Before the NBA career, before the lengthy second act as a Minnesota Timberwolves television analyst and Minnesota Lynx assistant coach, Jim Petersen was an exceptionally big deal in basketball in the state of Minnesota.
Think Tyus Jones, only taller.
A standout center who led St. Louis Park High School to three state tournaments, Petersen was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 1980 and the first Minnesotan selected to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game, then fairly new. Some of the biggest names in college coaching recruited him. Al McGuire of Marquette. Lefty Driesell of Maryland. Lute Olson of Iowa.
Minnesota wanted him, too. Badly. But Petersen chose Duke, coached by Bill Foster, then a rising program still a peg below North Carolina in that state’s college basketball hierarchy. Petersen loved the campus. He loved the uniforms. He loved Gene Banks and that 1978 Blue Devils team that lost to Kentucky in the NCAA finals. It was all set.
Then Foster quit to go coach South Carolina. He asked Petersen to come along. But Petersen had never been to South Carolina, had never visited the campus, and had no interest venturing any farther from home. So he opted for Plan B: the Gophers.
First, though, he had to break the news to the new Duke coach, someone he had never met but who thought enough of Petersen to fly to Minnesota to ask him to honor his commitment.
So Petersen drove to the Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington to meet him, alone. The hotel, since torn down, was famed for a Native American motif that many today would find offensive: a Big Chief statue in the front with a raised arm, the Bow and Arrow coffee shop, the Totem Pole restaurant. That kind of stuff.
And there, in a hotel room, Petersen delivered the bad news to Mike Krzyzewski.
Yes, that Mike Krzyzewski. The one who went on to coach Duke to five NCAA titles and 12 Final Fours through 2018, and the US Olympic team to three gold medals.
“How ridiculous was that?” Petersen said. “I’m basically going there to break up with him.”
But in 1980, Krzyzewski was a relative unknown with an unpronounceable last name. He played for Bobby Knight at Army, assisted him for a year at Indiana, then returned to West Point as head coach for five seasons. That was about all Petersen knew about him. And that was enough for him to say no. Petersen’s father Bob, a star center at Minneapolis Vocational High in the early 1950s, rode Jim hard about his basketball skills, and Jim had no interest in any more of that.
“(The meeting) was short. I don’t really remember much,” he said. “All I knew about him is that he was a Bobby Knight disciple from West Point, and I did not want to play for a Bobby Knight disciple. I had been yelled at my whole life with my dad, and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t want to be yelled at, you know what I mean? I ended up signing with Minnesota the next day, and the rest is history.”
The 6’10” Petersen doesn’t regret any of it. He played four seasons at Minnesota, the final two as a starter. Winning a Big Ten championship as a sophomore in 1982, alongside future NBAers Trent Tucker and Randy Breuer, remains one of his career highlights.
That led to eight seasons in the NBA with Houston, Sacramento, and Golden State. Though never an All-Star, Petersen proved a reliable big man who made 208 starts in 491 career appearances, averaging 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds.
In Houston, he backed up Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson on a 1986 Rockets team that lost to the Boston Celtics, with fellow Minnesotan and Gopher Kevin McHale, in the NBA Finals.
He retired in 1992. Six years later he joined the Timberwolves radio team, switching to TV in 2003.
Still, there are moments when Petersen thinks back to that day at the Thunderbird Hotel and muses where his career might have taken him had he said yes to Krzyzewski.
“Especially when you look at what Duke has become,” Petersen said. “I could have been on the ground floor of what Mike Krzyzewski has done at Duke University. I don’t know how many pieces of business he had before he got to me, but I had to have been one of the first things that he did when he got there. I’m a McDonald’s All-American. I’m not nothing. I never talked to Coach K about it.
“Look at all the guys who became successes. Look at Jay Bilas. I could have been Jay Bilas. I’m not an ESPN guy, but I’m still doing my own thing in my own way. And all the guys at Duke who became coaches, all the success stories going to Duke and all that entails, having that pedigree.
“I’ve done a lot. I don’t second-guess. You just wonder what would have happened.”
For a kid from St. Louis Park, Petersen did more than all right for himself. And he credits that to his Minnesota upbringing. The third of five children born to Bob and Florence Petersen, Jim inherited the family height. His dad was 6’10”, his mom 5’10”, and even his two older sisters are 6’0″.
Bob Petersen was so good in high school he was selected for the 1950 North-South All-Star Game in Kentucky, facing a South team with future Hall of Famer Bob Pettit. (The North won 58–49, with Bob Petersen scoring five points.) He went on to play collegiately at Louisville and Oregon before joining the Washington Generals, the longtime opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters. Jim said John Kundla, the Hall of Fame coach of the Minneapolis Lakers, told him his father should have played in the NBA.
“Growing up where I grew up with the dad that I had, sports were a huge part of growing up,” Petersen said.
“It was a classic Midwestern neighborhood with tons of kids. We lived right by the high school. You grew up with kids doing whatever. Back in those days, it was so different — parents had no idea where we were or what we were doing. Everything we did was game-based or sports-based. When you have that many kids, it’s easy to have fun and for the most part stay out of trouble.”
Like many of that generation, Petersen shuffled through different sports as the seasons changed. Football in the fall. Basketball and hockey in the winter. Baseball in the spring and summer. Petersen loved hockey until losing two teeth in separate accidents—taking a stick in the mouth the first time, and the second by skating in front of a friend teeing up a shot.
“My mom was not happy,” Petersen said. “I was probably ninth grade at the time. I came home and she said, ‘Jim, you’re 6-5, you just got your second tooth knocked out, it’s time to focus on basketball.’ She was tired of the dental bills.”
By then, Petersen and his dad had bonded over the Vikings. Working for a relative, they teamed up to sell programs in the parking lot of Metropolitan Stadium, jobs that came with all-access passes to the games. Once the programs were sold, they went inside, Bob going one way while telling Jim to have fun.
“I’d walk up and down the aisles, as a seventh-, eighth-, ninth grader, and people would offer me drinks,” Petersen said. “It was nuts at Met Stadium back in those days. People took their tailgating seriously. It was a way of life.
“Sometimes I’d go sit in the end zone. Back then there was no net, so my goal was to get a football. I also had access to the tunnel right by the Vikings locker room. I’d watch them come out of the locker room and come up the steps through the dugout. I was a kid, just in awe of Carl Eller and Alan Page. A phenomenal experience.”
Petersen was there for the infamous 1975 Vikings–Dallas Cowboys playoff game, and the Hail Mary pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson that knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs. Like most Vikings fans, Petersen insists Pearson got away with offensive pass interference. And, he said, the bottle thrown from the stands that bloodied field judge Armen Terzian sailed over his head.
Petersen learned his work ethic from his parents. Bob was a truck driver who often worked a second job for extra money. Florence, a nurse, rose at 5 a.m. to make breakfast for the kids before heading off to work.
“I just had two parents that grinded,” Petersen said. “You didn’t really have a choice. You learned a work ethic because we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and you had to make do with very little. We still had Christmas and birthdays and had food on the table. We were never starving. But we didn’t have a big house. We didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t go out to eat as a family. We ate every meal at home.
“Our parents made us work — shoveling snow, cutting the grass, cleaning the house, cooking dinner, doing the dishes, cleaning up your room. We were disciplined. My mom wasn’t messing around. I know how to iron, to wash clothes, to cook. My mom made sure all of us could do all of it. And my two older sisters were no joke, too.
“My older sister was the typical oldest child. She was the boss. Super organized. Probably a good birth order thing that a boy wasn’t the oldest. The girls ran a tight ship.”
Growing up, Petersen also spent time in Dinkytown. The father of one of his best friends, a bank executive on the U campus, had season tickets to football (then still at Memorial Stadium) and basketball. They knew Gophers basketball coach Bill Musselman, so Petersen got to know him and some of his players — Mychal Thompson and Flip Saunders.
Musselman left Minnesota for the American Basketball Association in 1975; Jim Dutcher replaced him. Meantime, Petersen blossomed into a basketball prospect. But Jim always got the impression that in his father’s eyes, nothing he did on the court seemed good enough.
“My dad was tired, he was grumpy, he had five kids,” Petersen said. “Being an adult now I can totally identify with what was going on with him. He could be very surly. He didn’t sit there and dish out a lot of compliments. Parents now overpraise, and it’s probably overboard in terms of the kids who can do no wrong. Back in those days, it was the other end of the spectrum where kids couldn’t do any right.
“I sat there and tried to win my father’s affection. I wanted his validation. He never gave it to me. I was always fighting to get him to say, ‘Good job.’ I’d have 30 points, 20 rebounds, five blocks. We went to the state tournament every year when I was at St. Louis Park. And he never, ever told me I played well. I’d have these games where I played great, and he’d come home and he would always tell me what I did wrong, and that I was too nice a kid. ‘You’re too nice. You need to haul off and smack one of these kids sometimes.’
“Some of these dudes I ended up playing against later on, I could have used a little more of a mean streak. I knew what he was saying after the fact.”
Validation and praise instead came from his mom or Augie Schmidt, Petersen’s coach at SLP. “Augie would always tell me how good I was, but he would also tell me what I needed to work on,” Petersen said. “He was always honest with me. And he would always tell me when I was being a jackass.”
Schmidt also had connections. He knew McGuire, Knight, Driesell, and Larry Brown of UCLA. And they all knew about Petersen.
Petersen said his mom preferred Iowa because she thought Olson, an Augsburg graduate, was handsome. Minnesota leaned on him hard. McHale and Saunders came to his house. Thompson, by then in the NBA, urged him to choose the U. Sid Hartman, the Minneapolis Tribune columnist and an unapologetic booster for the U, told Petersen he would be nothing if he went anywhere else.
In the end, Petersen chose Plan B. The morning after telling Krzyzewski, Petersen met Dutcher at Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport, signed his letter of intent, and boarded a flight to Oakland for the McDonald’s game.
At Minnesota, Petersen backed up Breuer and Gary Holmes on the ’82 conference champs. As a senior in 1983–84, he averaged 11.2 points and 6.9 rebounds, both career highs, and shot 63.9 percent from the field. He opened eyes at the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, an annual showcase for pro prospects. Houston drafted him in the third round, the 51st pick overall, in 1984.
Two things helped Petersen thrive in the NBA: his Minnesota upbringing, and proving to his father, who died in 1999, that he could succeed.
“One of the reasons I made it to the NBA was, I learned how to be tough playing football, and I learned how to be tough playing hockey,” he said. “I was strong and hard to play against, and I learned that playing football, blocking and tackling. I ran and jumped at an elite level when I was in the NBA, and I learned how to be nimble by learning to skate. I can still do it at 55 years old. I wouldn’t have had that if I hadn’t grown up here.
“Playing football in the fall in Minnesota, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to suck it up and play in that cold and wind. Playing hockey outside in the wintertime when it’s five degrees or 10 below, we just didn’t even think about it. You just did it. You get a level of toughness that other parts of the country just don’t get.”
His Minnesota sensibility checked in another way, evident in his years as an assistant coach with the Lynx as well as his TV preparation. If Petersen needed to pull an all-nighter to finish a scouting report for Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, he did it. (The Lynx won three WNBA titles with Petersen on staff, in 2011, 2013, and 2015.) As a broadcaster, Petersen is informative and frank without being showy. No Dick Vitale histrionics for Jim Pete, as Timberwolves fans know him, because he knows it annoys his audience.
“You learn a certain level of work ethic and humility being from this part of the country,” he said. “But there’s also that, are you good enough? Do you match up? We’re just from Minnesota; we don’t stack up. I thought that going to the McDonald’s All-American Game.
“I had great respect for coaches, this humility and respect that suited me well and worked well for me playing sports. All these athletes have all these crazy stories of going out and doing this, that and the other. I was too scared. I never went out. I went back to my hotel room. I might go out and get something to eat once in a while. But I thought I’d get kicked out of the league if I didn’t do my job well. I was never one of those guys who could party and hang out and not get rest.
“I missed out on some fun, probably, along the way. But that’s real, Midwestern Minnesota, at least my interpretation of it.”