The transaction took place somewhere on or near Lake of the Woods last summer. Maybe on the Canada side of the lake. Maybe on the Minnesota side. Maybe in a boat in the middle. Maybe all of those places. Tom Gugliotta was given his own NBA team. "Here, take my team," Minnesota Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale essentially said. "The whole team. Yours."
The actual exchange might have been more drawn out, spread across a week as the two men hunted and fished and explored the lake's vast and quiet perimeter, but the basic message was the same: The Timberwolves belong to you. How well you do is how well they'll do.
A trade late in the 1995-96 season, forward-center Christian Laettner shipped to the Hawks, had freed up room on the floor for Gugliotta, a forward. Another deal would happen over the summer of '96, guard Isaiah Rider to the Trail Blazers. The grand future would be tied to the fortunes of two prodigies, forward Kevin Garnett and newly drafted point guard Stephon Marbury, but the immediate future would be handed to Gugliotta, a 6'10", 27-year-old Noo Yawkah from suburban Huntington Station.
"There are rental cars and there are cars you own," McHale recalls explaining to Gugliotta. "Do you know how you get that rental car, and you eat a meal from McDonald's, and you just throw the trash in the back? It's a lot different when you're driving that Mercedes you just bought, isn't it? Throw some trash in the backseat of your own car? Forget it.
"What we've had in Minnesota for a long time are players who were looking at us as the rental car. They didn't want to be here. I'm sick of rental players. I want players with a pride of ownership. When I'm done, the team belongs to you. Can you handle it?"
As Gugliotta accepted the responsibility, he wondered, as he often does these days, what his father would think about this. "I think about my father a lot," he says. "The fact that he's not here to be a part of all this...it's a shame. He's the most important reason I'm here. He's the one who encouraged me, who never told me all of this was impossible."
When Frank Gugliotta died of lung cancer in October 1988, the best parts of Tom's story were only beginning. Tom was starting his freshman year at North Carolina State, given the last available scholarship mostly as a favor to Frank by Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano.
Frank had been the basketball coach at Walt Whitman High in Huntington Station for 32 years. A World War II veteran, a disciplinarian. Tom was the youngest of seven kids, three boys and four girls. There was a basketball hoop in the front yard, regulation rim mounted on regulation backboard.
"Basketball was just part of our lives," Tom's mother, Helen, says. "I've smelled every sweaty gym from here to Bridgehampton. Frank was one of those Bobby Knight kind of coaches. He never threw a chair, maybe, but I saw him kick a lot of them. Tommy, being the youngest, grew up around the game. He was always playing, always going with Frank to summer camps."
By the time Tom reached high school, Frank had retired, bothered by an aching hip, but he still went to some of the practices and all of the games, still taught the essentials to his final basketball student. When Tom finished high school, having grown since ninth grade from a 6'1", 160-pound guard to a 6'7", 190-pound perimeter-shooting forward, he had drawn interest from colleges in the region. Iona. Fairfield. Massachusetts, before its recent ascent. Big-time schools were not involved.