Young Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns grew up just a couple of long three-pointers away from New York City, but he never has seen humanity in such sheer numbers as he did this past week on a promotional trip to China.
And from Beijing to Shanghai, everyone knew his name. Or at least a lot of them did.
“I think I may be even more popular here than I am in America,” Towns said. “It’s crazy. I’m known everywhere. It’s not that I can’t walk around, but I step outside and everyone has my jersey on — I’ve even seen my Kentucky jersey — and it’s really cool. Whoever would have thought that through the game of basketball my name would be known in China? I never would have thought, especially coming from America all the way here, I’d be recognized. I thought I could just walk around like a normal citizen and not be recognized one bit. But boy, was I wrong.”
Towns spoke Sunday night by phone from China near the end of an eight-day trip — some of it spent traveling with Boston All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas — during which he represented his shoe sponsor and the NBA.
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While there, he conducted basketball clinics, made public appearances, did media interviews and promoted Nike, the NBA Finals and the league’s preseason Global Games to be played there this fall.
He found time in the mornings to work out as well.
Just like millions and millions of Chinese fans, Towns watched Golden State play Cleveland in NBA Finals Games 3 and 4, despite the time difference.
“The only difference is you guys start playing at 8 p.m. and I’ve got to watch at 9 a.m.,” Towns said. “I wake up to breakfast to watch the game.”
While in China, Towns also did some sightseeing. Included was a visit to the Forbidden City, China’s Imperial palace for nearly 500 years.
Until this past week, Towns never had ventured farther from home than South America, where he played a 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament with the Dominican Republic national team.
“You don’t have many chances to experience a culture like this,” Towns said. “It’s one of those of things you can’t put any money [value] on what it means to gain the kind of knowledge I have here in China. I’ve been walking the streets, visiting the monuments, taking in everything China has to offer.”
Wolves teammate Zach LaVine — now the NBA’s two-time dunk champion — visited China on a similar trip a year ago.
“I’ve seen Zach’s picture around,” Towns said. “He’s very popular here. I took a picture [with one of his images] that’s very funny. I like him a little bit, not too much but not too little.”
Towns returned Monday to the United States, where the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year plans to continue his summer training both in Los Angeles and during visits home to New Jersey when he’s not traveling on other business. Once back home, he plans to visit teammates LaVine and Andrew Wiggins “in their neighborhoods so I really get a chance to spend some time with them” and continue a dialogue with new coach Tom Thibodeau.
“We’ve been able to talk about a lot of things, the vision he has meshing with the vision we have,” Towns said. “We see big things ahead for us.”