The phone rang. It was one of those old-fashioned phones on a wall, with a cord. There were no news websites, just daily morning newspapers.
It was long ago, 1994, and a sports news conference was set to begin.
The TV cameras were hot. The journalists were breathless. A deal was announced. Dollar amounts were tossed around. The NBA Minnesota Timberwolves were moving to New Orleans.
It turned out not to be what it seemed.
I flashed back to that false alarm Tuesday when the email came on my iPhone and the tweets started popping up as texts, as it became official that the Vikings had selected Arden Hills as their stadium site of choice even though the numbers don’t quite add up, and probably not even the politics.
Stranger things have happened …
I could be wrong. This could all be real, and this all could happen. Stranger things have happened. May the Good Lord watch over all purplish negotiations from the far reaches of the northern suburbs to the marbled confines of the Capitol.
But, as Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett pronounced their vows, I couldn’t help but hearken back 17 years ago to that mid-afternoon phone call. It came from Target Center’s executive director, Dana Warg.
After weeks of reports that the Wolves owners and Target Center developers, Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, were pondering a sale of the team to local buyers, Warg called and said, “Team’s moving. Get down to Target Center. Stop the presses.” (That was when there WERE presses.)
I raced to the arena for a tearful news conference with “Marv and Harv.” Team sold and moving to New Orleans, we were told. Price $152.5 million, we were told. Outta here.
I ran back to the Star Tribune building, where I worked, to begin writing. A call came instantly from NBA Commissioner David Stern’s office. I was told to run to the fax machine.
A statement clicked out of the gadget. Stern said Wolfenson and Ratner “have received substantial offers to purchase the team and keep it in Minnesota; regrettably, they decided against accepting these offers.”
Hmmm. Didn’t sound good for Marv and Harv.
Minutes later, a league spokesman called, wanted to make sure I was prepared to take notes on the record and, more or less, acknowledged the league was stunned by the sale announcement and said curtly, “We have our position, and [Wolfenson and Ratner] have theirs. … There are different points of view.”
Three weeks later, the NBA blocked the move, proving it is not good to have different points of view from David Stern.
Soon after, Mankato businessman Glen Taylor struck a deal to buy the team. And the Wolves are still here.
A life lesson learned
That inaugural sports-deal news conference of my life wasn’t what it seemed, and that knowledge has guided me ever since.
By January 1997, the baseball Twins and state officials told reporters a stadium deal had been struck that included offering a share of the team to the public by owner Carl Pohlad. Deal botched, never happened.
Nine months later, in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, a feisty, spirited Pohlad told me his then-imminent sale of the Twins to North Carolina businessman Don Beaver was “a real deal.” Greensboro, here they come!
The Twins are still here — in a sparkling new stadium.
And who can forget the intrigue around spy novelist Tom Clancy’s “purchase” of the Vikings in 1998. Had all the thrills of a Cold War saga. Never happened.
Dare we mention Feb. 24, 2005 and a big honking news conference at Winter Park, Vikings headquarters?
On that day, someone named Reggie Fowler claimed to have purchased the Vikings for $625 million. Amid great celebration, then Vikings owner Red McCombs handed over the keys to the franchise to what looked like the NFL’s first African-American owner, even though there were great doubts about Fowler’s net worth.
“Mr. McCombs is a very shrewd businessman,” Fowler said at a packed news conference. The implication: McCombs wouldn’t sell to someone who didn’t have the ability to pay.
On the fringes of hangers-on that day, outside the glow of McCombs and Fowler, stood a mustachioed New Yorker, Zygi Wilf, who was then being called a minor partner.
Five months later, after it became clear Fowler didn’t have the wherewithal to buy an NFL team and the league had questions about him, Wilf got the team instead. Another news conference had led us astray.
Reasons to wonder
So, as Wilf and County Commissioner Bennett stood at the lectern Tuesday, as Vikings fanatics cheered from the back of the crammed conference room at a Ramsey County building in Arden Hills, as journalists took it all in, as news organizations streamed the event live, as Gov. Mark Dayton and other political leaders warned about costs, as the state budget crisis hardens, one had to wonder.
How will we remember Tuesday’s Ramsey County-Vikings news conference six months, two years, 10 years down the road?
A real deal? Is it what it seemed to be? I could be wrong. I’m just asking.
MinnPost Asks Live Interview Series
Join us on Monday, May 16, as MinnPost journalist Jay Weiner interviews Sports Facilities Commission chair Ted Mondale to discuss issues surrounding a new Vikings stadium. Click here for details and ticket information.