The unique way that Prince would watch his beloved Timberwolves

JUST BEFORE RUDY Gobert and Daniel Gafford step to half court for tipoff of Thursday’s Game 5, an unmistakable opening guitar solo will pierce through the roar of the home crowd, setting the stage for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ biggest game in two decades against the Dallas Mavericks. That will be followed by a drumbeat and synthesizer that is every bit as Minnesota as the Wolves logo in the middle of the Target Center’s court.

The opening to “When Doves Cry” will build the home crowd into a frenzy. All that will be missing is the late Prince in attendance, cheering on his favorite basketball team.

“He would’ve loved to be sitting front row so he could rep his city,” Londell McMillan, Prince’s longtime friend and former attorney told ESPN. “He would’ve loved Anthony Edwards and the chemistry, and Jaden McDaniels, because he likes tough play. He was a tough guy. The balance of the team, he would’ve saw them as a band that’s well-refined.

“The one thing he might’ve said is that he liked the white shirts, but he would’ve been like, where’s the purple?”

The legendary artist died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016 at 57, but his presence is still felt throughout his hometown of Minneapolis, especially in the arena where he would sit courtside for multiple games per season.

“They meant the world to him,” Johnny Nelson, Prince’s nephew, told ESPN of the Wolves.

Outside the Target Center, a large colorful mural of Prince is on the side of an adjacent parking structure while the historic nightclub First Avenue — where Prince performed and filmed scenes for “Purple Rain” — sits across the street.

Since 2012, it has been a ritual to open games with “When Doves Cry.” But after the artist’s death, the team started new traditions, like playing “Let’s Go Crazy” at the start of the fourth and “Controversy” when there’s a call the crowd doesn’t appreciate.

The Timberwolves are ensuring Prince — and the unique relationship he had with the team and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx — is celebrated during this breakout postseason run. From the older generation who shared epic nights with the legendary artist to young stars such as Karl-Anthony Towns, who celebrate what he means to Minneapolis the franchise, the aura of the Wolves’ most iconic fan still permeates throughout Minnesota hoops.

“He was a total basketball head,” said James “Jimmy Jam” Harris, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame producer and die-hard Timberwolves fan who had known Prince since junior high. “He’d always talk about what the Wolves need to do is this, or they need to run pick-and-roll. He totally was immersed in basketball.

“He would’ve loved this team.”

THE TIMBERWOLVES AVERAGED 60 losses a season in their first seven years as an expansion franchise in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the lack of success, Minnesota games were no strangers to music royalty.

Harris and his partner, Terry Lewis, who wrote and produced hits for artists such as Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, New Edition, Boyz II Men, George Michael and Usher, were Wolves season-ticket holders. The duo once spearheaded an ownership group with Jackson and Magic Johnson that explored purchasing the Timberwolves to keep the franchise in Minnesota in the mid-’90s. They wrapped their schedules around the Timberwolves and would frequently bring artists they were working with to games.

When Prince joined them, his presence generated considerable excitement in the Target Center.

“When he came in, he was, like, in a parka and he would keep it over his head,” Kevin Harlan, a TNT play-by-play announcer who was the voice of the Timberwolves from 1989 to 1998, told ESPN. “You could not take your eyes off of him, even though he wasn’t demonstrative.

“In this community, he was so legendary and such an icon, maybe more than anybody else that has ever come from here. [There’s Minnesota’s] Bob Dylan, but it didn’t get much bigger than Prince. When he would come, there was a murmur.”

Nothing compared to the unique way in which Prince watched the Wolves play.

“He would only watch the side that offensively we would play on,” Sam Cassell, who played in Minnesota from 2003 to 2005 and is now a Boston Celtics assistant coach, told ESPN. “He would cross his legs. He had these big old shades on. And he’d just watch one side. In the second half, he’ll watch the other side. We were playing the Lakers and he would never watch what the Lakers were doing on the other end of the court offensively.

“When I saw that, it was so awkward, man. I was like, ‘Wow, he cold.’ He don’t care nothing about what the Lakers are doing. He’s just worried about the T-Wolves. That was crazy.”

He also knew the roster and players’ tendencies and strengths like a general manager.

Troy Hudson recalled a moment during the 2002-03 season, his first of five in Minnesota, when he was sitting with Kevin Garnett at the South Beach nightclub in Minneapolis. Someone tapped Garnett on his shoulder.

Hudson turned around and saw Prince.

“He leans over and says, ‘KG, if I were coaching you guys, you would play the point guard. And T-Hud will play off guard,” Hudson told ESPN. “He’s the scorer, and you are a great passer.'”

Cassell remembers a time when he and Garnett were out at another Minneapolis nightclub, and Prince’s security guard approached them. The guard told the two Wolves the singer wanted to perform for them. It was nearly two in the morning. The club kicked out the other patrons and Prince proceeded to get on stage and play his guitar before asking Cassell and Garnett what they wanted to hear.

Cassell won’t ever forget the first time he met Prince. He approached the rocker at a jazz club in Los Angeles.

“He said, ‘Hey, Sam,'” Cassell said. “I was like, ‘Prince know my goddamned name!’ I was just so amazed about his knowledge of the game of basketball.”

Wolves players were always stunned at just how big of a fan Prince was.

“I think he was just as in awe of us as we were of him,” Sam Mitchell, who played 10 seasons in Minnesota and was the Wolves’ interim coach during the 2015-16 season, told ESPN. “And we were starstruck when we saw him.”

WHEN PRINCE WAS a teen, he played basketball at Bryant Junior High and then on the junior varsity team at Central High School in Minneapolis. Even as his career and musical transcendence took him across the world, his love of the game never faded.

“I DJ’ed out at Paisley Park [Prince’s Minnesota home and studio] for him,” said Dustin Meyer, Timberwolves’ co-music director, who also toured with Prince as a DJ. “I’d come in there before a party and you’d see his Jordans sitting out there. He was always shooting around and playing.”

Prince’s basketball skills were immortalized in a “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” skit on Dave Chappelle’s “Chappelle’s Show” in 2004. In the episode, Murphy recounted the tale of the time he and his brother, Eddie Murphy, were out with Prince when the artist invited them back to Paisley Park. A bored Prince challenged him to a pickup game and proceeded to school the Murphys and their friends.

“Dave Chappelle’s story is true,” said Jim Petersen, the longtime Timberwolves TV analyst and a star high school and college hoops player in Minnesota. “That’s a true story.”

Harris attended the same junior high and high school and said Prince, who stood 5-foot-2, was as creative with a ball in his hand as with one of the many musical instruments he mastered.

“He was basically like Steph Curry,” Harris told ESPN. “He had great handles, could shoot the lights out. When he’d come up to court [in high school], all the girls would go, ‘Ah, Prince!’ They’d all scream.

“I remember when we were recording at Sunset Sound [recording studio in Los Angeles], he used to play all the time. He basically would play HORSE. He could do a shot like, ‘I’m going to bounce it off the roof’ and kill everybody at HORSE. That basket is still there.”

TWO YEARS AFTER Prince’s death, the Wolves collaborated with Nike and Prince’s estate on a Prince-inspired City Edition jersey for the 2018-19 season. The purple-on-purple jersey featured “Wolves” on the front in a jagged font that resembled the lettering on the “Purple Rain” album cover along with other, more subtle, tributes to the late artist.

“It was at that point, our highest-grossing jerseys,” Jake Vernon, Minnesota’s senior VP of ticket sales, said.

“They flew off the shelves that year. He’s been a fabric of our team and especially our fan base.”

The team wore the Prince-inspired jerseys five times at home that season, selling out three of the five games despite muddling through a 36-46 season. Towns even managed to convince Garnett, who for years had been at odds with majority owner Glen Taylor, to make a rare appearance for the first Prince night.

During those five games, the Wolves game operations played only Prince music and redid the “Let’s Go Wolves” and “Defense!” chants using the distinctive sounds from the Linn LM-1 drum machine that he often used.

“They keep him in the present,” former Minnesota point guard Terry Porter told ESPN. “They just let fans know how much he meant and his music meant. You hear the music and you know you get excited because people appreciated his talent, what he brought to this community, how he supported the teams here.”

The Wolves also had Prince vinyl and Prince edition T-shirt giveaways during the 2018-19 season, along with a season-ticket holder party at Paisley Park.

“Prince is always [here], he’s in us,” Mike Grahl, Timberwolves and Lynx chief marketing officer, told ESPN. “He will be with us forever. And we’re going to do as much as we can in the future with him, as well.”

IT WAS NEARLY 11 p.m. on Oct. 15, 2015, when a buzz brought the Lynx’s championship party on the rooftop of the Seven Steakhouse & Sushi restaurant in Minneapolis to a halt.

Every Lynx player, coach, staff member and employee celebrating the club’s third championship in five years simultaneously checked their cellphones as they all received the same text message from a Lynx human resources employee: The party was moving.

Prince, who attended the championship win over the Indiana Fever in a suite earlier that night, wanted the Lynx to celebrate at Paisley Park. But there were a few stipulations:

While most employees scrambled to get rides and got there early, Lynx players and coaches boarded a limo bus. When the team arrived, music was already playing, and it got louder as the team neared Paisley Park’s stage area. Once players and coaches walked through a door, they saw a backdrop with a sign congratulating them on their championship.

And in front of that sign was Prince, performing “Purple Rain.”

“We were like, ‘holy s—!'” Cheryl Reeve, Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations, told ESPN. “Your jaws dropped, and we just got right in front of the stage. They were ready for us.”

For the next couple of hours, Prince held a private concert for the Lynx players, staff and employees. He played six hits, including “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss” and “Sign o’ the Times.” On one song, Prince played every instrument on the stage.

“He played the drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, piano,” Petersen, who also was an assistant with the Lynx from 2008 to 2017, said. “He danced and he performed like he was on stage getting paid millions for this.”

When he took a break around 3 a.m., some Lynx employees believed Prince was done and decided to call it a night. Those who remained saw Prince deliver an epic encore. He invited players such as Seimone Augustus and Renee Montgomery onto the stage to sing and dance with him. He incorporated the Lynx into some of his lyrics. He even took requests and walked into the crowd while performing.

They partied at Paisley Park until they saw the sun rise.

“It was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime type of deal,” Reeve said, still sounding in awe nearly a decade later. “His love for Minneapolis, it was home and he never left. He had his place, he embraced being a Minnesotan and being a huge basketball fan. It’s hard not to feel that he doesn’t live on through all those memories and times that he supported us.

“We wish he was still here.”

However this season ends for the Wolves, Harris knows Prince’s spirit has been a part of this unexpected run, which they hope to extend as they try to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs.

“I think his spirit definitely comes through,” Harris said. “His spirit, his creativity is definitely felt. His fandom of the Wolves and of the state of Minnesota is all felt.

“He is absolutely a part of this. He’s in his skybox watching the proceedings, and I know he’s very happy and very proud.”

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