. He is the Wolves in the same way Isaiah Rider was, in the same way KG was, and in the same way Pek was. He’s not just a cult favorite. He is the Wolves. He is this moment. He is the face and the catchphrase of this generation of Wolves basketball.

There’s only one possible way to end this piece. It is not something I can do as a writer or a columnist or a historian. It is something that can only be done as a fan. So, here it is. From someone who has only lived through at most half of the eras of Timberwolves Basketball, let me say this:

Naz. Reid.