When Karl-Anthony Towns entered the league, the league was beginning its three-point revolution. Stephen Curry had just led the Warriors to their first championship in 40 years and the traditional big man was coming to be seen as a relic of a former era. After all, anything that’s still en vogue does not get called traditional. Yet Towns arrived as an immediate answer to the question of what a center could be in this new, sprawling era -- picking and popping and nailing three-pointers more effectively and frequently than any center before him. He looked like a one man vanguard and was considered the most promising player in the NBA. In the 2016 and 2017 GM Surveys, NBA executives voted Towns the player they would most want to have if they were starting a franchise. One year later though, he did not receive a single vote even as he averaged 21 points per game on an absurd 54/42/85 shooting split while also making his first All-Star and All-NBA teams. What happened?
Time moves quickly. When expectations go unmet, promise calcifies into disappointment even if those hopes were overly extravagant. Towns never regressed. He’s become a better shooter and passer while continually adding new moves to his offensive repertoire. However, the advent of other bigs on better teams has made Towns seem passé. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have redefined the center position in their own ways, while also being on teams that have found at least moderate postseason success. It raises the question, what do they have that he doesn’t? The most important factor is a decent team surrounding them. Towns’ relative loss in prestige over the last few seasons speaks to how much context can shape how one is perceived, even at the expense of one’s on-court performance. It’s not even that he is maligned, moreso that he’s been forgotten.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a mess. They’ve been very bad for a long time and every reason for hope they have been given has been ruined by incompetence or bad luck, often both. In a league where more than half of the teams make the postseason every year, it is astounding that Minnesota has only done so once in the past 17 seasons. It is indicative of much more than a few random misfortunes that could have befallen anyone. Rather, it’s a yearly showcase of bad management and egregious misuse of the talent that the team possesses. This week's news about the team parting ways with executive Gersson Rosas does not tell us anything necessarily new about the franchise. It had to be done in light of post-firing revelations about his tenure, but it only further reinforces the lack of stability that has characterized the team for so long.
Minnesota has been here before. They had Kevin Garnett and only made it out of the first round once in 12 seasons. It staggers the mind to consider how that is possible while also making perfect sense if you think back and consider who they kept surrounding him with. By the time Kevin Garnett asked out of Minnesota, outside observers were relieved, like someone seeing a close friend finally leave an unhappy marriage. There was such universal acknowledgement that he could never win there that oft-quoted platitudes about loyalty were disregarded, deemed irrelevant. This was a special case.
Karl-Anthony Towns is not a stoic man. He is not someone who is able to hide his emotions, or someone who seems to want to. Some people have faces that tell you, if not everything you need to know about them, enough to make their general feelings evident. At times, this is heartwarming. I think of him meeting his friend D’Angelo Russell at the airport after the Wolves acquired him from Golden State and the pure excitement on Towns’ face intermingled with relief that something so long hoped for is finally happening. It’s a sweet moment.
But more than that, I think about a video he posted on YouTube last November where he talks about his mother, Jacqueline Cruz, who died last year due to complications from COVID-19. For almost 20 minutes, he speaks about her illness, how much she shaped him, how lucky he was to know her, and the difficulties of finding healing in the midst of unbearable pain. Last December, he told reporters, “You may see me smiling and stuff, but that Karl died on April 13th. He’s never coming back… You’re talking to the physical me, but my soul has been killed off a long time ago.” It’s one of the most raw and open things an NBA player has ever said and it breaks my heart.
I find it easy to empathize with Towns, even though it admittedly feels presumptuous to care about an NBA player who I do not know. However, it feels calloused and irresponsible not to. In spite of the NBA’s constant focus on narrative, these players are not characters in a stage drama. They are humans with the same capacity for desire, love, fear, and grief that anyone else is. This is obvious and trite, yet it often seems forgotten. The ability to perform seemingly superhuman feats on a basketball court can only insulate one from so much.
I do not want to see Karl-Anthony Towns be forced to take Garnett’s journey away from Minnesota nor do I want to see him spend several more years toiling for a bad team. I want him in the postseason. I want to see him nail improbable jumper after improbable jumper and have it mean something more than that the team is now nine games out of the playoff hunt instead of ten. I want him and Russell to both be healthy and fulfill their dreams of finding success, not just as individuals, but as teammates. I want people to remember how unique and gifted and likable he is. And I want to see him smile again, not as a denial of his grief, but as a sign that there are moments the world can offer something beyond it.