Double-teamed from birth, Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns now wears size 20 sneakers on feet that drew a crowd his very first days in a New Jersey hospital.
A television crew shadowing a baby-kissing politician in the nursery gathered around a newborn who weighed 10 pounds, measured 25 inches and possessed enormous feet made to carry him into a life uncommon.
“Look at all these people surrounding my son,” his mother, Jacqueline Cruz, said, remembering the moment. “That was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be special.’”
The son of a Dominican nurse and a Jersey basketball coach, Towns now at age 22 intends to push barriers, whether it’s redefining what all a basketball big man can be or by speaking out on racism and other societal matters as he sees them.
He already is foremost among a new breed of centers poised to transform the NBA with their little-man skills.
Away from the court, he supports the legalization of medicinal marijuana in the NBA and beyond and last summer penned a Players Tribune essay on the Charlottesville, Va., violence and Philando Castile’s death. In it, he criticized President Donald Trump and reminded those who seek to unite rather than divide that “there are more of us than there are of them.”
Three seasons into an NBA career that started as a No. 1 overall draft pick out of the University of Kentucky and will get him All-Star consideration this season, he’s already thinking about life outside it.
“Everything you do in life, you don’t do it to just to be OK or be good at it, you do it to be great,” he said. “I want to be better than great. I want to effect change on and off the court. I don’t want to be known as a guy who had a great NBA career but never did anything outside of basketball. I want to be as versatile off the court as I am on it.”
Skilled like a guard but now grown large, Towns is poised to do so from a foundation rooted deep in a family that childhood friend and high school teammate Wade Baldwin IV calls “good people” and supported by those size 20 feet.
“You have to have big feet to stand tall,” his mother said. “You can’t be a 7-footer in a size 10 shoe or you’ll fall.”
Towns comes from a family of four his father describes as genuine, humble and hard-working. It’s also a family that danced the bachata and merengue — Dominican both — in backyard gatherings filled with basketball, barbecue and music at his maternal grandmother’s house.
Analytical and a self-admitted perfectionist, his father starred at Monmouth University, where at 6-5 he was among the nation’s leading rebounders in the mid-1980s, and coached 15 seasons at a Piscataway, N.J., high school.
His mother is joyful, outspoken and fearless. Her competitiveness manifests itself mostly monopolizing Monopoly or picking winning partners in family card games.
When Towns was young, his father fetched him from day care and assigned two JV players daily to play with him at high school practices because the family didn’t have a babysitter.
That’s where Towns picked up a basketball and learned as he aged to compete against bigger, older boys.
As he grew, practice sessions with Karl Sr. always started with a guard’s ballhandling and shooting work first, then a big man’s footwork and post-up drills.
Through those years — from a clumsy 6-foot-3 wing with those oversized feet in grade school to a center growing into his changing body who made the Dominican Republic national team at age 16 — he wondered why he couldn’t be both.
“When I was growing up everyone told me how they thought I should play the game of basketball, which was never the way I wanted to play it,” Towns said. “I played the game the way I wanted. Back to the basket, the traditional big man, I didn’t want to be that. I wanted to be able to play like Magic Johnson, who was 6-9, ran the court and shot like a point guard.”
He handled the ball, shot the three and ran the floor and won three New Jersey state high school championships and the 2014 Gatorade National Male Athlete of the Year. He was class president and graduated with a 3.96 grade-point average, too.
When Towns enrolled at Kentucky for what would be his one collegiate season, Coach John Calipari insisted he show NBA scouts that the best player on one of college basketball’s most talented teams ever could be that traditional big man, too. Towns agreed and also agreed to sacrifice playing time and shots so Calipari could platoon all that talent.
If Towns did so, Calipari predicted, he would be the NBA draft’s top pick the next summer. By season’s end — after a 38-0 start and a stunning Final Four semifinal loss — Towns was unstoppable around the basket, made his free throws, excelled defending the pick-and-roll and rebounded the ball with both hands. He did not shoot threes or conjure magic.
“He was the best player in the country, wasn’t close,” Calipari said. “That wasn’t who he was when he came in.”
His greatest opponent then most often was — and still is — himself.
“I’ve always been my biggest critic, my biggest enemy,” said Towns, who said he sometimes spends the night on his couch after a poor game, when he doesn’t deserve to sleep in his bed. “It’s still to this day the same way. People can say what they want about you, but whatever they say, I always expect two times that of myself. It’s the pursuit of perfection. I’m still chasing it.”
When the Wolves won the draft lottery in 2015, President of Basketball Operations/coach Flip Saunders had been admiring Duke’s Jahlil Okafor all season. But when he saw Towns’ versatile predraft workout, he was convinced, just like the first time he saw a kid named Kevin Garnett work out.
Saunders wasn’t the only one.
“I knew the second day working him out there was zero chance he wasn’t the No. 1 pick,” said former NBA big man Don MacLean, who prepared Towns for the draft that spring near Los Angeles at his agent’s request. “Guys at this size just don’t do what he was doing. I’ve been around the game a long time and you see things that don’t look normal and that’s what it looked like. Okafor is a nice player, a good college player, but no, no, this is different.”
Selecting second that summer, the Lakers coveted Towns and one day Calipari suggested to Kentucky’s next No. 1 pick he might be better off a Laker because, well, it is L.A.
“You know what he said?” Calipari said. “He said, ‘I don’t care about L.A. I want to be the No. 1 pick. I’ll wear a coat. I’m good.’ That’s who he is.”
As great as he wants to be
Three seasons in, Towns has displayed the kind of offensive versatility that ushers the NBA toward a new day with its big men, even if anachronistic Charles Barkley prefers he shoot fewer threes and bang more.
Three seasons in, he also remains an unfinished work defensively, a player who, like teammate Andrew Wiggins, Coach Tom Thibodeau calls improved but incomplete and adjusting to a remade team that added veterans Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Defensive-minded Butler says both Towns and Wiggins can be “as great as they want to be” on both ends of the floor.
“You’re asking a lot of him to make big shots, get fouled, defend, run on every possession and he’s 22,” Calipari said. “He’s still a young kid. Six years from now, he’ll be 28. What? What? He’s still growing.”
Towns calls his inconsistency a matter of a complex system and learning where instinct and knowledge meet rather than a referendum on whether he really wants to be better than great.
“This is the first time in my career I had the same coach, the same system a second year in a row,” he said. “It takes time. I’ve got to be smarter, better.”
Then there are nights such as last Monday’s lopsided victory at Indiana, when Towns had 18 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks (five in the first half alone), four assists and two steals. And Friday’s loss at Boston that included 23 rebounds by Towns.
“He has the ability to do a whole lot more,” Gibson said. “I feel like he kind of takes a back seat sometimes. He’s a phenomenal talent. We’re just going to have to push him a little bit more.”
From a good place
All that talent has made Towns one of the NBA’s bright young stars, a player maybe more famous halfway around the world in China than he is in the United States.
When he watched his country divided by the Charlottesville riots, he said he felt compelled to speak out in an essay despite his young age. He wrote: “Basketball is what I do for a living, not who I am as a man. So as athletes we have a huge opportunity to support what we think is right and to speak up about what we think is wrong. And to anyone who says, ‘Stick to sports’ … let’s be real: Our President used to host a reality TV show. You’re telling me I can’t voice a political opinion?”
“He has a bunch of ideas, he’s interested in the world, he’s knowledgeable about a lot of things,” said Baldwin, an NBA first-round pick himself who has known Towns since he was 10. “When he’s interested in a topic, he’ll talk your ear off, but it comes from a good place. He wants to be heard and he’s in a position where he can be heard.”
When Towns was asked how he could change the NBA in one way, he supported former NBA Commissioner David Stern’s call to remove medical marijuana from the league’s banned-substance list in states that allow it.
“We’re NBA players, we’re some of the most popular people in the world,” Towns said. “I understood no matter what I said, it’d be taken a certain way by whoever. Before you say anything, you think about everything that could happen. That’s when you have to be brave and courageous and strong and say what you feel can help.”
He said he spoke out on marijuana even though he said he has never used it because his girlfriend’s nephew is autistic and Towns believes it can change autistic children’s lives for the better. The disorder is dear to his heart ever since he responded to the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings by volunteering to work with stricken children at the REED Academy in New Jersey, the state with the nation’s highest rate of autism.
He first volunteered there at age 16 “not famous and now is very famous,” says REED’s VP for Marketing and Events Lisa Goldstein, and remains connected. His family’s “KAT Team” scholarship fund and the academy have teamed for a Pledgeit.org campaign in which donors can give for every point he scores.
“God has always blessed me with one thing, patience,” Towns said. “It’s helped me with autism and it’s helped me with golf. I just want to use my gifts to everyone’s advantage. I think sometimes autistic kids get a bad rap they don’t deserve. They just need some patience, time and love and you can see them blossom into something really special.”
At Thanksgiving, Towns donated $10,000 and served turkey dinners at the House of Charity Food Centre in Minneapolis. At Christmas, he passed out gift bags and hosted families from his church at a screening of the new “Jumanji” movie.
His mother is a caretaker by profession and Towns has told teammates through the years he can see himself as a doctor — with huge feet, of course — who would build a hospital on his mother’s island.
“I want to win rings, I want to win multiple rings,” he said. “I want to do all these things, but I want to be able to say I used my platform and this game of basketball to help others and make their lives better. I want to be able to say I’ve done more off the court than I’ve done on the court, and if I’m able to do that when my career is over and I can look back with my kids someday, I’ll definitely say I’m proud of myself and proud of the way I left the game.”