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Timberwolves Turning Thirty!

Many decades of trials and tribulations by Minnesota’s professional basketball team and others—on the courts and in them.


1219_Basketball-150As the Minnesota Timberwolves play their 30th season in the National Basketball Association (NBA) this fall, the team can look back at a long history of basketball-related litigation in this state.

The Timberwolves brought professional basketball back to Minnesota in 1989, following a history of championship teams, followed by a long drought and other travails. The season of its 30th birthday, along with the silver anniversary of its current ownership, provides an opportune occasion to look back at some of the litigation lore the sport has created in this state at both professional and amateur levels.

Squad sites

Long before its first tipoff in the fall of 1989, the team was involved in litigation. The site of the Timberwolves’ new home-to-be, Target Center, in the warehouse district in downtown Minneapolis, was at the center of a landlord-tenant dispute in Wong Kong Harm Wun Sun Assoc. v. Chin.1 The owner of the premises leased a building in 1986 for three years, requiring the owner to give the Timberwolves an option to purchase the property, which required that the owner terminate the lease with the tenant in midterm. A default eviction against the tenant was reversed by the court of appeals, reasoning that the tenant had satisfied the four conditions necessary to reopen a judgment under Rule 60 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure: a reasonable defense on the merits; reasonable excuse for the default; exercise of due diligence after notice of default; and absence of substantial prejudice to the other side.

The landlord and Timberwolves resolved their dispute and the Timberwolves ultimately purchased the property and razed it to construct the arena and adjoining health club, where the team has played since the franchise’s inaugural season in the Metrodome. 

But within a few years, the club was floundering on the court and at the box office, leading to an attempt to sell the team to a group in New Orleans after that city’s NBA team, the Jazz, moved to Utah.

Dueling lawsuits sprang up here and in New Orleans regarding the prospective transfer. U. S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum in downtown Minneapolis, a few blocks from the Target Center, enjoined the proposed move, which the 8th Circuit affirmed in National Basketball Ass’n. v. Minnesota Professional Basketball, Ltd. Partnership.2 The appellate court upheld the judge’s injunction against implementing a parallel Louisiana state court ruling barring the federal lawsuit because it properly fell within the “litigation exception” of the Federal Anti-Injunction Act, 28 U. S.C. §2283, and the injunction eviscerated financing for the move. The denouement was the purchase in 1994 of the team for $88.5 million by Mankato mogul Glen Taylor, while New Orleans was subsequently granted a new NBA expansion franchise later renamed the Pelicans. Both squads have generally struggled, including 13 straight losing seasons for the Timberwolves, following a run of eight play-off seasons from 1997-2004 with star player Kevin Garnett under the tutelage of the late coach Flip Saunders, whose son is now the squad’s head coach.

While the team has endured setbacks on the hardwood, the investment by Taylor, who also owns the StarTribune newspaper, has blossomed by 15 times in value into a team worth $1.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

Predecessor problems

The Timberwolves’ predecessor professional basketball teams in Minnesota also encountered their share of litigation problems. 

The Minneapolis Lakers—NBA champs five times in the smaller-scale league of 1948 to 1954—were sued by a minority shareholder seeking examination of the corporate records in Skutt v. Minneapolis Basketball Corp.3 The case reached the Minnesota Supreme Court in late 1961, not long after the team’s owner, Bob Short, had moved the franchise to Los Angeles. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal on grounds that a lower court order to examine the corporate books was interlocutory and not appealable. 

The Lakers’ departure for Los Angeles in 1960 left the state bereft of professional basketball until 1967, when the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA) placed a club known as the Minnesota Muskies in the Twin Cities. That team generated as much action in court as on the court. The Muskies, who played for one season, 1967-68, spawned a couple of major contract lawsuits in their brief existence, and their successor in the ABA, the Pipers, became enmeshed in yet another. 

In Minnesota Muskies, Inc. v. Hudson,4 the Muskies team sought to spirit away former University of Minnesota Gopher basketball star Lou Hudson from the Atlanta Hawks of the rival NBA. By the time the matter reached court, the Muskies had completed their lone season in Minnesota and transferred to Miami, where they were known as the Miami Floridians. The federal district court in North Carolina, Hudson’s home jurisdiction, rejected an attempt by the Floridians, f/k/a Muskies, to enjoin Hudson from playing for the Hawks on the grounds that the ABA team was guilty of “unclean hands” in inducing the ballplayer to leave his NBA squad while he still had a legal, if not “moral,” obligation to the Hawks. The court excoriated the general manager of the Muskies for conduct “so tainted with unfairness and injustice as to justify a Court of equity in withholding relief.”5 

Coach cases

Basketball coaches go from the hardwood courts to the judicial ones from time to time. The latest instance occurred this fall when the state Supreme Court allowed the former coach of the Woodbury High School girls’ team to proceed with a defamation action against an ex-player’s mother who made highly critical and disparaging statements about the conduct of the coach in McGuire v. Bowlin.6

Reversing trial and appellate court rulings, the justices unanimously held that the coach, who also taught kindergarten, is not a “public official” or “public figure” for purposes of the heightened proof requirement of “actual malice,” meaning knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth, required for those who fall into those categories under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.7 While recognizing that the Minnesota Court of Appeals has deemed public school teachers to be subject to the Times doctrine, the Court refused to follow that line of reasoning, which diverged from the majority of jurisdictions that have addressed this issue. Instead, it unanimously ruled that the coaching was not a “vital governmental function… [or] fundamental to democracy.”

But it did uphold dismissal of claims against three other parents on qualified privilege grounds because the coach did not appeal from the appellate court ruling on that issue. As a result, the case was remanded for trial in Washington County with respect to the one remaining parent defendant. 

A long-time boys’ basketball coach at the now-defunct Marshall High School in Minneapolis was denied tenure when challenging the non-renewal of his coaching position. The state Supreme Court held that the teacher tenure law, Minn. Stat. §125.17, did not cover coaching, a decision conforming to the “unanimity” in other jurisdictions “denying tenure to coaches and other similar positions.” Subsequent changes to the statute have slightly enlarged the rights of coaches in challenging terminations, but have not extended tenure to them. E.g. Stang v. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 191;8 Hahn v. Ind. Sch. District No. 378.9 

Collegiate cases 

Lou Hudson was not the only University of Minnesota basketball player to become embroiled in litigation. Another case arose in February 1972, when two star Gophers players, Ron Behagen and Corky Taylor, were suspended for their part in an infamous in-game altercation between the defending Big Ten Champion Gophers and Ohio State. In Behagen v. Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives,10 U.S. District Court Judge Earl R. Larson enjoined the players’ suspensions on grounds that they were denied due process by not being given notices of the charges or a hearing. The players returned to the team but were unable to help it defend its conference title. 

Five years later, another eligibility fracas involved the University’s attempt to stop the NCAA from placing the basketball team on probation because the squad refused to abide by an NCAA directive to declare star center Mychal Thompson and two teammates ineligible due to receiving “extra benefits” in violation of the NCAA regulations. In Regents of the University of Minnesota v. The National Collegiate Athletic Association,11 the 8th Circuit reversed an injunction against the NCAA issued by Chief Judge Edward Devitt of the U.S. District Court here, reasoning that the NCAA had accorded due process to the university and the players in its fact-finding procedures, and the school was contractually obliged to abide by the NCAA probation.12 As a result, Thompson and his teammates were required to sit out several games that season, costing the progam a chance to win the Big Ten title. 

Another stellar Gopher basketball player, guard Mark Hall, ran into eligibility problems in the early 1980s and turned to the judicial arena for assistance. In Hall v. University of Minnesota,13 the player, who came here from Massachusetts, sued the university seeking to continue his schooling so he could retain his eligibility to play during his senior year. Saying the case raised “serious and troubling” questions regarding intercollegiate college sports, U.S. District Court Judge Miles Lord ordered the university to allow Hall to enter an appropriate scholastic program because he was enticed to come to the university from his home “to be a basketball player and not a scholar.”14 

A former prizefighter, the feisty jurist threw a judicial haymaker at the college athletic establishment, expressing an acidic view of the “tug of war” between academic achievement and athletic eligibility and ruling in favor of the player’s interest in resuming intercollegiate basketball and enhancing his chances for a professional career. Hall returned to the team, but soon left the squad, which went on to win another Big Ten title without him. He never made it in professional basketball and later died in a cocaine-related incident.

Injuries & insurance

Although not generally regarded as a violent sport, basketball leaves its share of bumps and bruises on the participants. Occasionally, these injuries result in litigation, as in Interstate Fire & Casualty Co. v. Auto Owners Insurance Co., which arose out of a scuffle during a basketball game in a high school physical education class. One of two boys fighting for the basketball suffered serious injuries that left him a quadriplegic.15 

The legal dispute concerned who was responsible for payment: the school’s excess insurer or the insurer that issued the homeowner’s policy covering the liability for the boy who caused the injuries. The Supreme Court held that the school’s coverage was applicable because it more clearly intended to insure against accidents occurring on school property. The Court rejected an analysis based on which insurer was “closest-to-the-risk” and looked, instead, to the overall “insuring intent” of the respective policies, concluding that the school’s excess coverage applied.

The scope of the duty of a liability insurer and school district to defend a teacher accused of sexual abuse was addressed in a basketball-related case in Horace Mann Insurance Company v. Independent School District No. 656.16 A member of a girls’ high school basketball team brought a civil action against the assistant coach, alleging sexual misconduct. The school district’s general liability insurer prevailed in a declaratory judgment action where the court found that the “intentional damages” exclusion in the policy precluded any obligation to defend or indemnify. The school district, on the other hand, was held to have “an absolute statutory duty” under Minn. Stat. 127.03, subd. 2 to defend the embattled teacher but was not required to indemnify him if he was found liable for misconduct. 

Not all personal injury litigation arising from basketball in Minnesota occurs on the court or in the gymnasium. In Hamilton v. Independent School Dist. No. 114, a student was injured when he fell on a sidewalk as a result of horseplay with a group of spectators as the group was leaving a high school basketball game in the north central community of Backus.17 The appellate court reversed a grant of summary judgment by the Cass County trial court. It reasoned that disputed-act issues existed regarding the school district’s duty to monitor and supervise student hijinks after the game.

A more unusual injury to a basketball player led to a determination of liability in Pumper v. Rochester Ind. School Dist. No. 535, a case in which a participant in a youth basketball game tournament in a gymnasium at a public school in Rochester was knocked over while guarding an opponent who was driving toward the basket. As the defender fell, his left arm slid underneath the nearby bleachers adjoining the court, resulting in multiple fractures and permanent disability.18 The appellate court affirmed a jury finding that the school district was negligent for failing “to maintain the gymnasium in a safe condition.” The court rejected an assumption-of-risk defense and other issues raised by the school district. 

Criminal conduct

Criminal conduct has also been litigated in several Minnesota basketball cases. Evidence and procedural rules were at issue in State v. Lee,19 which involved criminal sexual charges against University of Minnesota basketball player Mitchell Lee. The basketball player sought to suppress statements he made to a counselor about the incident, which occurred in a university dormitory. The Hennepin County District Court suppressed the statements, and the appellate court affirmed on grounds that the challenged statements did not seem likely to have “critical impact” on the trial, the victim was competent to testify, and her version of events was supported by other corroborating evidence. Lee was tried and acquitted, as he was in an earlier sexual assault case in Madison, Wisconsin, along with two teammates. But Lee was then kicked off the team after he showed up at a game with a celebratory haircut in the shape of a champagne glass following his second acquittal—which did not go over well with the team’s coach, Jim Dutcher, or university officials and many other observers. 

Gambling is a criminal offense often associated with basketball in Minnesota law, as reflected in two federal court cases arising out of the state. In Truchinski v. United States,20 the 8th Circuit upheld the conviction of a basketball bookmaker, rejecting the contention that the federal wagering law violated the right of free speech. And the means used to conduct basketball wagering was held subject to forfeiture under federal law in One 1961 Lincoln Continental Sedan v. United States.21 The court of appeals ruled that the gambler’s car and the currency found in the car were properly seized since they were used in the illicit gambling operations. 

MARSHALL H. TANICK is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick. He is certified as a Civil Law Specialist by the Minnesota State Bar Association. He has been an amateur championship basketball player and coach but never made it to the pros on the court or the bench.

Notes

1 Wong Kong Harm Wun Sun Assoc. v. Chin, 1988 WL 33169 (Minn. App. 1988)(unpublished).

2 National Basketball Ass’n. v. Minnesota Professional Basketball, Ltd. Partnership, 56 F.3d 866 (8th Cir. 1995).

3 Skutt v. Minneapolis Basketball Corp., 261 Minn. 577, 110 N.W.2d 495 (1961).

4 Minnesota Muskies, Inc. v. Hudson, 294 F. Supp. 979 (M.D. N.C. 1969).

5 294 F.Supp at 990.

6 McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019 WL 4180048 (Minn. 9/4/2019).

7 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

8 Stang v. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 191, 356 N.W.2d 82 (Minn. 1991).

9 Hahn v. Ind. Sch. District No. 378, 386 N.W.2d 789 (Minn. App. 1986). 

10 Behagen v. Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, 346 F.Supp. 602 (D. Minn. 1972).

11 Regents of the University of Minnesota v. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, 560 F.2d 352 (8th Cir. 1976).

12 422 F.Supp. 1158 (D. Minn. 1976).

13 Hall v. University of Minnesota, 530 F.Supp. 104 (D. Minn. 1982).

14 530 F.Supp. at 104, 106.

15 Interstate Fire & Casualty Co. v. Auto Owners Insurance Co., 433 N.W.2d 82 (Minn. 1988).

16 Horace Mann Insurance Company v. Independent School District No. 656, 355 N.W.2d 413 (Minn. 1984).

17 Hamilton v. Independent School Dist. No. 114, 355 N.W.2d 182 (Minn. App. 1984).

18 Pumper v. Rochester Ind. School Dist. No. 535, 1989 WL 17603 (Minn. Ct. App 1989) (unpublished).

19 State v. Lee, 376 N.W.2d 259 (Minn. App. 1985).

20 Truchinski v. United States, 393 F.2d 627 (8th Cir. 1963).

21 One 1961 Lincoln Continental Sedan v. United States, 360 F.2d 467 (8th Cir. 1966).