These last nine months have been nothing but a never-ending onslaught of trauma for Karl-Anthony Towns, beginning with his mother Jackie’s passing due to complications from COVID-19 in April, to the loss of his uncle on Friday, the 7th family member to die of COVID-19.
In a movie, Karl-Anthony Towns is in the gym for hours, putting up 3-pointers until he can’t lift his arms, running sprints until he vomits and sweating out the pain. His only breathers would come when he stops to shoot free throws, vowing under his breath to make his mother proud and take out all of his hurt on a league that is not ready for the hell he is about to unleash.
In a movie, these last nine months have been nothing but an extended training montage as Towns loses himself in the game that he loves in an effort to cope with the greater loss at home. The arena is the shelter from all the hurt and pain he is experiencing off the court.
Except this is not a movie. This is real and COVID-19 is real and the despair that has gripped Towns through a summer and fall of death is soul-crushingly real. And basketball won’t be this tremendous healer for the undefinable vacancy left by his mothers passing.
Just ask his teammate Ricky Rubio, who wanted to quit basketball altogether when his mother, Tona, was losing her battle with lung cancer. Just ask Towns’ coach, Ryan Saunders, who was looking at listings for cabins in the Northwoods and contemplating life as a high school coach in the middle of nowhere after his father, Flip, died from Hodgkins lymphoma. Just ask rookie Anthony Edwards, who lost both his mother and grandmother to cancer when he was just 14.
There is no replacing someone so central to one’s life as his mother, especially when that person only had 24 years to spend with her.
So no, Towns does not see the upcoming basketball season, which will tip off later this month as hospitals across the country are bursting with COVID patients, as the outlet he needs to move forward. How can you move forward when the one who was pushing you all these years is no longer here?
“I’ve never been in a mentally good place since that woman went in the hospital,” Towns said. “It’s just getting harder and harder every day. As I keep losing people, the season keeps rolling around.”
In the Hollywood movies the first day back at training camp would be where Towns is eager to get his hands on a ball and his mind off his pain. Having that basketball in his hands again and being surrounded by his teammates is just the therapy he needs to start the healing process.
Towns’ outlook on being back at work for the first time in 9 months is far from the Hollywood vision.
“I play this game more because I just love watching my family members seeing me play a game I was very good and successful at,” he said. “It always brought a smile for me when I saw my mom at the baseline and in the stands and stuff and having a good time watching me play. It’s going to be hard to play. It’s going to be difficult to say that this is therapy. I don’t think this will ever be therapy again for me.
“But it gives me a chance to relive good memories I had. I guess that’s the only therapy I’m going to get from it. It’s not going to really help me emotionally or anything.”
As Towns spoke during his media availability you could tell all this was weighing heavy on his mental. The usual upbeat Towns was lifeless and mono-tone. The polished media skills often used to navigate questions with hopes of giving the “right” answer were not present. His heart was not in it for the first time in his five year NBA career. And it was heart breaking to watch.
“I feel like I’ve just been hardened a little bit by life and humbled,” Towns said.
And how could he not be? A two-time All-Star and one of the most durable players in the league through his first four seasons, Towns missed 29 games with knee and wrist injuries last season. But that frustration and disappointment was nothing compared to the heartbreak that followed when the season was shuttered in March.
His parents both contracted the virus at home in New Jersey, and his father, Karl, was able to make a full recovery. But his mother, the magnet that pulled the entire Towns family together, died on April 13. And from that point on it has been a cascade of grief from losing those close to him one after another.
“I’ve seen a lot of coffins in the last seven months, eight months, but I have a lot of people who have, in my family and my mom’s family, who have gotten COVID,” Towns said on Friday. “I’m the one looking for answers still, trying to find how to keep them healthy. It’s just a lot of responsibility on me to keep my family well-informed and to make all the moves necessary to keep them alive.”
He comes back to an organization that knows that heartbreak all too well. Ryan Saunders was 29 when he lost his father and his best friend, and it nearly ruined him.
“I was ready to quit everything,” Saunders told me before last season. “I was ready to coach a high school team and go fish and just be away. Just basically live a reclusive life.”
Ricky Rubio was 25 when his mother passed, and he was racked with guilt and depression in the months leading up to her death while he was still suiting up in his first tour with the Wolves. Rubio knew then, and he knows now, that basketball is anything but a refuge when dealing with a loss as gutting as what he went through in 2016 and what Towns is going through now.
“Sometimes at night during the season I was going through hell,” Rubio said about the season he lost his mother. “Waking up in, who knows, Sacramento, in L.A., in the middle of the night alone in a hotel and thinking, ‘Why am I here? Is it really worth it?’”
If anyone understood exactly what Towns was talking about on Friday, if anyone was not surprised in the least to hear him say that basketball wasn’t going to even come close to distracting him from the hurt that he is still feeling, it was Rubio and Saunders. They know the hole is too big to fill. No amount of dunks or 3s or wins or losses will ever stitch that wound closed.
They also know that sometimes Towns will be at practice or warming up for a game or in the film room and not totally be there. Maybe he’ll bark at someone for seemingly no reason. Maybe he will miss a pass on offense or a rotation on defense. And when the rest of the team might be scratching its collective head, Rubio will know that something else might be occupying his headspace at the moment.
“You can see sometimes you get frustrated for a thing that it’s not even that thing, it’s something bigger,” Rubio said. “The pain that we’re going through, not just as players, but as a man, you can relate, build chemistry from that and share moments and help each other. We have to be a family. The team has to be our second family, and we have to feel that way to really help each other.”
Towns said he is looking forward to that part of rejoining the team. He saw Rubio go through losing his mother in 2016. He has spoken with Saunders over dinners about how he found himself after losing Flip. He knows he now has something in common with the rookie Edwards that both wish wasn’t the case but could still help them form an early bond. He also has a best friend in Russell here in town to help him through.
“I’m very fortunate I got people like D-Lo on my team who has been with me and my mom through some of the greatest moments in my life, especially in my career,” Towns said. “And people like Ricky. I’ve been through his process with his mom and now I’m going through this process with mine.”
The Wolves organization has thrown its collective arms around Towns as well.
They have offered their support and did everything they could to help Jackie get the best treatment possible when she was sick.
“I’m fortunate that they gave me a chance to redirect my attention for however long I get with them on the phone, text messages, on the court,” Towns said. “I’m very fortunate.”
The Wolves feel fortunate in some ways as well, certainly that they have one of the league’s most gifted offensive players back in training camp, healthy and available to be the focal point of a team that has been designed to maximize his talents. But even more so by what they saw from Towns in the wake of Jackie’s death.
Not much more than a month after she died, with COVID still picking up steam in the Twin Cities, Towns still managed to attend a rally led by former NBA player Stephen Jackson in response to George Floyd’s death in May. Towns did not speak at the rally, but he crammed his 7-foot frame into a packed City Hall atrium, standing with teammate Josh Okogie in support of Jackson and others demanding justice for Floyd’s death.
“I really just feel it was the strength of my mother that gave me the strength to even just get up out of the house and even go outside,” Towns said. “For the first time being outside, it was difficult for me emotionally, mentally. But I knew I had to go and I knew I had to make my voice heard at a time it wasn’t convenient.”
Towns has continued to show great strength, realizing that through this unthinkable trauma that he can still provide some good. He has been working to raise awareness as to the seriousness of the pandemic. And his emotional interview opening up about his families losses was a way to get the said message out to millions.
“It just came from a place that I didn’t want people to feel as lonely and as upset as I was,” Towns said of his emotional video. “I really made that video just to protect others and keep others well-informed, even though I knew it was going to take the most emotionally out of me that I’ve ever been asked to do.”
The Timberwolves are scheduled to hold their first full-team practice of training camp on Sunday. Their preseason opener comes on Dec. 12 and they open the season at home on Dec. 23 against Detroit. Whether Towns is ready or not, basketball is back.
In the movie, Towns comes back with an edge and a determination to play for his mother, the angel who whispers to him on his shoulder now after spending so many years hollering at him from the stands, and the Timberwolves make an inspirational charge to the playoffs.
In real life, Towns enters his sixth NBA season still dealing with so much pain. And no one, not Saunders, not Rosas, not Karl Sr. or KAT himself really knows how this story is going to go.
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