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Meet the ‘poet laureate of the Timberwolves’

The poet sat inconspicuously near the Target Center court. He wore a $15 Stephon Marbury jersey he bought at a thrift store as a teenager that still fits at age 40. A black hoodie was pulled around his head. A Naz Reid towel draped around his neck.

Larger stars moved in his orbit. Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson was being swarmed a few seats over before the Timberwolves and Mavericks battled each other in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

Hanif Abdurraqib, the New York Times best-selling author, MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award finalist, absorbed the scene.

He flew into Minneapolis between readings in New York and mentoring students in Columbus, Ohio. He found time for this moment, because he knows it is fleeting.

"To treat it as fleeting and not as I expect this to happen all the time allows me to be more optimistic as a fan than anything else," he said.

Abdurraqib has been following the Wolves since he was a kid growing up in Ohio. He remembers seeing Kevin Garnett on the 1995 cover of Beckett Basketball Monthly magazine. One look and his entire brain chemistry changed when he unknowingly, in that moment, signed up to be a tortured Timberwolves fan for life.

"I sometimes think about how ridiculous it is that, because I thought Kevin Garnett was cool when I was 11 years old, that one choice that I made has rewired my entire adult life," Abdurraqib said.

Then this season happened, and the Timberwolves' rise aligned with his own.

He recently released "There's Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension," a poetic book infused with memoir and emotion that transcends the sport.

When the Wolves reached the conference finals, he made the journey to Minnesota, instead of watching at home in his typical nervous fan fetal position on the couch.

After the Wolves lost Game 1 to the Mavs, he sat inside the Loon Café in downtown Minneapolis and explained the meaning of this moment.

"If I can take it one season at a time and approach that with gratitude — surely I don't want to wait another 20 years for a season like this, but the fact that I got to see something like this, in my lifetime, that I can enjoy as an adult, is so special to me."

The Timberwolves noticed that connection, as well.

Amid his national book tour, Abdurraqib's agent got a call from the Wolves asking if he would write the script for a playoff promo video.

He dropped everything to do it. The kind of thing a person would do for someone they love, no matter the pain and disappointment of the past two decades.

Abdurraqib returned to Minneapolis — where Button Poetry published his first book in 2016 — to record "The Awakening," an ode to the Timberwolves inside Target Center. He was there for an hour before he was back on tour.

The 1 minute, 38 second video reminds fans that this moment is not a dream. Abdurraqib speaks with his hands and heart to a backdrop of brilliant snippets spanning a lifetime of fandom, from Garnett up to Anthony Edwards flying toward the rim. In it, Abdurraqib reflects and exudes hope.

"For the Timberwolves to recognize that he's the guy? I think it was just phenomenal... This is a dream come true for him and therefore it's a dream come true for all of us," said Brian Oliu, author and Alabama transplant living in St. Paul who is also a Wolves fan.

"People are gravitating towards him as being a poet laureate of the Timberwolves," Oliu said. "It's a new fun way of looking at this thing that a lot of people already really love."

Ananth Pandian, a senior copywriter for the Timberwolves, said the creative team was brainstorming playoff ideas when he thought to reach out to Abdurraqib. Pandian is familiar with his work, including a 4,500-word essay on the Wolves earlier this year for ESPN.

"In the back of my mind, it was always like, I wonder if some way we can somehow work with him," Pandian said of Abdurraqib. The process was seamless because he's a talented writer and diehard fan.

Basketball is a vessel of nostalgia, vulnerability and community for Abdurraqib. There aren't many Wolves fans in Ohio, but thanks to the internet he's part of the pack. A local book club of Timberwolves fans read "On Basketball and Ascension." Abdurraqib said he gave signed copies to the team.

He said there are people in life you love, like parents or siblings, whose "imperfections don't outweigh the satisfaction of our devotion to them, or their imperfections don't outweigh those moments where we align with them. That's what romance is, reaching for this alignment that isn't always happening."

"I'd rather watch them lose for 20 seasons and remain devoted to the returning, the ritual of returning," he said of the Wolves.

But why the Wolves? He could've picked a different team, a historically winning team, to take up a corner of his heart forever, but he went with the franchise that would break it instead.

He blames KG. His loyalty deepened in new ways. When the team acquired Karl Anthony Towns, he ran through the streets of Puerto Rico on his honeymoon. Then came Ant and Naz.

A sense of place is a big theme in his new book as well as the ticking away of time, how much we have left or don't, and how uncertain that is, he said.

Wolves fans carry a hard-earned pessimism, he said. But every season he predicts in a tweet that the team will be going 82-0. He believes every year is the Wolves' year. Wolves Back? For Abdurraqib, they never left.

With success surrounding the team more than ever, for some, there's a sense of entitlement. "If I slip into it, I will lose track of the real pleasure of just being able to witness a season like this."

Outside Target Center, Abdurraqib met up with another basketball-obsessed New York Times best-selling author, Jason Reynolds, who was born a Washington Wizards fan. Reynolds said he had to come to Game 1 to see Anthony Edwards.

They briefly exchanged notes amid the post-game bustle. A Target Center security guard chimed in that he was 4 years old the last time the Wolves made it this far.

Abdurraqib said it's important for fans to remember something like this can happen.

"In the long arc of suffering, this one miracle happened, and it might not happen again and that is really worth clinging to," he said. "I celebrate it more understanding that I don't deserve it at all. And yet it's happening. Isn't that the miracle?"