The house lights dim. On pops the spotlight, burning down from the catwalks. Silence.
Time for the lineups to be announced, and it’s obvious this isn’t your garden variety youth game. Of course, that was made blindingly clear when the players first entered Minnesota’s most cavernous basketball-centric building.
“Too see the eyes of the kids when they see the Target Center from the ground floor, there’s nothing like that reaction,” said Pete Zak, the boys traveling director for Hastings Basketball. “And it’s like that every year.”
Last season there were 115 youth games played before Timberwolves games. Photo courtesy Minnesota Timberwolves
Zak is one of many savvy youth basketball coaches and administrators in the Twin Cities area who regularly take advantage of the Target Center court time made available before Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx games. All that’s required to “Play Where the Pros Play” is the purchase of a block of Wolves or Lynx tickets and a group of youngsters willing to dribble, pass and shoot on the glitzy downtown Minneapolis stage most regularly reserved for the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Wolves stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
It’s an easy sell, Zak says. Especially for the kids.
“The big thing for them is to step back and take an NBA (3-pointer),” Zak said with a laugh. “God forbid one kid makes it, because then all 11 have to try it.”
The opportunity is a hit with parents, too, according to Zak. He’s been organizing the Target Center outings for the last five years. A sixth consecutive yearly pilgrimage is scheduled for the Timberwolves’ Jan. 26 game against the Indiana Pacers. Four time slots of about an hour each are available before each game. Each of the last four years Zak has booked all four slots, and any Hastings player in grades four through eight has the opportunity to play.
“It’s essentially Hastings Night,” Zak said, referring to the city of about 22,000 located 30 miles southeast of Minneapolis. “It’s one of the big highlights of our season. For us to drop it and not do it, the kids would be devastated.”
Making the Target Center court available for youth and high school games is just one component of the Timberwolves’ community outreach program. A variety of camps and clinics are offered, and the Timberwolves & Lynx Basketball Academy also provides private lessons, small group training and team training. Through a partnership with Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine, other programs include Performance Training and Nutrition as well as ACL Injury Prevention. Matt Bare, Basketball Academy and Sales Manager, says the Timberwolves are one of the NBA’s leaders in providing opportunities for youth basketball players and coaches.
“Some teams may do more than us, but I don’t think anyone does more of everything than us,” he said, adding that all teams don't offer court or player access like the Wolves.
What: Before every Timberwolves home game, youth teams can play a game on the Target Center floor before the NBA players take center stage. Four slots are available before each game.
Cost: Participating teams purchase discounted blocks of tickets.
The Experience: Participating teams sit on NBA player benches, all players are introduced over the arena PA system, referees are provided and score is kept on the arena scoreboard. As an added perk, Gatorade is provided for both teams at the end of each bench.
NBA Player Access: After they play their games, teams are allowed re-entry into the Target Center before the general public and players are allowed to roam either side of the court during warmups. They also have the opportunity to gather in the tunnel where players enter and leave the court and potentially have the chance to get autographs.
More Information: Contact Matt Bare at 612-673-8441 or email@example.com
Youth players who play at the Target Center get up-close access to the Timberwolves as part of the experience. Photo courtesy Minnesota Timberwolves
Bare has been working for the Timberwolves for 13 years. He’s overseen the evolution of youth games on the Target Center floor to include most all the amenities of a real NBA game, right down to the Gatorade buckets at the end of each bench. Last season there were a record 115 youth games (involving about 230 teams) played before Timberwolves and Lynx games, Bare said.
“We make it as close to an actual game as possible,” he said.
Referees are supplied, score is kept on the arena’s scoreboard and all players are introduced with full-throated enthusiasm by public address announcer Tony DeLorenzo.
"Everybody gets to run out and do their little dance or whatever," DeLorenzo said. "The whole idea is to make it big. Give them an experience.
"Nobody appreciates it more than those little kids."
Other than launching shots from NBA 3-point range, several coaches said the kids usually are most focused on the Gatorade bucket. It’s irresistible presence actually makes sitting on the bench a good thing.
“The kids are always congregating around the Gatorade container,” Zak said. “It’s like the coffee machine at work, the water machine at work.”
It's common for players to converge on the Gatorade bucket during their Target Center games. Photo courtesy Minnesota Timberwolves
“They get so excited about being able to run to the end of the bench and pulling a Gatorade cup and getting a drink just like the pro players do,” said Jim Freeland, a coach and treasurer for the St. Michael-Albertville Girls Basketball Club.
Last season Freeland brought youth teams to Timberwolves games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, opponents in last season's NBA Finals. This season he’s already locked in for both home games against Golden State.
Depending on their time slot, the youth players typically play their game then leave the arena with their coaches and families to grab some food and hang out in downtown Minneapolis before returning to the Target Center. The groups are allowed to re-enter the building earlier than the general public, and the kids get to patrol both sides of the court during warmups. They typically return home with a collection of autographs and abundance of memories.
“After the game, they almost always talk about any big plays that happened on the court or the player access,” Freeland said.