Could up-and-coming basketball talents like Apple Valley grad Tyus Jones soon be playing regularly at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester?
The Rochester Amateur Sports Commission formally filed paperwork Wednesday seeking to become the host city for the Minnesota Timberwolves' D-League affiliate, according to RASC executive director Ed Hruska.
Hruska said Friday that Timberwolves President Chris Wright quietly toured the Mayo Civic Center last summer while scouting out a potential home for the basketball franchise's NBDL affiliate. However, Hruska didn't hear anything back from Wright until just before Christmas, when the Wolves requested a host proposal that detailed information on the city, arena, market and local support.
Hruska said he was given a deadline of Jan. 6 to submit that proposal. He's now playing the waiting game.
"One thing I can remember when Chris looked at the facility is he said it's a bit tired," Hruska said. "There's a lot of options out there and ours is 30 years old, so we're not super equipped to do this right now. It's not the ideal situation is kind of the sense I got from him.
"But (Rochester) is close, it's in the state, and there's already the Mayo (Clinic) relationship."
The Timberwolves will be one of just eight NBA franchises without a D-League affiliate when the 2016-17 basketball season opens next fall. The league has moved toward a more true minor league system in recent years, where each franchise has a direct player pool available for midseason call-ups. But Minnesota has proved to be one of the last holdouts to that arrangement.
The Wolves' exploration of a host city has been a highly secretive process, with Rochester believed to be the first city publicly identified as being in contact with the organization about hosting. Hruska says he "got the feeling" that the Wolves are weighing the pros and cons of "a handful of cities."
The Wolves avoided specifics while providing the Post-Bulletin with a response to this week's report.
"The Minnesota Timberwolves are always exploring ways to better develop our young players and grow the game of basketball," said Ted Johnson, Timberwolves' chief strategy and development officer. "In the last number of years the D-League and its affiliate relationships with NBA teams have become an increasingly important way of doing this.
"Having your own team in the D-League allows teams to closely monitor the development of their players in a way that allows greater collaboration and sharing of resources. As such, we continue to explore multiple areas for growth and expansion of our organization, including the possible addition of a D-League team."
Many have speculated that Rochester would be an ideal location for the NBDL franchise due to the easy 90-mile commute from Target Center, the existing corporate partnership with Mayo Clinic and the presence of the Mayo Civic Center, where an $84 million upgrade is roughly halfway completed.
Rochester is already in the midst of a $6 billion initiative called Destination Medical Center that's expected to double the city's population by 2035.
Matt Esau, Mayo Civic Center's director of sales, helped Hruska gather the requested information and believes a D-League team would be a good addition to the community.
"We are excited about that possibility here at the Civic Center, and think that Rochester would be supportive of a team with high-talent level like that" Esau said.
The Mayo Clinic, which declined comment via email, has a strong existing partnership with the Minnesota Lynx and Timberwolves. The Lynx jerseys bear Mayo Clinic's name, while the medical behemoth opened Mayo Clinic Square directly across from Target Center in 2014 in a building it shares with Minnesota's basketball franchises.
Timberwolves blogger William Bohl, of ESPN's Truehoop Network, wrote in November that selecting Rochester as the host city "almost makes too much sense," specifically highlighting the Mayo Clinic ties, proximity to Target Center, and distance from other D-League teams like Sioux Falls, S.D., Des Moines, Iowa, and Fort Wayne, Ind. He went so far as recommending the name of Rochester Fangs, which plays off the Timberwolves' motif, and speculating that Ryan Saunders, son of recently deceased general manager and coach Flip Saunders, could serve as the head coach.
However, the situation remains highly speculative with an unclear deadline for a final decision.
The $84 million renovation will greatly improve the Civic Center, highlighted by new locker rooms that made the proposal even possible, but the 5,300-seat Taylor Arena will otherwise barely be touched in the current plans. Hruska says Taylor Arena's amenities — or lack thereof — could create an "uphill challenge" without further investment in arena-specific renovations.
Additionally, a feasibility study commissioned by the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau over the summer recommended replacing Taylor Arena with a multipurpose arena aimed at luring a United States Hockey League franchise to town. That project is projected to cost up to an additional $75 million, but doesn't have any clear funding mechanism and was met by mixed reaction from the Rochester City Council in October. Some have also questioned the feasibility study.
Hruska, who is also a city council member, declined to comment on how — or if — the two potential tenants would coexist during the winter season, noting it's far too early in the process for those discussions.