As roars of “We want Karl!” filled the gym at St. Joseph High School in New Jersey last week, Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns emerged from his seat and started pumping his fists and firing up the current students at his alma mater.
Towns was back at his old stomping grounds for a ceremony in which he was inducted into his school’s hall of fame. His high school jersey number — 44 — will be retired soon, as well.
Towns has accumulated a number of NBA honors already — rookie of the year, all-star, all-NBA — and “many, many more to go,” he noted. But the high school honor held a special place in his heart.
He didn’t know how special it would be until he actually walked into the gym and heard the screams and yells. Goosebumps, he said. It brought him back to his high school playing days.
“To just be acknowledged by my neighborhood for what I’ve worked so hard to accomplish and still haven’t got to where I want to be at, that’s an amazing feeling,” Towns said. “You start off as a young boy trying to gain the respect of your neighborhood and your peers and to be looked at like that by my peers and my neighborhood and my community, it’s such a special feeling I can’t explain.”
How fitting it was for Towns to take a step into his past as he starts to move forward. It was Jacqueline Towns who chose St. Joe’s for her son.
“She knew this was the place for me to call home,” Towns tweeted. “Was she ever right!”
At his induction, Towns recalled to those in attendance his memories of his mom watching him play in that same gym. She sat in the same seat every single game — Towns had it pegged down to the very tile where she was always planted. He recalled plays where he wouldn’t normally have run after the ball, but if it was heading toward his mom, he was going to sprint over to bat it away from her direction.
That recounting brought back more memories and emotions.
“How much my mom enjoyed walking into St. Joe’s, giving me my little apple juice and doing these little things that she just always did to make every game special and make every moment special,” Towns said.
The last time Towns and his mother were in the St. Joe’s gym together, Towns was announcing his commitment to play for Kentucky. Jackie wasn’t at Towns’ induction last week physically after she died of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, but Towns felt his mom’s spirit.
“I know that she was very proud and happy in that moment,” he said. “It’s something that it takes a village to make anything happen. … It takes a village and a support system to make greatness happen. She was in essence my village.”
She was also Towns’ reason why. Her joy in watching him play fueled him.
“That was the reason I played ball. I had fun playing basketball. Just knowing how much she loved watching me play basketball made me want to play basketball,” Towns said. “When I lost her, I didn’t really have a why playing basketball. It was kind of just something that I did.”
The 2020-21 season wasn’t all that enjoyable for Karl-Anthony Towns. He showed up at the gym every day and gave it his best effort, but it was void of love or passion.
“I think last year I did it for the fans, I did it for my teammates, did it for the organization,” Towns said. “I didn’t do it at all for myself, as something I look forward to every day.”
Towns has long stated his will to play 20-plus seasons in the NBA. But as of last season, he was questioning whether season No. 8 — the 2021-22 season that begins Wednesday for Minnesota at home against Houston — was truly in the cards. Towns has been careful so as never to let basketball define him, and the thought entered his mind that maybe it was time to go do something else.
“It got to the point where I didn’t know if I wanted to do this anymore,” he said.
Months later, the outlook has changed considerably for the better.
“This year just feels a little better, get a year off, a year to realign myself, put myself in different shoes, different light,” Towns said. “And be, I guess, comfortable in this new life.”
In terms of basketball, Towns rediscovered his why.
“I think my sister, my dad, my sister’s kids, they gave me a lot of joy,” Towns said. “I know it sounds a little wild and a little lovey dovey, but my girl (girlfriend Jordyn Woods) really did give me a reason why this game became fun again.”
Towns said Woods is a lot like his mom, which he finds to be both scary and a blessing.
“She loves watching me play. She gets super giddy and happy when it’s game day. She gives me a good reason why,” Towns said. “She’s given me the freedom and the joy and the energy to work those long hours and put all that work in, and know that everything in the household is still taken care of.”
Towns said his close friends and support system — which includes other NBA players he’s close with — have helped restore his competitive fire. The offseason worked wonders for the big man “on multiple levels.”
“It allowed me to realign myself and realize why I do what I do and I took the time to really learn myself again, re-adjust myself,” he said. “Get right back on the path. I was off the path and I didn’t really know what it was.”
Now, Towns just seems happy. That looked evident during exhibition games leading up to Wednesday’s opener, and even after practice each day, as he sports a massive smile during shooting drills or whatever else is on tap that day.
“He’s happy, smiling,” teammate Josh Okogie said. “Not even the things on the court. Karl is going to be Karl on the court regardless, but off the court I feel like he’s been more happy.”
D’Angelo Russell said it’s on the Timberwolves to pick their star big man up whenever he needs it, and moments will certainly arise this season where that will be necessary.
“Taking the load off him, making it as easy as possible,” Russell said. “I think he has a talent that he hasn’t really tapped into as far as how good he can be, how great of a leader he can be, as well. So with us, I think it’s going to be on us to hold him accountable every night and make things easier for him. He could be the best big in the league, not just one of the best.”
Jackie’s memory remains ever present. Just last week, during the team’s trip to Brooklyn for its final preseason game, Minnesota traveled to Kean University in Union, N.J., to practice on Jacqueline Towns Court, the floor dedicated to his late mother.
Towns has spoken of the “good vibes” present within the Timberwolves’ locker room heading into the season. He enjoys this group.
“He’s been great. Happy. Looks like he’s really enjoying his basketball right now, his teammates,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “He’s been nothing but a joy for me to work with. But you can see him like kind of getting back to just the business of basketball, and I think he believes in this team, his teammates, and they have supported him. It’s really nice to see, to be honest with you. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what his last 18 months have been like, so all credit to him and his family.”
Towns said this is the most optimistic he has felt about the Timberwolves since the 2017-18 season, when Minnesota last reached the playoffs. He lauded the team’s depth, talent level and buy-in. He feels like the Timberwolves finally may be establishing a culture and identity.
That all starts with the team’s star.
“They know what my mindset is — dominate,” Towns said. “I’m thinking every night I’m the gorilla in the jungle and I have to kill everyone and stomp anyone who is in my way. Just pure domination, from start to finish.”
If he does that, the Timberwolves likely will achieve all of the goals they have set for themselves this season. That’s Towns’ mission: To lift both himself and the organization to the upper echelon where he feels both belong. It’s why he’s careful so as not to let good feelings within the team turn to arrogance.
“I’m just always trying to be the Fun Police a little bit,” Towns said. “Just trying to make sure we understand that while the vibes are great, the vibes come with execution, it comes with culture, it comes with playing at a level that no one else can match. Just trying to make sure we can do everything we can to be the best team we can be.”
But even the chief commander of the Fun Police can’t help but crack a smile with just about everything he does of late. Joy has been restored in the leader of the Timberwolves’ pack.
“I’m happy that I got to a point like this where I can smile again on the court,” Towns said. “Find myself enjoying lacing the shoes up.”