Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
Win and they will come.
About 500 fans turned out on a perfect summer afternoon Thursday to take in the U.S. Bank/Timberwolves Caravan at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Interest in the Timberwolves has skyrocketed following the most successful regular season in franchise history, which resulted in a trip to the Western Conference finals.
Brainerd was the final stop of the three-day tour, which also included Mankato and Willmar.
Guard Fred Hoiberg and post Mark Madsen were accompanied by assistant coach Don Zierden and TV play-by-play analyst Tom Hanneman.
"We've had a lot of fun the last three days," Hoiberg said. "It's great to go out and meet the people who support us throughout the season, and it's great to give back a little bit. It was fun to come out and play golf in the morning with these people, then come out and work with kids.
"I've always enjoyed working with kids. I try to teach them a couple good things, not only about basketball but about life in general, and Mark is a great guy for that. I've got four kids of my own. I tried to talk to the kids here like I talk to my own kids."
Following a clinic, Zierden and the players cheerfully signed autographs for every fan who sought one.
"This is a lot of fun for us," Zierden said. "Selfishly, I get to spend time with Mark and with Fred. It's always nice to bond with players.
"Just to come out and work with young people, to see the number of fans we have, the great support we have throughout the state, it's our small way of saying thanks to everybody."
Hoiberg, who played four years for the Chicago Bulls and four with the Indiana Pacers before joining the Wolves last season, signed a multiyear contract with the team July 23.
He averaged 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds in 79 games (three starts). He established career highs by shooting 46.5 percent from field and 44.2 percent from three-point range, fourth best in the NBA.
"I would love to retire in Minnesota," Hoiberg said. "I'm from Iowa, only three hours south of the Twin Cities. My home town is Ames.
"The people in the Midwest, there's nothing better. It's a great place to raise a family. It's an environment where there are good morals and values, and I've got a lot of relatives up in this area."
The Timberwolves are being picked by many as a contender for the NBA title next season following the trade of Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat and the departure of Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
"Trenton (Hassell) is the one piece of the puzzle from last season that's unsigned," Hoiberg said. "We've got about 10 days to make a decision on him.
"We're excited, with Shaquille going East, it really brings a few teams up. We're one of them, San Antonio is one of them, Sacramento is going to be tough, and I think you have to look out for Houston now with (Tracy) McGrady."
Zierden thought confidence and experience were the biggest things the Wolves gained from their run deep into the postseason.
"I think it was good for the coaching staff to realize what it takes to go all the way, and I noticed after the Lakers series, after we were saying goodbye to the players, you could see the disappointment and hunger was there," Zierden said.
"I'm very excited to come back to training camp in October and see if that attitude is still there because I think the players found out what it takes and they know deep down they can make the next step to get to the finals and win the thing."
Mike Bialka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5861.
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