NBA playoffs 2024: Timberwolves fan Craig Kilborn is loving the West finals against the Mavs

Stephen A.: Ant Man messed up calling out Kyrie (2:40)

Stephen A. Smith explains why he thinks Anthony Edwards calling out Kyrie Irving was a bad move. (2:40)

IT'S THE NIGHT before the Minnesota Timberwolves' biggest game to date in 20 years -- hosting the defending champion Denver Nuggets with a chance to go up 3-1 in the conference semifinals on May 12 -- and sitting at a corner booth at The Lexington supper club in St. Paul is one of Minnesota's native sons back doing some hosting of his own.

Dressed in a navy three-piece suit and tortoiseshell-framed glasses, Craig Kilborn has a captive audience.

He shares stories, cracks jokes and revels in an evening that typifies what the 61-year-old -- whose autographed photo hangs on the wall along the corridor to the men's restroom -- refers to as, The Life Gorgeous. It's a phrase the former ESPN anchor and late-night host defines as, "Living the right way, enjoying the simple things in life ... It's elevated taste, yet being down-to-earth."

Entertaining his friends Charlie and Jim, Kilborn opens his monologue to the Lexington staff.

"Someone would like a vodka martini," Kilborn says to the restaurant attendant before ordering his shaken, with Chopin Vodka and three blue cheese-stuffed olives.

"I bruise the vodka," he says to his tablemates after drink orders have been taken, revealing a wry smile. Once the entrees arrive, Kilborn breaks out a version of his old, reliable bit, "5 Questions," going around the table to ask for each diner's five favorite movies.

Kilborn, who during a 12-year run in the 1990s through the early aughts hosted "SportsCenter'' on ESPN, "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central and "The Late Late Show" on CBS, is visiting near his hometown of Hastings, Minnesota, because of his Timberwolves.

Kilborn fell in love with basketball because of his father, Hiram, a New York transplant in the Midwest. "My favorite player was Walt 'Clyde' Frazier," Kilborn said. "And I got his book, 'Rocking Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool.'"

When the NBA expanded from 25 to 27 teams in 1989 -- adding Minnesota and the Orlando Magic -- Hiram recorded the new midwestern franchise's first televised game on VHS as a keepsake for his son who was "addicted" to hoops and who played for Division I Montana State.

Kilborn's decades of Timberwolves allegiance have paid off, finally rooting for an NBA contender for the first time since Kevin Garnett was battling on the block with Tim Duncan and he was following David Letterman on late-night TV.

And the Wolves, who are looking to even these West finals against the Dallas Mavericks for a chance to earn the franchise's first NBA Finals berth, are happy to have Kilborn's unwavering support.

"When he was in his heyday on "SportsCenter" and late night, it was basically around the time when the team was kind of in their heyday," Wolves coach Chris Finch told ESPN. "So it's a really cool link to the past."

"Finchy," as he's exclusively called by Kilborn (who will often apply the nicknames "Craiggers" or "Lord Kilby" when referring to himself), has been a guest on Kilborn's lifestyle podcast, aptly titled, "The Life Gorgeous."

Alex Rodriguez, who along with Marc Lore is currently in a legal battle with Glen Taylor over ownership of the team, has been a guest on the podcast as well.

"He's, I think, a microcosm of this great fan base," Rodriguez told ESPN. "He's waited patiently and he's never left. He's always been on the bandwagon. And you feel best for people that have been around for so long and now it's their day."

Added Finch: "He's fun. He's funny. But with him it's always, you never know if he's in character or not, you know? Super, super sharp. Kind of like a savant.

"And his sense of humor, it makes you think."

"FUN" ISN'T HOW many Minnesota fans would describe the Timberwolves' past.

They've had more seasons with 20 wins or fewer (seven) than seasons with 50 wins or more (five). They've qualified for the playoffs just 12 times in 35 seasons and made it past the first round twice: in 2004, when Garnett was MVP, First-Team All-NBA and First-Team All-Defense; and this year, when Anthony Edwards was Second-Team All-NBA at just 22 years old.

Garnett never made it back to the postseason with the Wolves after that 2004 run and was dealt to the Boston Celtics in 2007. The franchise endured 13 years without a playoff game before No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Edwards took Minnesota to the postseason in four of the past seven years.

"There was that desert of bad teams after KG was traded," Kilborn said. "I set the bar kind of low. I'm just grateful there's a team. We have a team in Minnesota. I basically would tell people I would enjoy the 20 wins that we would get each season."

And the drought from the Garnett era to Edwards' today never lost Kilborn. "I just remember not missing a lot of games," Kilborn said. "At some point I watched every Wolves game."

"My Instagram is where I celebrate ascots and cheese, deep breathing in French restaurants, bonding with chilled martinis, and, of course, my beloved Timberwolves." Craig Kilborn

As the team changed, so did Kilborn's outlet. He escaped late-night television and reintroduced himself a generation later on his podcast and through social media.

"My favorite is still my Instagram," Kilborn said. "It's one of the most satisfying things I've ever done. It best captures my voice. My Instagram is where I celebrate ascots and cheese, deep breathing in French restaurants, bonding with chilled martinis, and, of course, my beloved Timberwolves."

This over-the-top aristocratic tone is the reason Finch calls into question whether Kilborn is just playing everyone for a laugh. However, when discussing his decision to leave his role as a late-night host -- something he strove for since working the room at team events in college where boosters told him he reminded them of Johnny Carson -- Kilborn offers a direct explanation, stripped of sarcasm or humor.

"I don't think I've really talked about how much I enjoyed leaving late night," Kilborn said. "It was an easy decision to leave and it was exhilarating. I had accomplished my career goal. I was labeled 'The Natural Host.' And that was enough. I'm not addicted to the stage. ...

"But mostly, creatively, I lost interest in late-night comedy. Pop culture jokes and political jokes [were] boring to me."

The Wolves clearly have his interest.

Of the 21 podcasts Kilborn has recorded in 2024, 11 have been focused on the Wolves, with two more featuring broader NBA conversations with The Ringer's Ryen Russillo and TNT's Scooter Vertino. Current Minnesota point guard Mike Conley told ESPN he hasn't been on Kilborn's podcast yet, "But I might request my damn self. I'd love to."

And Kilborn casually intersperses Timberwolves nostalgia into his conversations.

Such as how he was there for the first game of Jonny Flynn's rookie season -- the year general manager David Kahn drafted both Flynn and Ricky Rubio at point guard instead of Stephen Curry, now the NBA's all-time 3-point leader -- and how that game ended on a buzzer-beating layup from Wolves guard Damien Wilkins.

Or how Corey Brewer once scored 51 points for Minnesota, while Mo Williams once scored 52.

Or how Garnett's team that lost to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the conference finals went 2-0 in the regular season that year against the eventual champion Detroit Pistons. "We were as good as they were," Kilborn said.

Or how, when he was working as a play-by-play announcer for the Savannah Spirits of the Continental Basketball Association in the late 1980s, he went to an Atlanta Hawks vs. Chicago Bulls game and spoke to Chicago's legendary broadcaster Johnny "Red" Kerr about the NBA expansion team he heard was coming to his home state.

"I said, 'We just got a team in Minnesota. I don't like the name 'Timberwolves.' And he said, 'You know, I didn't like '[Portland] Trail Blazers' when I first heard it, but now it's OK.'

"'So 'Timberwolves' may grow on you.'"

A FORMER WOLVES coach, the late Flip Saunders, recruited the 6-foot-5 Kilborn to play for him at Golden Valley Lutheran, a junior college outside of Minneapolis that launched Saunders' 20-year NBA coaching career. But Kilborn opted to join the Montana State Bobcats out of the Big Sky Conference.

"You dream and you think you're going to do for Montana State what Larry [Bird] did for Indiana State," Kilborn said. "You know, you dream."

Kilborn averaged 2.9 points, 1.0 assists and 1.1 rebounds in college, but he pointed to a two-game stretch during his sophomore season when he scored 32 points as evidence of what he could have been with more consistent playing time.

"I was a good player," Kilborn said. "I was a really good passer, and I could shoot. So my joke -- because I have to be self-deprecating at some point -- is that the defensive stance hurt my lower back."

After graduation, Kilborn pursued his roots. "My childhood was comedy and basketball," Kilborn said. After a play-by-play gig with the Spirits, he got hired by KCBA in Northern California -- the No. 110 television market in the country.

Kilborn started to make a name for himself thanks in part to his reports on the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a community event he covered like a high-stakes sporting affair while also working as the channel's broadcaster until the early 1990s. He anchored ESPN's SportsCenter from 1993-1996, peppering his comedic sensibilities into his on-air presentations.

"I had a lot of catchphrases," Kilborn said. Among Kilborn's current favorites:

Arvydas Sabonis: "He's not your 'vydas, he's not my 'vydas, he's Arvydas."

Or, Pooh Richardson: "Two Live Pooh," "It's cold and Pooh season," "Knock knock. Pooh's there?"

Or, when he said, "It was a Nuggets highlight, and we showed like three jumpers of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. And they were playing the Clips. 'Rauf, Rauf, Rauf is on fire. We don't give a damn, let the LA Clippers burn.'"

And then perhaps the riff he's most proud of: reading a Houston Rockets "SportsCenter" recap after center Hakeem Olajuwon had been sidelined for eight straight games with anemia.

"'Now let's go to the first quarter," Kilborn said, mimicking his voice on the segment that aired nearly 30 years ago. "Go to the highlights.

"'And underneath, there's Hakeem and he scores. Oh, the red-cell count is up! There's another basket. Ohhhh. Hemoglobin!'

"I mean," he added, "how bizarre is that? So I love that stuff."

Kilborn went from ESPN to Comedy Central to CBS when, at 41, he reconnected with Saunders and the Wolves. Before Kilborn walked away from "The Late Late Show" in 2004, he brought the show to Minneapolis for a two-day "tryout" with the team ahead of their 2003-04 season.

He used the opportunity to pass on some advice to the Wolves coaching staff, who were coming off a 51-31 season.

"I said to them, because I like talking hoop," Kilborn said. "'Sometimes, KG, on his free throw, he will [use] more of a 'throw' as opposed to a 'shot.' And [assistant coach] Randy Whitman goes, 'You want to tell him? Because you can't have five coaches telling him.'"

Saunders' son, current Denver Nuggets assistant Ryan Saunders, remembered Kilborn's appearance at training camp as an authentic effort just as much as a television stunt.

"It was something that was light, but it was something that he took serious," Ryan Saunders told ESPN. "And I think the [players] around him took it serious, too. If he was going to jump into something, jump into a drill ... Kevin Garnett and those guys, they tried to help him out."

Kilborn took it so seriously that he pulled a hamstring and the tryout was cut short. But before the injury, he played in a real, full-court scrimmage. "I made a free throw and I think I missed two shots," he recalled. "I made a really nice pass."

To the highlights:

Garnett, Kilborn and Sam Cassell ran a 3-on-2 fast break with Cassell taking up the middle, Kilborn on the left wing and Garnett filling the right wing. Cassell passed it ahead to Kilborn, who pumpfaked and dished the ball to Garnett for an easy dunk.

"It was a really nice no-look pass," Kilborn said. "They all came up to me afterwards and gave me high fives. ... And I remember [Fred] Hoiberg, we interviewed him, he goes, 'He ran off like he was Magic [Johnson].'"

Months before that on-court experience with the Timberwolves, Kilborn went to see the team play the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs at the Staples Center in downtown L.A.

At halftime, while Kilborn was inside the Chairman's Club surrounded by fellow A-listers such as Jack Nicholson, Ice Cube and Al Pacino, he was approached by two entry-level sales staffers who worked for the Wolves. They paid their own way to see their team and had gotten into the VIP section to shoot their shot by talking to Kilborn.

"He could not have been more kind and friendly," said Ryan Tanke, one of those staffers who approached him. "Loved the fact that our buddy was from Hastings. Loved that we were from Minnesota. Thought it was hilarious that we flew ourselves out to go to this game. ... We're just, you know, fans. So he loved the whole thing."

Two decades later, Tanke is now the Wolves' chief operating officer. One of those buddies who also made that trip to L.A.? Ethan Casson, who is now the franchise's chief executive officer.

Tanke and Casson both left Minnesota, built their careers with different NFL teams, and were hired back by the Timberwolves in positions of influence. After reconnecting with Kilborn at a Wolves-Lakers game in 2021 -- as members of the traveling party -- they wanted to extend a kindness similar to how Kilborn treated, what Tanke called, a couple "dips--- 27-year-old kids" back in 2003.

"We invited him to come back up to Minnesota for a game," Tanke said. "And then he's made this kind of [an] annual tradition since.

"Now, obviously, he's sort of part of Timberwolves lore."

And when Kilborn was shown on the Jumbotron above center court when the Wolves hosted the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs last month, a caption on the screen was added below his name:

"America's Natural Host."