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IT WAS DARK on the Minnesota Timberwolves team plane as it took off from San Antonio late on the night of March 14, headed home to Minneapolis. But it wasn’t especially quiet.
The entire drive from the arena to the airport had been something of a team party, with veteran guard Patrick Beverley sending each player, coach and staffer to the back of the team bus to, in his words, “shake hands with greatness.” When the team arrived at the terminal, Beverley made sure no one got off the bus before Towns so they could clap for him as he walked down the aisle.
After everything Towns has been through — the death of his mother, Jackie, and seven other family members to COVID-19 and his own bout with the virus that left him hospitalized — the three-time All-Star wanted to share the moment with the teammates who helped him through it.
“If I learned anything in my life, it’s that nothing’s guaranteed. So I always try to tell people, ‘Hey, I appreciate you or thank you,'” Towns says.
After everyone was aboard the plane, Towns stood up to address the team:
“I just wanted to say, and I mean this from my heart, that I wouldn’t have wanted to do this 60-point game with anyone else but y’all.
“My brothers. I appreciate you making this so special.”
The team clapped for him again, the emotion overflowing in all of them, until finally it was time to dim the cabin lights and take off.
Towns put on a hat and a pair of headphones, hoping to settle down and maybe catch a nap on the flight home.
He started scanning the hundreds of text messages he had received after the game from friends around the league and family who’d watched from afar. Then he started typing …
“I was so in the moment that I pulled my mom’s number up to text her,” Towns says.
Halfway through the text, he caught himself and started crying.
“This was a moment for us,” Towns says. “She would’ve loved it.”
IT HAS BEEN nearly two years since Jacqueline Cruz-Towns died, and while there are fewer moments like these than there used to be, the grief is never far away.
As the tears pooled from his eyes, Towns pulled his hat low, covering his face.
You simply can’t be around Towns, or watch him play during this resurgent season for the Timberwolves, who have won 11 of 15 since the All-Star break and are in seventh place in the Western Conference, without thinking of the burden he has carried.
His mother’s death from COVID-19 was so public, so heartbreaking, always in the front of mind.
He had to grieve with the world watching, while trying to keep his family together, be the leader of the Timberwolves through a scandal that led to the firing of team president Gersson Rosas and sustain an All-NBA level of play on the court.
After Jacqueline’s death, Towns says he first found himself looking to channel his grief into basketball.
“Like, I’m going to just go crazy and just put all that energy into my game, but when I looked at basketball to give me that energy — I didn’t have it.
“My mom was the purpose of me even playing basketball,” he says. “So when she passed away, I had to repurpose myself. I had to find what was going to be the reason that I want to go in every day and put my body and my mind and my spirit through all this stress. Why would I do this?
“It took time and a lot of self-reflection.”
IT’S AT THIS point in Towns’ story when people are often separated into two groups: those who have lost someone as close to them as Towns has and understand the grief he has experienced, and those who have not.
Those who haven’t might try to understand. But Towns has found that they simply can’t relate in the same way, no matter how well-intentioned they might be.
You don’t deal with the loss of a parent, Towns explains. You just learn how to feel it, honor it and eventually embrace new things that make you feel good again. But the mourning never goes away.
Towns has unintentionally surrounded himself with people who have experienced pain like he has. His agent, Jessica Holtz, lost her mother when she was 9 years old. Timberwolves coach Chris Finch lost his mother to cancer a few years ago. His girlfriend, Jordyn Woods, lost her father to pancreatic cancer in 2017.
“Some days are still really tough for me,” Woods says. “And that’s what it’s going to be like your whole entire life. When you lose a parent, that’s just how it is. There’s moments — like with him scoring 60 or winning the 3-point contest [at the NBA All-Star Game] — where probably the only other person he could think of and want to be with is his mom, who was his biggest supporter.”
— #NBAAllStar (@NBAAllStar) February 19, 2022
Woods, a model and actress who has appeared on several television shows, and Towns were friends for years before they began dating. They’d met through mutual friends in Los Angeles, bonded over a competitive card game of UNO and built the type of friendship that grew into a deep and supportive romance over time.
“I would say we were best friends. And then his mom passed away and something switched,” Woods says. “When you go through a lot with someone, you can relate on a deeper level with the fact that I lost my dad when I was 19.”
Woods started spending more time with Towns in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. When she wasn’t with him, she found herself following his games on TV or a game-tracker. She’d study matchups before the games and the stat sheet afterward.
“She doesn’t even really know how to play, but she comes in and tells me, ‘Hey, I saw this clip on Twitter. I think you should look at it. This man did this move,'” Towns says. “It’s crazy now how my girl loves basketball just as much as my mom did.
“She filled those shoes in so wonderfully and made basketball fun again.”
It helped that in the early stages of their romance people in Minnesota didn’t pry or stalk them like the paparazzi did in Los Angeles.
“I mean, I’ve been in Target with Jordyn Woods having Jedi fights — legitimately taking the lightsabers out the toy section and running around — and no one stopped us,” Towns says. “People saw us and either never thought anything of it or didn’t want to be rude.”
FINCH DIDN’T SEE Towns crying on the team plane that night. But the second-year head coach did notice something different about him.
“He spent most of the flight just walking up and down, just talking to people,” Finch recalls. “Obviously he was thrilled after that 60 points, but he was probably just looking for that human touch, human interaction.
“Having lost a parent, myself, you have these special moments and you want to share them with the most meaningful people in your life, but those people are not there anymore. That’s gotta be such a bittersweet thing.”
“I think my mom passing away was the first time I realized basketball can’t fix something.”
Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns
It is impossible to understand the bond that has grown between Finch and his superstar center without starting with the empathy they’ve shown each other.
For Finch, Town’s empathy for him when he first took over in February 2021 set the tone for everything that has come since.
“He was the first guy to call me when I was offered the job,” Finch says. “He basically laid it out there to say he’ll do whatever I need him to do. He was very welcoming, always had my back, even before he knew me or anything about me. His grace coming into this situation was probably just as important as anything else. And he didn’t have to do that. He could’ve been way more guarded, but I don’t think that’s who he is at his heart. I think he’s an open, warm, welcoming, genuine, caring person.”
Like everyone in the basketball world, Finch knew Towns had lost his mom the year before and how deeply that had affected him. He also knew from his own experience how long it takes to process it all.
“I came into his life at a time when he was, obviously, just trying to get through it, mostly,” Finch says. “And I just was trying to build a relationship with him as a coach, but trying to be understanding of everything that he’s been through. And not just, obviously, the loss of his mother, but also the basketball side. I had to understand the basketball trauma, if you will.”
The basketball trauma Finch is describing: Five coaches in Towns’ first six seasons; the death in 2015 of former Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, who’d drafted Towns just months before; a basketball reputation diminished by the failed partnerships with Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau; the sale of the franchise in 2021; the scandal that took down Rosas on the eve of training camp and ushered in yet another front office; not to mention being the best player and leading a team that had amassed an average winning percentage of just 39% over those first six years.
“There was just a lot of circumstances that made Minnesota more of a reality show than a basketball team,” Towns says.
“But I think now we’re putting the basketball part with it.”
Finch started fixing the basketball part by keeping things simple last season, a necessity after taking over during a time when health and safety protocols impacted everything, from game-day testing protocols to shootarounds.
He presented a vision of a team built around Towns’ talents that would create space for fellow No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards and 2015 No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell. He gave each of them areas to focus on, but was careful not to overwhelm. The most important thing last season was to build trust in these new relationships.
A HISTORIC NIGHT FOR KAT!
He finished with a Timberwolves franchise-record 60 points against the Spurs 😤 pic.twitter.com/V1tm8vYlwN
— ESPN (@espn) March 15, 2022
“I’ve worked with some really high-level players, and to me, KAT’s the most skilled player that I think I’ve ever worked with,” says Finch, who has coached Yao Ming with the Houston Rockets and Nikola Jokic with the Denver Nuggets. “He literally can score from all ranges. He can pass. He’s got post moves. He’s got step-back 3s. He can take people off the dribble. He’s got unbelievable touches. He’s running to the rim off one leg. Our nickname for him is Cheat Code.”
Minnesota went 16-25 after Finch took over last February, including a 10-10 stretch to finish the season that provided an unfamiliar feeling heading into the offseason: optimism.
LAST SUMMER THERE was work and then there was healing, each of which fed into the other.
Every time Towns talks about what he’s been through, something new comes into focus.
“I think my mom passing away was the first time I realized basketball can’t fix something,” Towns says. “Think about that. All the connections, all the people I knew, all the resources I had that people didn’t have with COVID, and I still lost.
“I still watched her life fade away in my hands, literally in my hands, with a hazmat suit on. I couldn’t fix it.
“It was the first time I realized basketball was not going to save me this time. I really had to do the work.”
He is still doing the work. He will be for a long time.
That night on the plane after he scored 60 was a reminder of how far he’s come, but also how far he still has to go.
Towns wept in his seat after starting that text to his mother. But he also did something with the grief afterward: He shared it.
First with his teammates.
Then with the world.
I say this to say…no matter what life throws at you, you can come out of it stronger. Tough times don’t last, tough people do. Miss you Momma. This game….my life…is for you ❤️🕊
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) March 15, 2022
Two years later, I walked into AT&T Center with the greatest guardian angel that I could ever ask for and dropped 60 against the winningest coach of all time.
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) March 15, 2022
“I wrote those on the plane,” Towns says. “I wrote it after I cried. I was like, I should just write my feelings down and let people know.”