Before the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Friday night game against the Charlotte Hornets, Karl-Anthony Towns approached his coach, Ryan Saunders. The Hornets would be missing three players due to the NBA’s now ubiquitous health and safety protocols, leading Towns to ask Saunders, “Are you sure we should play this?” It was a reasonable question, though one that apparently went unasked by the people with the power to stop it happening. It is also one made heartbreaking when one considers who asked it and why.
No NBA player has been affected by the pandemic more than Karl-Anthony Towns. In addition to contracting it himself, his mother and six other family members have died in the last year due to COVID-19 complications. It’s devastating, and Towns has been transparent about just how unmooring these losses have been. On December 23, following his first game after his mother’s death, he spoke to the way grief can transform one’s self: “I only know what happened from April 13 on. Because you may see me smiling and stuff, but that Karl died on April 13. He’s never coming back. I don’t remember that man. I don’t know that man. You’re talking to the physical me, but my soul has been killed off a long time ago.”
I do not know Karl-Anthony Towns. We have never met and likely never will and though I have spent hundreds of hours watching him play basketball over the past six years, that brings me no closer to the man he is off the court, and I am loath to pretend otherwise. But I do know that grief never vanishes. It transmutes and dulls as time passes, but never fully remits. The lost loved one is wont to enter into one’s mind at unpredictable moments, with the mourner both welcoming the memories and mourning the inability to create new ones. It is often less a matter of healing or moving on than one of learning how to live with a part of one’s self removed.
Perhaps playing basketball is a refuge for him, a way to find solace and temporarily escape from the grief that can threaten to swallow one whole. Or perhaps he wants to stop, to return home and surround himself with loved ones, joining hands with those who know him best and who have cared for him long before any NBA fan knew his name. Another thing I know is that right now, the joy that I have long felt watching him play basketball has been replaced by a sadness, an empathy for a man who is grieving and forced to choose between a number of untenable options.
The pandemic has made millions of Americans feel constrained, hemmed in by a potentially lethal virus on the one side and a number of massive institutional failures on the other. Does one quit their job or continue working in an unsafe environment where they are already barely making enough to survive? There are choices, at least ostensibly, but they often boil down to what sort of misery one can most afford to risk enduring. Towns, despite his enormous talent and his $150 million contract, is not finding himself immune from such pain or such difficult decisions. He has felt the loss that many millions have, the fear and agony of contracting the virus himself, and now the question of what he owes his loved ones.
It feels genuinely trite to say so, but Towns is one of the best players in the NBA, a versatile scorer who has flirted with 50-40-90 averages on high volume each of the last four seasons. If he no longer seems a revelation that says more about the development of peers like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid than it does any regression in his own game. If he were anywhere besides Minnesota, he would likely be spoken of in the same rapturous tones reserved for his peers. But since he plays on a team whose season will be defined by whether or not they get to keep their 2021 pick or be forced to send it to the Warriors, it’s easy to ignore the reality of the situation. Maybe if his absence were affecting the playoff or the MVP race, it would garner more attention, maybe it would spark more discussions on national television -- though in light of the fealty the league’s broadcast partners seem to feel towards the NBA, that’s no guarantee either.
Are journalists and fans too beholden to the NBA’s brand to question its handling of the pandemic? Are they assuming that Towns, or any other player that contracts COVID-19 is bound to be fine even though there’s plenty of evidence that long-term effects may potentially derail, or at least hamper, an athletic career? Many have long been arguing, well before the 2019-20 season was resumed in Orlando, that any resumption of play puts players, coaches, staff, and communities at risk. But this was met with a reply that only capitalists and the most devout utilitarians could accept: that the joy it would bring and the money it would make mitigated any potential risk. And even though the Bubble worked better than anyone would have expected, I still refuse to say that resuming the season in Orlando was a good idea. If one plays Russian Roulette and survives, that neither means that doing so was prudent nor that safety is guaranteed the next time around.
While he has played well since returning to the court, it is reasonable to be concerned about his long-term health and the future of one of the NBA’s brightest young stars. But even if Towns were a journeyman bench-player, this should still be the biggest story in the NBA for how it humanizes a struggle the league has liked to pretend is merely abstract. The NFL has openly prized the protection of the shield -- the league as a whole -- over that of the individuals who make it up. They have blithely dismissed concerns about player safety and social injustice, paying settlements to those suffering from brain injuries and blackballing those who protest, rather than addressing the issues at their core. The NBA has positioned itself differently by prioritizing the players themselves, the stars who make each game the thrilling display that it is. Of course, it’s never been that simple. Player power is still hard-won and selective. Yet as ever, there is a limit to what the league can concede and the grief Towns is playing through shows that no player, regardless of their abilities, can stop the machine from mindlessly moving forward.
Towns openly admitted that he was not mentally prepared to rejoin the team after recovering from COVID. His candor and openness have been interpreted as courage, and that may be accurate, but this takeaway also seems like a way of evading the question of why such bravery has to be necessary in the first place. In the same postgame interview in which he spoke of his grief and the dying of his old self, he also spoke of his loyalty to his teammates, saying “I’m gonna let them see me smile even though inside I’m not smiling whatsoever. I owe that to these guys as a leader. I owe that to them as a teammate.” I respect Towns for this, but I also hope that he does not lose sight of what he owes to himself.