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Kurt Rambis survives being thrown to the Wolves

The former Lakers assistant coach is the lead man in Minnesota and he's staying positive despite a 3-19 start.

December 11, 2009|By Mike Bresnahan
  • Coach Kurt Rambis talks to Timberwolves guard Damien Wilkins during the team's home opener.
Coach Kurt Rambis talks to Timberwolves guard Damien Wilkins during the… (Genevieve Ross / Getty Images )

It looked as if Kurt Rambis never left town.

He stood on the Lakers' practice court Thursday in El Segundo and cracked jokes with Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, whittling away the time as players shot free throws after practice.

In a window behind him, up over his right shoulder, stood a row of championship trophies, many of which he helped win as a player and later an assistant coach with the Lakers.

Then Rambis turned to a guy wearing a wolf logo on his shirt and asked him to text some information. Next was a quick conversation with a trainer not named Gary Vitti.

Rambis definitely isn't part of the Lakers any more.

He is a few months into his first season as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that is 3-19 going into tonight's game against the Lakers at Staples Center.

Rambis spent the previous five seasons as a Lakers assistant and will receive his NBA championship ring from last season in a brief pregame ceremony. Then reality will enter the picture. The Timberwolves are light years from the Lakers.

They run the same offense -- Rambis brought the triangle with him to the Twin Cities -- but the Timberwolves are considerably younger and don't have three All-Star candidates.

It's probably a good thing Rambis signed a four-year deal to coach them. Time is needed to retool a franchise that never really recovered after losing to the Lakers in the 2004 Western Conference finals. The Timberwolves haven't returned to the playoffs since then. Their last two seasons have been debacles: 22-60 and 24-58.

At this point, they'd be ecstatic to get 24 victories.

They have earned victories over Denver and Utah but there have been plenty of blowout losses -- 146-105 against Golden State, 106-78 against Portland and 120-95 against Phoenix.

Rambis hasn't let it affect the players as the losses stack up around their high-tops.

"I think we're all up and keeping everything positive," said Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love, in his second season out of UCLA. "In the end, we still only have three wins, but in the past week or two, we've really played well. We've had chances to win. We just need to find ways to close out games."

Love considers himself a Rambis convert despite being upset that former Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale was fired in June.

Love wanted to learn post moves from McHale, one of the best ever in the NBA trenches, and was disappointed when McHale was let go, inadvertently breaking the news of it on his Twitter account with a dispatch that stated, "Today is a sad day. . . . "

There have been quite a few sad days this season, but the Timberwolves remain resolute.

"There's been no finger-pointing. There's nothing bad in the locker room," Rambis said. "Guys get disappointed when they lose, but they come to work the next day. Good attitudes. From that perspective, it's a very enjoyable experience coaching them."

The Timberwolves' backcourt consists of Jonny Flynn, who is making his share of rookie mistakes, and Corey Brewer, who sat out the last five months of last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Center Al Jefferson is coming off the same knee injury and hasn't come close to matching the 23.1 points and 11 rebounds he was averaging when he got hurt last February. Love recently returned after missing 18 games because of a broken bone in his left hand.

All this losing is new territory for Rambis, who was part of a staff that went to the last two NBA Finals. Still, he said he made the right move to leave the Lakers.

"This is what I was teaching myself, and Phil [Jackson] was helping me get to this point so I could take over another team," Rambis said. "It was an easy decision for me to make the decision, make the shift and move to Minneapolis with the Timberwolves. To me, it feels very natural."

It has also been difficult.

Rambis, 51, had been an ardent supporter of his kids' burgeoning volleyball careers, but he didn't see many of his youngest daughter's matches in her senior season at Manhattan Beach Mira Costa High.

Rambis' wife, Linda, has stayed in Los Angeles but has made at least half a dozen trips to Minneapolis, where Rambis lives downtown near the arena. Some of their kids joined her for a Thanksgiving trip out there.

On the court, it hasn't all been doom and gloom.

The Timberwolves held "Kurt Rambis Night" two weeks ago in a game against Phoenix, handing out Clark Kent-style glasses to fans in attendance. Love, injured at the time, wore them while sitting behind the bench.

Love also ribbed Rambis' choice of a winter coat.

"The outside was like a certain kind of suede, but it looked like kind of a leather and the inside was furry . . . I can't even explain it . . . off-set browns?" he said. "That's actually his best jacket. And his worst."

Said Rambis, smiling: "It was the warmest California jacket that I had, so that's where I started from."

Rambis keeps in touch with Jackson and has high expectations for the Lakers.

"They're built to win and they have a lot of pressure on them because anything short of a championship this year will probably be a bad season for them, assuming everything stays normal and everybody stays healthy," he said. "They look so good -- big, slow, small, fast, any sort of lineup that Phil wants to put out there. I don't see any other team even comparing to them this year."

Under Rambis, the Timberwolves hope they're eventually a team with big expectations.

"As time passes and we get more experienced as a team and get older as a team, we're going to be a lot better," Love said. "A lot is going to be attributed to him."

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

Tonight

LAKERS VS. MINNESOTA

Staples Center, 7:30, FS West

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