The transaction took place somewhere on or near Lake of the
Woods last summer. Maybe on the Canada side of the lake. Maybe
on the Minnesota side. Maybe in a boat in the middle. Maybe all
of those places. Tom Gugliotta was given his own NBA team.
"Here, take my team," Minnesota Timberwolves vice president of
basketball operations Kevin McHale essentially said. "The whole
The actual exchange might have been more drawn out, spread
across a week as the two men hunted and fished and explored the
lake's vast and quiet perimeter, but the basic message was the
same: The Timberwolves belong to you. How well you do is how
well they'll do.
A trade late in the 1995-96 season, forward-center Christian
Laettner shipped to the Hawks, had freed up room on the floor
for Gugliotta, a forward. Another deal would happen over the
summer of '96, guard Isaiah Rider to the Trail Blazers. The
grand future would be tied to the fortunes of two prodigies,
forward Kevin Garnett and newly drafted point guard Stephon
Marbury, but the immediate future would be handed to Gugliotta,
a 6'10", 27-year-old Noo Yawkah from suburban Huntington Station.
"There are rental cars and there are cars you own," McHale
recalls explaining to Gugliotta. "Do you know how you get that
rental car, and you eat a meal from McDonald's, and you just
throw the trash in the back? It's a lot different when you're
driving that Mercedes you just bought, isn't it? Throw some
trash in the backseat of your own car? Forget it.
"What we've had in Minnesota for a long time are players who
were looking at us as the rental car. They didn't want to be
here. I'm sick of rental players. I want players with a pride of
ownership. When I'm done, the team belongs to you. Can you
As Gugliotta accepted the responsibility, he wondered, as he
often does these days, what his father would think about this.
"I think about my father a lot," he says. "The fact that he's
not here to be a part of all this...it's a shame. He's the most
important reason I'm here. He's the one who encouraged me, who
never told me all of this was impossible."
When Frank Gugliotta died of lung cancer in October 1988, the
best parts of Tom's story were only beginning. Tom was starting
his freshman year at North Carolina State, given the last
available scholarship mostly as a favor to Frank by Wolfpack
coach Jim Valvano.
Frank had been the basketball coach at Walt Whitman High in
Huntington Station for 32 years. A World War II veteran, a
disciplinarian. Tom was the youngest of seven kids, three boys
and four girls. There was a basketball hoop in the front yard,
regulation rim mounted on regulation backboard.
"Basketball was just part of our lives," Tom's mother, Helen,
says. "I've smelled every sweaty gym from here to Bridgehampton.
Frank was one of those Bobby Knight kind of coaches. He never
threw a chair, maybe, but I saw him kick a lot of them. Tommy,
being the youngest, grew up around the game. He was always
playing, always going with Frank to summer camps."
By the time Tom reached high school, Frank had retired, bothered
by an aching hip, but he still went to some of the practices and
all of the games, still taught the essentials to his final
basketball student. When Tom finished high school, having grown
since ninth grade from a 6'1", 160-pound guard to a 6'7",
190-pound perimeter-shooting forward, he had drawn interest from
colleges in the region. Iona. Fairfield. Massachusetts, before
its recent ascent. Big-time schools were not involved.
"My father called Coach Valvano," Gugliotta says. "They had
worked in summer camps together. Coach Valvano liked underdogs,
guys like Vinny Del Negro, Lorenzo Charles, Spud Webb. I visited
North Carolina State. He told me I could be one of the
underdogs. He'd only seen me play twice, but he promised if I
worked hard I would have a chance. He told me to think about it.
Think about it? Where was the pen? I wanted to sign right there,
before he changed his mind."
Soon the son--the underdog--was off on his great adventure. Off
to this place of great basketball possibilities. The father was
dead before the son played a college game.
As Gugliotta, who mostly sat at the end of the bench that first
season, bid farewell to his father, he welcomed someone new into
his life. "I met Tom during his freshman year," Nikki Cormack
Gugliotta, his wife, says. "I saw him first in the athletes'
dining hall. I chased him shamelessly, I admit it. I had a
journalism class, and our assignment was to interview someone on
campus. It went from there." (The two were married in the summer
In his second year, having seized the underdog's chance,
Gugliotta became a starter. In the third and fourth years,
though Valvano was gone in a cloud of allegations about the
program, Gugliotta flourished.
He grew to 6'10", and in the weight room he built his body to
240 pounds. As a coach's son, he approached the game with a
career-minded seriousness, working on moves to the basket, on a
more physical game. In his senior collegiate season he averaged
22.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. He was
drafted by the Washington Bullets in the first round, sixth
overall, in the 1992 draft, and signed a seven-year, $16.6
million contract. During his first month as a pro, Gugliotta had
a 39-point, 15-rebound game against the Jazz. That season he
made the All-Rookie first team, having averaged 14.7 points, 9.6
rebounds and 3.8 assists.
He was one of those odd-sized forwards, too tall and strong for
opposing small forwards to handle, too good from the outside for
the big ones. Gugliotta was the foundation of a young,
rebuilding Bullets operation. At least that was what he thought.
Early in the 1994-95 season, rumors arose that Golden State's
Chris Webber wanted to rejoin Juwan Howard, his teammate from
Michigan, whom the Bullets had drafted in '94. Washington wanted
Webber, but the price was high: three first-round draft picks,
"I was in Tasmania," says Nikki, "competing in the world
duathlon [biking and running] championships. With the time
changes, I was making all these phone calls to him in the middle
of the night, talking about moving to California."
Gugliotta was excited about the trade, excited about playing for
the Warriors. He hurried to the Bay Area, to the team, to
practice. No more than 20 minutes after he got to his first
workout, his excitement was gone. Everyone on the Warriors
seemed mad at everyone else. The players were mad about the
trade. Coach Don Nelson was mad at the players. It was chaos.
Nikki came back from Tasmania as the world women's duathlon
champ, amazing because she always had been a cross-country
runner and had competed in only three other duathlon events. So
how's California, she asked. Tom told her they would rent, not
"Everybody was miserable about the changes," he says. "And I was
the big change. I took the brunt of it. No one ever figured out
a role for me. I was mostly the isolation man on the floor,
standing way out so my man had to come out to guard me. The
Three months later, in mid-February 1995, Nikki returned to
their rented house from a training ride with a Berkeley bicycle
club. She saw there were 12 unplayed messages on the telephone
answering machine. Tom was home, but he never answered the phone.
"Tom," she said after she had listened to the tape, "I think
there's something happening. You have messages from the coach,
the general manager, the assistant general manager, all kinds of
"Oh, it's nothing," he said. "My back's hurt. They just want to
know if I can play tonight."
"There's a message from Donyell Marshall, too," Nikki said.
"Isn't he a player? Who does he play for?"
"Uh-oh," Tom said. "The Minnesota Timberwolves."
This time, Tom told Nikki after he was traded for Marshall, they
wouldn't even rent. She wouldn't even come to Minneapolis. He
would live in a hotel until the season ended.
At least, he thought so then. "The big thing has been Kevin
McHale," Nikki says. "He and Tom, they're so much alike. Do you
know they have the same birthday [Dec. 19]? They think alike."
McHale took charge of the basketball operation on May 11, 1995,
and persuaded Gugliotta, who had the option to become a
restricted free agent, to stay, saying changes would be made.
Changes have been made. Gugliotta is in the second year of a
five-year, $25 million contract, which he signed on Oct. 16,
1995. He and Nikki own a house in Eden Prairie, a Minneapolis
suburb. On March 20 the couple welcomed their first child, a
baby girl named Cameron Greer Gugliotta. And the Timberwolves
are headed to the playoffs for the first time in franchise
This season Gugliotta was named to the All-Star team. At week's
end he was averaging 21.0 points (15th in the league), 8.8
rebounds and 4.1 assists. The reviews have been terrific. Says
Pistons coach Doug Collins, "Googs is so versatile. He can step
out and run. He has great hands around the post. And he's a
A smile--encouraged by McHale--has been added to Gugliotta's
seriousness. Just play the game. Relax. What could be better?
He's the Timberwolves' anchor as the two young stars, Garnett
and Marbury, add NBA experience. The confusion of a season ago,
when he and Laettner and Rider all needed the ball, has
disappeared. The ball pretty much belongs to Gugliotta.
"I was at the All-Star Game, and Laettner, Garnett and Googs all
were there," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders says. "Someone said,
'Hey, that was your frontcourt last year. If you'd kept them
together, you'd have all All-Stars.' I said, 'If we'd kept them
together, we might not have had any All-Stars.' Everything has
worked out best for all of us."
"We're a team that has time on its side," McHale says. "Most of
the good teams are fighting time, wishing it would stand still.
Me? I would like to hurry time, click my heels and make it three
years from now. That's our time."
What would Frank Gugliotta think?
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS Googs rewarded the faith shown in him by turning in an All-Star performance in 1996-97. [Tom Gugliotta in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE KLUCKOHN Tom, Nikki and daughter Cameron have come into their own in Minnesota. [Tom Gugliotta, Cameron Greer Gugliotta and Nikki Cormack Gugliotta]
FOR THE WEEK OF APRIL 7-APRIL 13
Kentucky coach Rick Pitino distanced himself from the Celtics
after having been contacted by Boston special assistant Larry
Bird about coaching the team next year. "To be successful, you
have to have a management structure that works," Pitino said. "I
don't get that feeling when I think about Boston."
The Bulls locked up home court advantage throughout the
playoffs, but it's Utah that has played the best basketball in
the NBA over the second half of the season. As of Sunday, the
Jazz was 37-6 in its last 43 games, one game better than Chicago
Is it time for guard John Starks to move into the Knicks'
starting lineup? Though the backcourt of Chris Childs and Allan
Houston played well in last Saturday's win over Miami, the two
have struggled in recent weeks. Starks, who has been starring
off the bench, could give the up-and-down Knicks a much-needed
"I misquoted myself." --Golden State forward Andrew DeClercq,
backing off an earlier claim that he planned to leave through
free agency this summer if the team didn't make some changes.