Karl-Anthony Towns is one unique cat, er, Wildcat
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April. It is being rerun with Karl-Anthony Towns poised to be one of the top picks in Thursday night’s NBA Draft.)
They say adversity reveals character, and in the winter of 2012, St. Joseph’s High School in Metuchen, N.J. was coming to grips with the worst kind of adversity a school of fewer than 800 students can deal with: It had lost one of its own.
On Jan. 19 of that year, Marine Cpl. Kevin Reinhard, a St. Joe’s alum, was killed in Afghanistan, and shortly thereafter a Mass was held in his memory. The event was attended by several St. Joe’s alums and a handful of students who were attending the school at that time, including a freshman named Karl-Anthony Towns. Keep in mind that Towns didn’t know Reinhard — they were born nearly a decade apart — but Towns went nonetheless. If only because he knew it was the right thing to do.
Eventually, as it always does, life moved on, but Towns decided he wasn’t done honoring Reinhard. That night St. Joseph’s took on local rival Perth Amboy High School, and Towns — as he’s done so many times this season as a freshman at Kentucky — began to dominate. He hit a couple buckets in the paint. He hit a bunch of 3-pointers. And by the end of the third quarter, he had 25 points.
Then, the strangest thing happened: Karl-Anthony Towns stopped shooting.
The move was inexplicable. Sure, Towns was a freshman, but nobody could stop him.
What was going on?
"His mother comes up to me and says, ‘What’s wrong with my son? Why isn’t he shooting?’" St. Joseph’s athletic director Jerry Smith remembered. "And I say, ‘Mrs. Towns, I have no idea.’"
St. Joe’s went on to win the game, but afterward the two went up to Towns and demanded an answer. They needed to know, why had he stopped shooting?
They could’ve never anticipated the response they got.
"He said, ‘I want to honor the boy who passed away,’" Smith said. "’He would’ve been 25 years old. So I knew I had 25 points, and I had to stop.’"
It’s quintessential Karl-Anthony Towns — a basketball star, yes, but he’s also someone much more complex, much more unique and who always seems to find a way to put everyone else before himself.
And the funny thing is, ask anyone who knows Towns, and they’ll tell you a story just like it.
Basketball player is only a small part of who Karl-Anthony Towns is. He is also a golfer. He was once a very good pitcher. He dabbles playing the piano. And, oh yeah, he’s an A student — with dreams of a career in medicine.
Sure, Towns might look like any other big-time NBA Draft prospect playing in the college game this season. The truth is, he’s about as different as any one-and-done star can be.
For starters, there are those grades, and academics were always more important in the Towns household than basketball. Karl Towns Sr. works for the Job Corps., helping students complete their GEDs and find jobs in the real world, and Jacqueline is a nurse, meaning schoolwork never once took a backseat for their basketball prodigy.
That schoolwork is also what led Towns to St. Joe’s. Sure, the school has produced first-round NBA Draft picks — former Duke star guard Jay Williams and ex-Lakers center Andrew Bynum — but it is a school that first and foremost is about academics. Scholarships aren’t offered, not even to top athletes.
"We’re a college preparatory school," St. Joe’s principal John Anderson said. "We’re pretty close to 100 percent college acceptances (for its students), except for a few who are going into the military or a family business."
It also meant Towns, like every other student in the school, had to take an entrance exam to get in. Once there, he had to keep up with his grades, or he wouldn’t be allowed to stay. No special exceptions were made, not even for the consensus top high school basketball player in the country.
OK, maybe one exception was made.
"We have a dress-shoe policy," Anderson said with a laugh. "We had to wait for him to order special shoes."
Yet despite having no choice but to fit in at St. Joe’s, Towns quickly stood out, and it wasn’t just on the basketball court. His freshman year he was elected class president — he had to step down from the role as a sophomore because of other commitments, but remained on the student council — and continued to maintain a 3.6 GPA despite a basketball schedule that literally took him around the world during the summer.
Towns’ balance between school and basketball impressed the St. Joe’s staff, which thought it had seen it all. When Towns was starting to get comfortable at the school, he made a decision that surprised everyone: He announced during his sophomore year that he planned to graduate from high school in three years.
And just as with his entrance to St. Joe’s, there would be no cutting corners on his exit from the school. He took online classes at both Middlesex Community College and Rutgers, his course load carefully vetted every step of the way by the administration at St. Joe’s. Last spring he did, in fact, graduate from one of the top high schools in New Jersey, and did it in just three years.
The news hardly surprised the St. Joe’s staff, which had gotten to know Towns well, but it did recently catch some NBA personnel off-guard as league insiders began to do research on him. It has also led to some uncomfortable — if not comical — back-and-forth dialogue between Towns’ high school coach and the folks in the pros.
"One of the NBA teams just called to do a background check," Towns’ high school coach Dave Turco said. "They’re asking what type of kid he was: ‘As far as you know, does he hang out with friends? What does he do for fun?’"
Turco was blunt in his answer, even if the NBA brass on the other end wasn’t quite ready for it.
"I said, ‘To be honest with you, what Karl did to have fun was, he did more schoolwork.’ He had to get two years done in one year. While his friends are going to the mall, going to the movies, he’s this kid at home sitting in front of a computer."
Of course, that’s not to say Towns doesn’t know how to have fun.
At Kentucky, he’s quickly become known as the team goofball, the one who’s always smiling and always laughing but also a player who makes time to sign an autograph for a fan after a practice or game. He’s the team "nice guy," the one who is too friendly and too well-mannered to talk back to his coaches or teammates.
Karlito is Towns’ alter-ego, an imaginary friend who sits on his shoulder, and who talks to Towns when he gets frustrated at practice.
That narrative has come into the national focus over the last few weeks as America has gotten to know one of Towns’ closest friends, "Karlito."
Karlito is Towns’ alter ego, an imaginary friend who sits on his shoulder and who talks to Towns when Karl gets frustrated at practice. As Kentucky coach John Calipari explained earlier this year, Towns (the real person) is simply too nice to talk back to coaches. So he takes his frustrations out on Karlito instead.
The story has picked up national steam over the past couple of weeks, even if the folks who follow Kentucky basketball have known about Karlito for months.
What most in Kentucky don’t know is that Karlito and Karl-Anthony Towns were a package deal, long before either arrived in Lexington.
"We laughed at that one when we first saw it come across the news," Turco said. "That is him. He would never in his life argue with you, he would never in his life tell you you’re wrong, he’d never give you an excuse."
Instead, what he would do is talk to himself. Or better yet, he would talk to Karlito. Even if Karlito wasn’t a household name yet.
"He’d constantly run down the floor, and he would look like he was talking to somebody on his shoulder," Turco said. "He was talking to himself. We just started rolling (laughing) when the Kentucky coaches actually named him."
For Turco, it was a blast from the past. And it reminded him of a former NBA star and his equally famous alter ego.
"He’s got a Lil’ Penny thing going," Turco said, referring to the famous commercials with Penny Hardaway and his tiny alter ego Lil’ Penny (voiced by comedian Chris Rock).
Who knows, maybe there will be an endorsement opportunity for the two when they both get to the pros?
Ah, the pros. We all know they’re coming for Towns, who was dazzling while scoring 25 points in Kentucky’s 68-66 victory Saturday over Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. And while basketball might only be a small part of what defines Towns right now, it’s going to become a much larger part of his life in the coming months. Barring something shocking happening, Towns is expected to enter the NBA Draft, where he will be one of the top few picks.
And if he is one of those top few picks, the question will immediately become how quickly he can impact a team like the Lakers, 76ers or maybe his hometown Knicks, all of whom desperately need a player of his talents.
Ask those who know him best, and everyone agrees that Towns has the ability to not only succeed at any level, but also adapt his game to do whatever it takes for his team to win.
Turco mentioned how Towns averaged only 12 shots per game during his final year at St. Joe’s because it was what was best for the team (Towns won the Gatorade National Player of the Year award that season) and that he has also taken on a supporting role with the Dominican national team the past few summers (Towns’ mother is Dominican). On a squad with All-Star Al Horford and a handful of other players with NBA backgrounds, Towns has been happy to rebound and play defense.
It’s an impressive attitude for a player so young, made even more impressive by Towns’ willingness to learn from his peers. Dominican coaches have called him a sponge and credit him for finding the best possible role models on the team.
"Al Horford being on that team was the best thing that could’ve happened for him," Dominican Republic director of basketball operations Chad Sanders said. "Al’s a pro, Al comes out, gets a couple hundred shots up before practice, and Karl’s doing it with him. So, I mean, he finds the correct leaders in order to make him be a leader."
It’s an attitude that has impressed Horford, who has become a bit of a mentor for Towns after spending a few summers together.
"Right away, his disposition to buy into the team, to learn, was great," Horford said. "His ability to pick things up, I feel like people don’t realize how hard they have to work until they get to a certain age, or they get to the NBA, or whatever it is. To his advantage, he was around us enough to see that he has to do the extra things, he needs to be there before practice, to be there after practice, to get ahead."
It also leads to this question: As Towns matures on the court, how good can he become?
Well, who better to ask than the NBA All-Star himself, Al Horford.
"Honestly, I think he’s going to be great," Horford said. "Just with his focus, with his work ethic, and his health, really, who knows how good he can be?"
Ah, how good can Towns be? It’s a question that everyone in the NBA will spend the next few months pondering.
Honestly, I think he’s going to be great. Just with his focus, with his work ethic, and his health, really, who knows how good he can be?
While the whole world argues over Towns’ strengths and weakness, debates his game versus that of Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and wonders who will select him in the NBA Draft, there is one person who doesn’t seem overly concerned with his NBA future.
That’s Karl-Anthony Towns himself.
Long before he was a blip on the NBA’s radar, Towns already was preparing for life after basketball. And like everything else he does, Towns has a plan in place for success.
"People laughed about it," Turco said. "(But) one of the things, one of the reasons he picked Kentucky was because of kinesiology. He really does want to be a doctor, he definitely wants to go back to where his mother is from, the Dominican Republic, and he wants to open up hospitals. He really does want to help people."
It sounds too good to be true.
That is, unless you know Karl-Anthony Towns.
"That’s just the type of kid he is," Turco said. "That is something that he is really serious about. That’s not something that he just says, that’s something that’s true to him."
But will Towns actually follow through on it?
Why wouldn’t he?
Karl-Anthony Towns always seems to succeed at everything he puts his mind to.
"That’s something I know he will do," Turco said.