The first awareness of Jim Petersen for a large number of Minnesota sports fans came in 1978, when he was a towering sophomore standout for St. Louis Park’s basketball team.
The state tournament still was reasonably easy to follow, with only two classifications, and the Orioles reached the Class AA championship vs. Prior Lake. I had gotten to know coach Augie Schmidt that winter, and it was impossible not to be a fan.
Then again, as a graduate of Prior Lake, I can’t claim to have been disappointed in the result: an ugly 44-33 victory that gave the Lakers back-to-back state titles.
“That one hurt, and so did the next two,” Petersen said. “We all have tales of woe as athletes, and one of mine remains failing to win a championship in three consecutive trips to the state tournament.”
Petersen was part of a terrific run of big men in Minnesota preps. Lake City’s Randy Breuer and Minneapolis North’s Ben Coleman were freshmen with the Gophers in the winter of 1979-80. Coleman transferred to Maryland and Petersen replaced him as a Gopher. Gary “Cookie” Holmes was another Gophers big man, from Miami.
Petersen would find the team scrimmages even more interesting after joining the 1984-85 Houston Rockets as a third-round draft choice.
“Hakeem [Olajuwon] was the first overall choice, and Ralph [Sampson] was in his second season,” Petersen said. “The second year I was there, I played in all 82 games, we went to the NBA Finals and I said, ‘We’re going to do this again, and we’ll win it the next time.’
“Then, Ralph got hurt, and we had a couple of other important players run into trouble. Eventually, Ralph was traded, and in 1988, I was traded to Sacramento.”
And then in 1989, Petersen was traded again — to Golden State, for Ralph Sampson.
The plot twists in those first five NBA seasons were excellent preparation for Petersen’s two decades as an on-air analyst for the Timberwolves. He started on radio in 1998-99, did one year of TV in 2000-2001, went back to radio for a couple of seasons when Mychal Thompson took over on TV, and now has been the Wolves analyst on FSN since 2003-04.
He is “Jim Pete” to all Minnesota basketball fans, and for the past decade, he’s been our equivalent to Harry Caray with the Cubs or Bob Uecker with the Brewers through all the losing seasons in Chicago and Milwaukee:
A member of the on-air broadcast crew more popular than any personality associated with the team.
Harry promoted himself, and Uecker was “Uuu-kk,” but Jim Pete has gained this status through energetic and spot-on analysis even as a star-crossed franchise has stumbled through 13 non-playoff seasons.
“I have to remind people all the time that my first few years were great: We had KG, a terrific coaching staff led by Flip [Saunders], the playoffs were a given, and it was just a question if this was the year we would get through the first round,” Petersen said.
“Then, 2003-04 was my first season back on TV, and we reached the Western Conference finals, and KG was the best player in the league. And I said, ‘Man, we’re going to win 50 or more for the next few years and make playoff runs.’ ”
Much like the thoughts after that second season in Houston, way back in 1985-86? “Exactly,” Petersen said.
Jim Pete did have the playoff runs in Minnesota, although those came after he signed as an assistant to Jennifer Gillom with the Lynx coaching staff in 2009. Cheryl Reeve became the head coach a year later, and then Maya Moore arrived as a superstar in 2011, and titles followed — 2011, 2013 and 2015.
“I virtually didn’t play golf for nine summers,” Petersen said. “Gorgeous day outside and I was in front of a computer watching video. There’s nothing that does more for your knowledge of Xs and Os than game planning to execute [offensive] action or to stop another team.
“Nobody else in the NBA was doing that — analyzing on TV and coaching in the WNBA.”
Last January, Petersen announced he was giving up the Lynx job. They won another title without him, and he couldn’t be happier.
And now, finally, after 13 seasons, he can truly look forward to a Wolves push to the playoffs.
Right, Jim Pete?
“I’m gullible … no, I won’t call it gullible, but I’m an optimist,” Petersen said. “I’ve always been able to start the year excited by the idea that if positive things happened with a few players, the season would be a step forward for the Timberwolves.”
Jim Pete paused for a moment and said: “This time, that optimism is more realistic.”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org