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Inside the logo: Wolves' new look represents franchise ready to win

Karl-Anthony Towns provides new hope in Minnesota, and now he's getting a new look. Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The graphic designer from out of town kept hearing the same thing from season-ticket holders in Minnesota: The logos the Timberwolves have used since 1996 are too cartoonish. They are almost embarrassingly showy, with their forest of pine trees, jagged font, and snarling, golden-eyed wolf-face obscured in shadow.

"They kept saying it was too over the top," said Rodney Richardson, owner of Mississippi-based RARE Design, the consultant who conjured the sleek new logo the Wolves unveiled tonight. "It didn't represent the area, or who they are as people."

Richardson, who designed current logos for the Hornets, Grizzlies, Kings, Hawks, and Pelicans, also heard a weird mix of nostalgia and frustration in talking for almost a year with local residents. They had fond memories of the team's first logo, nicknamed "Old Shep."

That didn't surprise team employees. "It represents the franchise getting here," Ted Johnson, the team's chief strategy officer, told ESPN.com. "People love it, even though we didn't win. They remember Kevin Harlan as the voice of the team, and the general excitement."

The Target Center is dotted with 1990s-era throwbacks every game night.

But focus groups told Richardson that Shep was too nice -- almost too clich├ęd a representation of the "Minnesota nice" ethos. Fans didn't want the team to stand for nice anymore. The Wolves haven't made the playoffs since 2004. Fans stopped coming, and even the buzz of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Tom Thibodeau hasn't brought them back; the Wolves rank 29th in attendance as measured by capacity filled, ahead of only the relocating Pistons.

"There is an immense amount of frustration here," Johnson said

"People were ready for something more aggressive," Richardson said.

The new logo is part of a franchise overhaul designed to satisfy that urge for something new -- and show the commitment is real. Before next season starts, the Wolves will debut new uniforms, a new court design, and a renovated arena.

Richardson and his team took in all the feedback, scanned Minnesota's old logos and uniforms, and formed a general idea of what people seemed to want. The actual drawing comes last. Richardson doesn't sketch anything until he can write out something of a mission statement, confined to a few sentences on a scrap of paper, encapsulating the qualities the logo should represent. His card for the Wolves read:

With fierce determination we will defend, and we will devour. We will be smarter. We will be stronger. We will be together. We will be ... a Pack.

They eventually ended up here:

They toyed with more adventurous designs: multiple wolves, multiple wolf heads, stylized triangular wolf heads that reminded Johnson of aliens, crazy colors, a wolf that stared directly at you, snarling wolves, and hunting wolves walking on all fours. They all seemed too garish, and too close to the over-animated schtick fans wanted gone.

Richardson aimed instead for something he hopes is both ominous and understated. The head-alone design is an intentional nod to both Shep, and the (awesome) alternate logo the Wolves have used on the side since 2008:

"We didn't just want to wipe everything off the table and ignore it," Richardson said.

The slate blue inside the basketball is a carryover from past logos, which also featured different shades of green. The navy blue in the background is new for the team. They opted for a howling wolf instead of a snarling one after learning about what each action signaled.

"The howl is a warning," Richardson said. "It marks their territory. It's a communal call to the rest of the pack -- a rallying cry." That meshed with the idea of a team coming together to defend home court. Richardson learned in his research that wolves sometimes snarl and bare their teeth when they are scared, or defensive -- emotions that don't fit as well in the macho sports world.

The darker blue evokes nighttime. The intent is for viewers to sort of viscerally feel what it might be like to walk outside at night and hear that howl. Target Center seats will be colored in that shade once the renovation is complete before next season, Ethan Casson, the team's CEO, told ESPN.com.

They also chose to have the wolf howling at the North Star instead of the moon, an obvious local reference that works nicely. They stuck the star in the center of the ball's lacing, and colored it the same shade of green as the wolf's eye and the tip of its nose. (Look for the ball with the star in it to reappear, sans wolf, as a secondary logo.)

They nicknamed the color "Aurora Green," Richardson said. It is supposed to mimic the greenish hue that can sometimes emanate from the Northern Lights. Richardson also noticed that in the winter, the sun reflecting off glass buildings in downtown Minneapolis can give off a green light.

"There's something icy and wintry about it," Richardson said.

They went basic and clean on the font after experimenting with Nordic runes. The strange "A," missing the horizontal connector, is a remnant of the runes phase that made it into the final design.

You can say goodbye to the most recent logo. The Wolves will not shift it into some secondary status just to keep it alive. "It will be retired," Casson said.

More good news: The Wolves are scrapping their hideous, butterscotchy court design for next season, and revamping their uniforms. Some of the riskier motifs they left on the logo cutting room floor will pop up in those places. "As we get into those other elements," Johnson said, "we are going to be more aggressive."

The team knows none of this will matter if they don't win. The new logo is meant to be part of a larger franchise transformation that includes making the playoffs and chasing even bigger things. The team might not even be pushing all these changes together if they didn't think those on-court goals were feasible over the next half decade, officials said.

"Fans haven't seen a way for us to the corner," Johnson said. "They are quick to leave. But they are quick to come back. They see the team we have, and feel like winning is in our grasp for the first time in a long time."