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Timberwolves heir apparent Hoiberg learning the ropes as McHale’s apprentice

Fred Hoiberg
Fred Hoiberg

In trying to capture the essence of the teacher-pupil relationship these days between Kevin McHale, the Timberwolves‘ vice president of basketball operations, and Fred Hoiberg, his heir apparent as the team’s chief personnel executive, I sought out some great thoughts from legendary wise guys.

What was startling was how many seemed to take the Wolves’ miserable losing season — an NBA-worst 5-32 — into account. Like Benjamin Disraeli: ”There is no education like adversity.”

And Vladimir Lenin: ”Learning is never done without errors and defeat.”

And, well, Buddha: ”A man should first direct himself in the way he should go. Only then should he instruct others.”

McHale apparently grooming eventual replacement
The most appropriate quote, though, came from Thomas Carruthers: ”A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” That is the point, after all, that McHale will groom Hoiberg to eventually replace him. That has been team owner Glen Taylor’s intended line of succession for almost 21 months now, since Hoiberg retired as an NBA player after undergoing heart surgery and assumed a role in the Wolves’ front office.

Given the club’s 37-82 record in that time, the franchise-rattling trade of star forward Kevin Garnett and the abandonment at least in the short term of playoff aspirations and (hoo boy!) championship ambitions, we had to ask: How’s that working for you, Fred?

”I get really nervous during the games. I want it so badly for the guys,” said Hoiberg, who watches most home games — when he isn’t out of town scouting — from a corner section at Target Center. ”It’s more gratifying on this side when you beat a good team than it is as a player. I miss being out there. But with everything that’s happened, I’m thankful to be in this position.”

As a player, Hoiberg lasted 10 years in the NBA with Indiana, Chicago and Minnesota as a fundamentally sound shooting guard, underrated defensively but widely feared for his accurate three-point shot. Now he is working his way up again, the challenges shifting from physical to mental, the intensity level slightly less but the hours so much longer.

Hoiberg working harder than ever
”Ask my wife about that,” Hoiberg said after a recent Wolves practice. ”It is a ton of hours. I’m trying to see all the guys that we might take in the draft. You’ve got to cover everything, if there’s a trade. It’s the first time in my career that I haven’t set my own schedule [away from games and practices].”

Hoiberg spent an early chunk of 2008 traveling through Europe, scouting players on a seven-countries-in-nine-days itinerary. He has been exposed to other duties in the Wolves’ front office, learning on the job. As a finance major at Iowa State, he paid a little more attention to his agents’ activities at contract time, which could prove helpful in negotiations.

McHale has thrown work at Hoiberg, too, as part of this apprenticeship. Said the Wolves VP: ”I’ll say, `Look, you call these four or five teams. See what they have to say. Come back, report and we’ll all talk about it. Then you orchestrate whatever we’re going to do with them.’ Potential trades, things we’re looking at.”

McHale’s many critics and fans turned off by the Wolves’ more-dark-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel plight say that Hoiberg is learning from the wrong guy. They want a housecleaning rather than an orderly succession, whenever the time comes (with such low expectations now, there is a palpable lack of urgency around the team).

Some feel Hoiberg would have been better trained, and the Wolves better served, had he understudied someone enjoying more success, like R.C. Buford in San Antonio or Joe Dumars in Detroit.

Obviously, Taylor doesn’t see it that way. And neither does Hoiberg, who wants to soak up as much from McHale as he can.

”I wish, while I was still playing, I would have had a couple of years doing this — looking down on the game and being able to talk with a person with the basketball IQ of Kevin McHale,” Hoiberg said. ”It would have benefited me just to listen to how he talks about the game. I pick his brain all the time, just about Xs and Os. To be around a player like that — one of the smartest players to play the game, a guy who got the most out of his body — and to be able to sit with him or to talk with Larry Bird [at Indiana] after practices, that’s big to me.”

When, I asked Hoiberg if he will know when he’s ready to take over? Will a switch flip inside him, a ”not ready … not ready … not ready … ready!” moment?

”I don’t know,” Hoiberg said. ”I’m just doing things I can do now to help the team. I’m not thinking about what’s going to happen in the future. I think Kevin did a great job this summer in the trade to get pieces that we can build around, especially with Al [Jefferson]. He’s been awesome, better than any of us thought he was going to be. And Kevin was behind that.”

So there’s no private timetable, no plan for McHale to flip him the keys this summer? ”No,” he said. ”I hope we turn this thing around and Kevin’s in charge of this thing for a long time. I really do.”

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