Timberwolves analyst Jim Petersen is dedicated to raising awareness after a cancer scare

Jim Petersen has no trouble rattling off the games he has missed in 26 years as the television color analyst for the Minnesota Timberwolves. That’s because there are so few of them.

He missed one in 1999 to be with his father, who was diagnosed with cancer. Petersen missed one in 2010 when he had a heart attack. And he missed one in 2017 to watch his son, Sanjay, play for Northwestern against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. That’s it. That’s the list.

When the Timberwolves play their lone home game of the preseason on Tuesday night, the beloved Bally Sports North broadcaster will miss the fourth game of his award-winning career. He will be watching from his home while he recovers from surgery to treat prostate cancer. Petersen went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., last week for the procedure, about a month after he first got the diagnosis.

“It’s not something anybody wants to have to walk through,” Petersen said in a phone call. “But I’ve been really lucky to have just an incredible support group.”

He also will miss the preseason finale in Chicago on Thursday but plans to be back in time for the start of the regular season in Toronto on Oct. 25.

Prostate cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer that is treatable, especially if it is caught early while still confined to the prostate gland. Petersen’s doctors have told him his prognosis is positive. He had his prostate removed and will not need chemotherapy or radiation treatment. But it has been a harrowing six weeks from the time it was diagnosed in early September to the surgery.

Now he is focused on healing and getting back to what he loves to do, while also raising awareness for the importance of getting regular health screenings.

“I feel great. It’s a treatable form of cancer and there’s still risk. But I feel really good about it,” Petersen said. “And I’m a fast healer and I’m looking forward to getting back on my feet again and being there for the first game in Toronto.”

Were it not for a close friend’s help, Petersen wonders if things would have worked out as well.

Vincent Harris is one of Petersen’s oldest friends. The two got to know each other in 1983 when Petersen was playing at the University of Minnesota and Harris, a 6-foot-7 hooper himself, moved to the Twin Cities for work and found his way into summer-league games in town. Harris immediately recognized the potential in Petersen, a long, athletic center and was one of the first people to put it in Petersen’s head that he could play in the NBA.

The two started working out together regularly and became fast friends, staying connected as Petersen embarked on an eight-year NBA career with Houston, Sacramento and Golden State. Petersen got Warriors coach Don Nelson to allow Harris to run with them in workouts on occasion. When Petersen was an assistant coach on the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx in 2011, Harris came to the title-clinching win in Atlanta and even had some champagne dumped on him by Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve.

“He’s one of the reasons why I made it,” Petersen said. “He’s one of the, I would say, six or seven most important men in my life that have come through in my life and helped me.”

Harris was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2022, and Petersen stayed as close to him as possible through the process. The two were in constant communication, with Petersen trying to boost Harris’s spirits and be there as a sounding board. Harris lost both of his parents to cancer, so even though his condition was caught early, it was still a frightening ordeal.

At 61 years old, Petersen tries to stay on top of his health. But as often can happen in life, he put off getting a routine prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test that is used to detect signs of the cancer. Petersen felt like he was in good health, so he did not have a sense of urgency to get the screening. But while he was talking to Harris as he was being treated for his cancer, Petersen’s friend urged him to get tested.

“My friend Vinny probably saved my life because I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms,” Petersen said. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten checked at that point. So it’s just an incredible reminder.”

Harris caught his cancer early. On Thursday, he will ring the bell to mark his final radiation treatment. Harris is thankful that he’s in good shape and that his friend is benefiting from his experience.

“It was a blessing,” Harris said. “Had I not been talking to Jim that closely it probably wouldn’t have been on his mind. He probably would have eventually gone to the doctor, but it sped up the process.”

This is not the first major health concern that Petersen has experienced. After the 2010 heart attack, he needed quadruple bypass surgery in September 2020 but was able to make a full recovery in time for the beginning of that Timberwolves season. Still, anytime the word cancer is introduced into the conversation, it carries a heavy weight.

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“One thing about Jim, once he knows what he’s facing, he goes right at it,” said Vincent Harris (right) about his friend Jim Petersen. “He wasn’t going to put it off or slow down the process.” (Courtesy of Jim Petersen)

“I could tell he was a little nervous, but I put him at ease,” Harris said. “I told him you just have to take the same attitude you took toward fighting whatever we had to fight to get through to still be here today.”

At the time of his diagnosis, Petersen and his wife, Tika, were preparing to join the Timberwolves on their preseason trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Bally’s did not broadcast either game, but the couple was looking forward to accompanying the team on what promised to be a memorable experience.

Initially, Petersen contemplated continuing with the trip and beginning the season business as usual. The first advice he received from doctors was that it would take several months to schedule surgery because some physicians believe the prostate gland needs to be allowed time to reduce the swelling caused by a biopsy before it can be removed via surgery.

He was not in immediate danger, doctors told him, so there was discussion about starting the season and having the surgery during the All-Star break in February. But Mayo Clinic doctors told him they had no concerns about doing the procedure immediately.

After speaking with Tika, they decided to skip the trip and have the surgery now.

“I just didn’t want cancer sitting in my body,” he said. “I didn’t want it in there longer than it needed to be.”

With Tika by his side, Petersen went ahead with the procedure and emerged from it with a clear mind and a hopeful spirit.

“One thing about Jim, once he knows what he’s facing, he goes right at it,” Harris said. “He wasn’t going to put it off or slow down the process. So I knew that he would take care of it right away.”

When he spoke to Harris after the surgery, Petersen’s friend assured him that the hardest part was over. That’s when Petersen decided to make his journey public in hopes of helping others, just like how Harris helped him.

Petersen is a hugely popular and respected figure in these parts. He has been a trusted voice for a generation of fans who have grown up watching the Wolves and won three championships as an assistant on Reeve’s staff with the Lynx. Through it all he has been a trusted adviser to owner Glen Taylor and CEO Ethan Casson.

Petersen is widely thought of as one of the best color analysts in the NBA, earning respect for his X’s and O’s acumen, his chemistry with his broadcast partners, including current play-by-play man Michael Grady, and his straight-forward, honest analysis of the good and the bad that happens during a game.

“On behalf of the Timberwolves and Lynx family, we stand alongside Jim during this difficult time,” Casson said. “He’s been an invaluable member of our organization for over 25 years, and we can’t wait to see him back on the headset calling Wolves games.”

Petersen said the Timberwolves, Lynx and Bally’s have been so supportive of him in a fast-moving situation. He has spoken extensively with Bally’s pregame and postgame host Marney Gellner, who has gone through a very public battle with breast cancer.

“We kind of shared our experiences,” Petersen said. “She’s been incredibly valuable to me as a friend and she’s been super supportive through this whole process.”

Watching Gellner be so open about her experience and become a real face and advocate for cancer patients and survivors inspired Petersen to take a similar approach. In the early days of his diagnosis, Petersen thought long and hard about keeping his health situation private. But he saw how people responded to Gellner and how her advocacy for early testing resonated with a large audience and decided to follow suit. He also reflected on his experience and how he neglected to get his PSA checked for several years.

“After going through it and after talking with so many people that have gone through it, too, I just came to the realization that I’ve got a platform to be able to alert people,” he said. “This is important. … I think it’s a really good reminder and I wish I’d have listened to my own advice on that one earlier.”

Petersen said his overwhelming emotion right now is gratitude, that he has Tika by his side, that he has the support of his friends and co-workers and that his friendship with Harris helped him catch the cancer before it was too late. Harris is looking forward to seeing the difference his friend can make.

“He has a voice,” Harris said. “Everybody loves Jim. They look up to him. He’s a homespun boy in Minneapolis. He’s always been visible and he’s a caring person. He’s always had empathy.”

Rebekkah Brunson will fill in for Petersen on Tuesday night, and Kevin Lynch is scheduled to go to Chicago with Grady on Thursday night. Perhaps a sign of the good spirits he’s in, Petersen let out a deep laugh when asked if he would add commentary while watching from home.

“Depends on who is sitting with me,” Petersen said, trying to stop himself from laughing because he was still sore post-surgery. “I haven’t had much experience with it.”

He will be back where he belongs when the games count. A highly anticipated season awaits, and it just wouldn’t be the same without JimPete there to call it.

“It’s going to be our best season ever. I believe it,” Petersen said. “And I want to be a part of it. I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

(Top photo of Jim Petersen: Courtesy of Minnesota Timberwolves)

Prostate cancer prevention

For more information, please contact the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or check out its website.

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