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Kahn: T-Wolves can be better

On Sports
by:  DAVID KAHN

In the sportswriting business, we occasionally observe the performance of a college or pro coach or executive and figure we could do it better.

One of ours is actually getting the chance - and he's a Portland boy.

David Kahn is completing his second year as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Back in another lifetime - from 1983-89 - I worked alongside the Wilson High grad in the sports department at The Oregonian.

Kahn was sharp and intrepid during his time with the newspaper, but did I figure he'd one day be running an NBA front office? Nope.

But Kahn did.

'Somewhat yes, somewhat no,' he qualifies. 'Nobody can just shut their eyes and wish it true. I did feel if I took the necessary steps - law school, working my way up - maybe some day there would be an opportunity.

'If you really apply yourself and strive and are putting in long hours, you have a shot at something. I felt I could give myself a shot.'

Kahn, who turns 50 on July 30, says he felt that way by age 25 or 26. So after he left the newspaper, he did what any sportswriter would do - went to law school. After getting his law degree from New York University in 1993, Kahn spent two years for the law firm with which NBA Commissioner David Stern had previously worked. Connections never hurt.

During those years, Kahn also served as a studio information aide for NBC's 'Showtime' show, working with the likes of Pat Riley and Bob Costas.

'When Pat went back to coach the Knicks, he considered me for an assistant coaching position,' Kahn says. 'I was still in law school. He did not offer me a position. If he had, I'd have had a difficult decision to make.'

In 1995, Kahn was hired by Donnie Walsh to work with the Indiana Pacers - first as assistant to the president, then as assistant general manager, then as GM. With Walsh as a mentor, Kahn oversaw construction of Conseco Fieldhouse and began to learn the ropes as an NBA executive.

'Donnie was kind to me in allowing me a full range of opportunities with the franchise to learn the business from the ground up - with not just the fieldhouse project, but on the basketball and business side,' Kahn says. 'I'll be forever grateful.'

Rumble over Rambis

While still working as a consultant with the Pacers, Kahn returned to Portland and spearheaded a campaign to bring major league baseball to the city. A bill tied to taxation of player salaries passed in the state senate, allocating $150 million to construction of a new stadium, but the stadium has never been built.

Kahn later put together an ownership group that bought several franchises in the NBA Development League before being signed to a four-year contract as president of basketball operations at Minnesota in May 2009.

Almost from the day he was hired, Kahn has been a controversial figure, a magnet for criticism from fans and media. Saying he intended to treat incumbent coach Kevin McHale with respect, Kahn waited nearly a month to fire him. He didn't hire replacement Kurt Rambis until Aug. 10, leaving the Timberwolves behind in preparation for the 2009-10 season.

Kahn took a pair of point guards, Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn of Syracuse, with the fifth and sixth picks in the 2009 draft. Rubio has played in Europe the past two seasons and Flynn - now with Houston - was unimpressive in Rambis' triangle offense.

In his two seasons, Rambis has gone an NBA-worst 32-132. At the end of the 2010-11 season, Kahn told media, 'This is two years in a row that, for whatever reason, the team didn't improve as the season went on.'

This past season, Kahn says, 'I feel very strongly we lost at least 12 to 14 games we should have won. If we had won 30 games, people would have perceived we're on the right track.'

'The roster and the talent standpoint is better and younger than the one I inherited, but at the end of the day, everything will be measured by wins and losses and playoff appearances and whatnot,' he says. 'Until we start winning, I would say anyone should look at my performance and not be very impressed.'

Kahn's frankness and dry wit has gotten him into trouble on occasion.

Last summer, he was fined $50,000 by the NBA for saying during a radio interview that Minnesota forward Michael Beasley was 'a very young and immature kid who smoked too much marijuana' as a youngster.

During this year's draft lottery, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert sent his teenage son, Nick, who is battling Neurofibromatosis, to represent the Cavaliers. The Timberwolves, with the league's worst record at 17-65, owned the greatest odds of winning but finished second to the Cavs.

Afterward, Kahn remarked, 'This league has a habit - I'm just going to say a habit - of producing some pretty incredible story lines. Last year it was Abe Pollin's widow, and this year it was a 14-year-old boy, and the only thing we have in common is we've both been bar-mitzvahed. We were done. We were toast.'

Kahn meant it as a joke. Some took it as an accusation of conspiracy by the league. He wasn't fined, but he was hammered by the people's court.

'The people who were there laughed,' he says. 'That's water under the bridge, but it shows how context is important.

'In today's world, there isn't much context. There's a rush to put something online, because what seems to me is being valued are page views or notices. The good news is that in today's culture, it lasts for six hours and goes away. Nothing's very permanent.'

Job prospects stumble

Kahn's latest transgression is his handling of Rambis, who has not officially been fired but seems doomed to be gone after a new collective-bargaining agreement is put in place. Why not fire him the day after the season, pundits have asked? Kahn says he is not at liberty to discuss the subject.

Having been on the other side of the keyboard, Kahn has developed a thick skin toward media and bloggers questioning his every move.

'That's kind of the way it is today,' he says. 'I don't see myself as being more unfairly treated than anybody else. Unfortunately, it's a sound-bite culture we live in.'

Minnesota has collected a promising nucleus of young talent, including forwards Beasley, Kevin Love and Wes Johnson, swing man Martell Webster and centers Anthony Randolph and Darko Milicic. Rubio, still only 20, has been signed to share point-guard duty with veteran Luke Ridnour.

'Ricky is going to be very good,' Kahn says. 'I'm not saying an All-Star, but he'll make the game so much easier for our guys. He sees the floor so well.'

Kahn - who retains a home in Portland but also rents a house in Minneapolis and spends most of his time there - has never been lacking in the self-confidence department. He retains his chutzpah with a dash of reality, knowing full well he will be judged by the progress he makes with the team next season.

'You have to go through some pain,' he says. 'It's not supposed to easy. We're not only rebuilding, we had to do a tear-down.

'We underachieved last year in many ways, but I'm very excited about the talent level we have on our club now. We're set up pretty darn well. We're going to be pretty good in the next year or two.'

I know one thing. If Kahn fails, my chances of landing a front-office gig in the NBA will plummet.

You go, guy.