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There have been times this season when you have been able to see the quizzical look on the face of D’Angelo Russell and other Timberwolves as they take the floor at Target Center for a game, look around and see scores of empty seats.

Where is everyone? 

There are times when Russell, Taurean Prince, Patrick Beverley and other Wolves are waving their arms at the crowd, trying to get fans out of their seats and into the action. You can tell they think it shouldn’t be this difficult. What they don’t know is just how difficult it has been on these fans for the past two decades.

So when Russell turned a question about the boost Beverley’s return has provided to the Timberwolves into a little jab about the sleepy atmosphere at Target Center, it wasn’t a big surprise.

“It forces guys to want to turn their level of competition up, compete,” Russell said after a 118-105 win over the Detroit Pistons Sunday, the fourth straight for the Wolves. “It gets our quiet-ass fans involved, too. So I think it’s good for us to have somebody like him. Kind of wakes people up.”

That wasn’t a slip of the tongue for Russell. I have been waiting for it. In the moment, it felt as if he was genuinely curious why a team that has thus far exceeded expectations is sometimes having trouble getting its home arena riled up. This version of the Wolves plays so hard, creates turnovers and gets out in transition, throws down dunks and whips the ball around to create open shots. It’s as aesthetically pleasing a style of play as there has been in years. Russell’s words come from a good place. He wants the crowd to fall harder for this charismatic young team.

Some of Russell’s most engaging availabilities have come during discussions about social justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Russell has taken the opportunity in those moments to spearhead a two-way discussion with those of us in the media sessions. His comments about the lack of volume in the fan base might be another opening for a good, well-rounded conversation about the Timberwolves, Target Center and the weight of history.

Much like those far more important and significant conversations, it might help to shed some light on the mountain these Timberwolves are trying to climb and the bridges that are being rebuilt after so many years of struggles turned fans away.

The relationship between a team and its fans is akin to a romance. It starts out cautiously, both parties looking for common ground and trying to see if they want to take it further. Trust is earned, not given. And past relationships can play a role in shaping those in the present.

This is not meant to be a lecture. Russell, and any other player who would like to see more electricity in the Target Center crowd, has no reason to be fully versed in Wolves history before he arrived. There just needs to be a greater understanding of the viable reasons the crowd has been a little slower to come around than some would like.

The old arena has had its rockin’ moments this year. A stirring win over the Miami Heat in November and an inspired, short-handed win over Boston in December come to mind as nights when the decibel level could be felt on the back of your neck. But for the most part, Russell is right. The Wolves rank 21st in the league in attendance, according to basketballreference.com. Target Center has been quiet for much of the season, and for a team that has such good chemistry and is generally as likable as this one is, I can understand why players look around and say, “What gives?”

This is a familiar topic of discussion in Wolves land. Players, coaches and executives have come through those revolving doors for years and wondered the same thing. What many of them don’t grasp is they are paying for the sins of the organization’s past. It hasn’t just been a couple of down years. These fans have had to endure 17 years of misery, dysfunction and embarrassment.

From David Kahn and Kurt Rambis, to Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry, to Kevin Love’s pouting, to Ricky Rubio’s knee injury, to Kevin Garnett’s grudge match, to Tom Thibodeau’s alienation, to Jimmy Butler’s selfishness, to Andrew Wiggins’ complacency, to Gersson Rosas’s ouster, to Glen Taylor’s failures to put the right people in power and much more, these fans have essentially been told for years they do not really need to pay attention to this franchise.

An entire generation of fans has grown up without knowing the Timberwolves as anything more than one of the least successful franchises in the league. If, in the throes of euphoria created when KG and Sam and Spree advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2004, a young couple came home from the game and, uh, celebrated that historic moment, the child who came along nine months later would now be a senior in high school.

Even the one playoff berth in Butler’s lone season here was so miserable and unsustainable and blew up so spectacularly just a few months later that Wolves fans in the Twin Cities and beyond have felt like Charlie Brown lining up for another kick at that football.

Wolves fans are scarred. They are lovers who have been scorned over and over again. You can see it when the team falls behind by even a few buckets in the first half of a game. Wolves Twitter quickly goes into “here we go again” mode. This is not the fault of the fans. This is the fault of an organization that has lost at least 60 games four times in the past 17 years (and probably would have done it a fifth time if the 2019-20 season hadn’t gotten cut short by COVID-19), lost at least 50 another five times and has continuously flubbed big moments to turn things around.

It’s a lack of success that is now part of the Wolves’ brand that they are trying to scrub clean. Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez have come in aggressively examining those shortcomings and are trying to address them, and Taylor has been wide-open to looking at things that need to be changed. CEO Ethan Casson and executive vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta have taken steps to solidify and modernize the business and basketball operations. Before he was fired, Rosas made some well-executed moves, including drafting Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, trading Juancho Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver for Beverley, hiring Chris Finch and extending Jarred Vanderbilt. Things are looking up for the team on the floor, but these fans have been through too much trauma to just jump right back on the bandwagon so quickly.

It is not the fault of these players, these coaches, these executives that fans are being cautious in opening their hearts to this team again. That makes it is easy to see why Russell and others may feel as if they are not getting the support they deserve. But players just really have no idea what these fans have been through over the years, so they cannot understand why it is going to take more than being three games over .500 in February to convince them that this team is different.

I have often said that getting the larger fan base to re-engage after nearly two decades of being classically conditioned to tune out is not like flipping on a light switch. It is like turning a cruise ship around. It is going to take time and sustained success to rebuild the trust in the product.

Add to it that the city of Minneapolis is now requiring fans to be either vaccinated or have proof of a recent negative test to attend games, and it brings another obstacle to the viewing experience. It is the right thing to do from a public health standpoint, but anything that makes it more difficult to access the product is a huge detriment to a team trying to climb out of a hole this deep.

It is much easier for fans to say, “Nah, I’ll just sit home and watch the game on my 50-inch flat-screen TV,” instead of going through that extra hassle.

The Wolves need to make coming to a game as easy as possible to convince fans to just give them a chance. So they are trying to revive the atmosphere with one hand tied behind their backs.

Lord knows they are trying. Jersey giveaways, ticket promotions, halftime concerts. Those who are charged with selling tickets are pulling out all the stops to get as many people into the building as possible. For years they have had an almost impossible task of selling a product that had been unwatchable. Little by little, their jobs are getting easier.

Russell has made it a habit to connect with fans at games, both on the road and at home. He often hands out a pair of his shoes to a lucky kid or two in the crowd, and he spoke about hoping to make Minnesota his home when he first arrived from Golden State via trade. He wants to have that connection, wants to feel the love.

Signs of a renaissance are there. This team has a tenacity that is endearing. Karl-Anthony Towns and Russell may be having their best seasons as pros. Edwards has the kind of Randy Moss-like voltage that can make a fan base perk up and pay attention. Vanderbilt, Beverley, Prince and McDaniels give this team grit and a backbone it has not had. Finch is pushing the right buttons. As the fans slowly, maybe reluctantly, dip their toes back into the Wolves’ waters, they will find the temperature to be warm and inviting.

This is a community that is starving for good basketball. It wants to embrace this team. Even when it was clear the playoff run with Thibs and Butler wasn’t going to last, the fans came anyway. The arena sold out 18 times, with momentum building and building as the season went on. If this team can sustain this success, the fans will return as the playoffs approach and then pile on as next season ramps up. There are too many basketball fans here for them not to eventually come out of the woodwork.

But it is going to take some time. These fans have been sold messages of “this is different” over and over again over the past 15 years. Different executives, different coaches, different players, each one of them sure to bring stability and competence back to the organization for the first time since KG and Flip had them in the playoffs for eight seasons in a row.

What this team needs to understand is it appears to be on the front end of turning things around. There is an excitement and enthusiasm for this team that is palpable. Younger fans are taking notice, and that is the key. The fans want to jump back on board, but they need to see more before they do. They have been burned before.

I do not blame Russell at all for wanting a more raucous environment, or for not understanding the depths this franchise had hit before he arrived. He had no reason to be fully versed in the Wolves’ struggles to compete and retain fans, nor should he have cared when he played for the Lakers or Nets or Warriors. Now that he is here and has been a big reason the Wolves are game out of the sixth seed in the West, he is experiencing it up close. He just wants this team to get the love he feels it is earning, night in and night out.

I also do not blame the fans. They have been through too much to just blindly hop back on in full force. They are well within their rights to say, “This has been a nice start, but we need to see a little more before we open our wallets.”

As hard as it may be for Russell to imagine, the fans will make this building shake when they are given a reason to buy in. There is a history and a pride in the basketball fans here, and they would love nothing more than to show the world, and, more importantly, the players, that this may be the State of Hockey, but this is the City of Hoops.

Just a little more patience is needed, D-Lo. This team is so close to cracking through. If the Wolves can keep building on their success and hold on to the identity of a hard-playing team that shares the ball and gets up and down the court, the people will come. They have been waiting for so long for a team they can love again. This feels like that team. It is just going to take a few more dates before things get really serious.

(Photo: Jordan Johnson / NBAE via Getty Images)