Towns’ COVID-19 story should be the most important one in the NBA right now

Originally posted on RealGM  |  By Micah Wimmer  |  Last updated 2/17/21

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 Another thing I know is that right now, the joy that I have long felt watching him play basketball has been replaced by a sadness, an empathy for a man who is grieving and forced to choose between a number of untenable options. 

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