The biggest stop of Kevin Love’s life wasn’t against Steph Curry
On June 19, Tyler Kandel sat at a back table at Warren 77 in New York City, eating chicken nachos and drinking craft beer. The TVs were tuned to Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and Kandel was rooting for the Cavaliers because he went to college with their power forward, Kevin Love. With 44 seconds left and Cleveland up by three, Kandel’s old friend flashed on the screen, isolated at the top of the circle against the best shooter on the planet, who dribbled figure eights 35 feet from the hoop. To everyone watching, this was the most critical moment of Love’s life. To Tyler Kandel, it ranked a distant second.
In September 2008, Kandel had just graduated from UCLA, where he played water polo. Love, a Bruins basketball star, was preparing for his first training camp in Minnesota. On one of their last nights in Westwood, they ate dinner at a sushi restaurant with UCLA small forward Josh Shipp, then walked down Levering Avenue to a party in an apartment west of campus.
Halfway down the hill, they paused. Kandel held a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English malt liquor in his left hand. Shipp was carrying his own bottle as well. Kandel, messing with his buddy, wound up to kick Shipp’s bottle. It was as if he slipped on a banana peel. “I flew up in the air,” Kandel recalls, “and my left leg went under me.” Love and Shipp cracked up as Kandel landed on his back. They did not realize that Kandel’s bottle had shattered in the fall and glass had sliced his left wrist. Kandel reflexively covered the cut with his right hand. As he released it, to check the wound, blood spewed onto the street. “I could see inside my hand, inside my wrist,” Kandel says. “The artery was split wide open.”
The laughter stopped. Kandel heard Love scream at Shipp to call the police. “You aren’t going to die tonight,” Love said. Kandel was wearing a black T-shirt, and Love tore it from his chest. Love’s mother, Karen, worked as a nurse at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland when he was growing up. He had never made a tourniquet, but he had seen it done before. Kandel yowled as Love tied the shirt into a knot around his wrist. “That was the most painful part,” Kandel remembers.
As the ambulance rushed Kandel to UCLA Medical Center, EMTs asked him who tied the tourniquet. Kandel looked down at his green Tretorn hightops, the white toe caps stained red, and mumbled something about a friend. “Whoever it was,” one EMT said, “just saved your life.” A few more minutes, they estimated, and Kandel would have bled to death.
During the 12-hour operation that ensued, surgeons repaired the gash in his wrist, but they could not reattach all of the nerves. Kandel spent the next year in physical therapy while remaining in photography classes at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, where he learned to load film and take pictures with one hand. He read about a disabled Czech photographer, missing one arm, for inspiration. Whenever he saw Love, he showed off the scar that runs from his palm to his wrist.
Now 31, Kandel is an acclaimed photographer in Los Angeles and an assistant water polo coach at the vaunted Harvard-Westlake School. His left hand lacks muscle tone and often cramps, but he can use it. He can catch a ball and handle a camera. He can also dip a nacho and clutch a beer—though he’s graduated from Olde E—as his friend switches onto Steph Curry and faces down a half-century of sorry sports history.
“What I thought about in the last minute,” Kandel says, “is that Kevin does what he has to do.”
Love played AAU ball with Isaiah Thomas and then with Brandon Jennings, future NBA point guards, and after practices he challenged them to games of one-on-one. “It was comical,” Love says. The sight of a pudgy power forward, attempting to shadow a blurry ballhandler, amused spectators at the ABCD Camp in New Jersey and the Bob Gibbons Tournament in North Carolina. But for every time Love was beaten to the hole by Thomas and Jennings, there was a play when he managed to stay in front of them, his footwork matching their quickness.
In the final of the 2006 Reebok Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas, the Southern California All-Stars faced Mean Streets from Chicago, a showdown pitting Love against Derrick Rose. “It was close at the end, and Derrick had Kevin on a switch,” recalls Bill Feinberg, a family friend who helped Love handle media requests in high school. “Derrick dribbled in and out, but Kevin stayed with him. People were aghast.” In the final minute Love blocked Rose; SoCal won.
Fourteen months later, Love was at UCLA, and Russell Westbrook was his new one-on-one sparring partner. Love became a first-team All-America and Pac-10 player of the year, but Bruins head coach Ben Howland harped on his defense, occasionally sitting him down the stretch. Love stood 6′ 10" and 270 pounds, but nobody nitpicked his weight. He was a modern Moses Malone, acquired by Minnesota from Memphis on draft night in 2008, and in his third season he recorded 53 straight double doubles for the Timberwolves. Love put up 31 points and 31 rebounds against the Knicks, 37 and 23 against the Warriors, 32 and 22 against the Spurs, 31 and 21 against the Thunder. To celebrate, he shed 25 pounds, changing his entire diet and workout regimen.
“I saw the way the game was going,” Love says. “It was getting smaller. Big guys were moving around and playing on the perimeter.” Love witnessed the evolution up close, contesting Dirk Nowitzki’s fadeaways and Tim Duncan’s bank shots. “Guys like that, who played inside-out, were really hard to guard.”
Love cut the weight so he could defend them—and mimic them. In 2011–12, he averaged a career-high 26 points, attempting nearly twice as many threes per game as ever before. He was more Dirk than Moses, and when the Cavaliers landed him for No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins in ’14, Love slimmed down even further, dropping to 240 pounds. “I thought we’d run, run, run, and I’d need to be really slender,” he says. “I got too skinny.”
He looks at pictures from UCLA and says, “That’s not me.” He also does a double take looking at photos from his introductory press conference in Cleveland. That’s not him, either. He discovered early that the Cavaliers were not going to run as much as he had anticipated. He vowed to add muscle in the summer. But then he dislocated his shoulder in the playoffs, requiring surgery, and doctors banned him from the weight room during rehab. Cavs performance director Alex Moore, the former strength and conditioning coordinator for the U.S. ski team, took Love to the squad’s headquarters in Park City, Utah, for six weeks that off-season. Love trained 7,000 feet above sea level but was not allowed to lift anything heavier than 30 pounds.
Playing power forward alongside LeBron James and another ball-dominant scorer is tricky enough at full strength. “It’s extremely difficult,” warned Chris Bosh, Miami’s third wheel, in a Bleacher Report story from 2014, “and extremely frustrating.” You don’t get the ball when you are accustomed, but more important, you don’t get it where you are accustomed. Love stood on the perimeter, spacing the floor as James and Kyrie Irving drove. “People tell you, ‘You’re going to have to change what you do,’” Love says, “but until you’re in it, you can’t really understand what that means. It’s a dose of humility.”
Love averaged 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in his first two seasons with the Cavaliers, a respectable stat line on any roster but well short of the standard he set in Minnesota. Last December, he shot 37.3% from the floor, making it easier to bench him for defense and blame him for losses. “I don’t know how it happened, but he caught all the grief for everything, and it wasn’t fair,” says Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue, who succeeded David Blatt last January. “Guys like LeBron and Kyrie, they have the ball in their hands, and the bigs take what they can get. Everybody sacrifices, but Kevin sacrificed the most.”
Love sat next to Cavaliers wing James Jones on charter flights, head buried in Jones’s iPad, asking the 13-year vet what he saw. “I told him, ‘Everyone recognizes you’re an elite player,’ ” Jones says. “‘All the momentary heartache, dissatisfaction, trouble, stress . . . you have to trust yourself. Trust your game. There’s nothing you need to add. You have every tool.’” When Lue took over, he implemented more post-ups and elbow touches for Love, reconstructing his comfort zone. Lue urged Love to ignore outside criticism and to stop second-guessing himself, but the trading deadline loomed, along with speculation about a deal.
Cleveland general manager David Griffin did not want to move Love but understood if he wanted to leave, maybe for a place where he could be the sole superstar again. Griffin said as much in the trainers’ room at Quicken Loans Arena on Feb. 10, where Love was undergoing treatment for an injured shoulder while the Cavaliers played the Lakers.
“I want to be a champion,” Love replied.
Griffin made a trade at the deadline that affected Love even if it didn’t involve him. When stretch forward Channing Frye arrived in Cleveland from Orlando, he was baffled by what he found. “Channing was like, ‘Dude, we’re in first place, we’re the No. 1 seed, we have a chance to win the championship. Why is everyone here so serious?’” recounts Cavaliers swingman Richard Jefferson. “We all took a step back and said, ‘You know, that’s a really valid point.’ ”
Frye buddied up to Jefferson, and the Arizona alums threw their arms around Love. “He’s a West Coast guy, and he has no kids, so we started telling him we were coming over,” Jefferson says. “Channing was like, ‘Just a heads-up, we’ll be at your place after practice, nap on the couch downstairs, drinks at five, dinner at seven.’ ” O.K., Love thought, I guess I’m hosting. Love is no recluse, but he had been searching for his niche in Cleveland, on the court and off. The Triangle, as Jefferson, Frye and Love refer to their corner of the locker room, helped him find it.
“I know it sounds like we didn’t give him a choice,” Jefferson continues, “and in some ways we didn’t. But he didn’t have to open the door. He didn’t have to pay for all the food and the drinks. We couldn’t have let him in if he didn’t want to be in.” By spring, dinners for three had swelled to 15, and Love was still buying. He likened the Cavaliers to the Idiots, those famously scruffy 2004 Red Sox, who erased a daunting playoff deficit and ended a historic title drought.
Love rededicated himself to workouts with Moore, hitting the iron and becoming the rare player to add weight mid-season. “Your time will come,” Love’s trainer and friend, Rob McClanaghan, told him. “I don’t know when it will be, but with everything you’ve done, you’ll be ready.” A maddening winter turned to a promising spring. When Lue singled out Love after a loss in Brooklyn in March—“You’re a bad mother——, too,” Lue barked. “If you’re open in the post, demand the basketball”—Love was not embarrassed. He was emboldened.
Love was spectacular in the playoffs, right up until the whole world tuned in. The Warriors are an impossible matchup for a power forward, particularly when the Dubs downsize, forcing a giant to keep pace with a jitterbug. “It’s hell,” Love says. Golden State hunts his ilk in pick-and-rolls, choreographing plays to get a guy like Love switched onto a guy like Curry. Easy money. In Game 1 the Cavaliers lost by 15 points. In Game 2 Love sustained a concussion and listened to the second half in a dark room at Oracle Arena. Doctors ruled him out of Game 3, even though Love swore he could play, and Lue brought him off the bench for Game 4. He scored two points with three rebounds in Game 5 and found early foul trouble in Game 6. A Warriors series is no time to evaluate Love, but that didn’t stop everybody but Griffin from doing it anyway. “I never got trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking,” Love explains, quoting Steve Jobs. “I focused on my own inner voice the whole time. That voice was saying, ‘Past is past. It might be one game, one half, one quarter, one play. You have to make your mark.’ ”
Fail quickly, Flip Saunders used to tell him when they were in Minnesota. In other words, recover quickly. Love focused on hopeful harbingers, like the bus ride across the Bay Bridge to a practice in Oakland before Game 5, when LeBron blurted from the back of the bus: “This is our destiny. It’s already written.” And the commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford, which LeBron played for the Cavs, just a few days after Love bought a T-shirt with a line from that very speech: stay hungry stay foolish. “Oh,” LeBron beamed when Love wore the shirt, “that’s so sick.”
At halftime of Game 7, Love was unnerved. “Are we playing hard enough?” he asked Lue. “It doesn’t feel like we’re playing hard enough. It doesn’t feel like a Game 7.” Lue agreed, and parroted the message to the locker room. “This is Game 7 of the NBA Finals,” he intoned. “We need to cash in this moment.”
With 50 seconds remaining, Love stood at the left elbow as Curry crossed half-court. He diagnosed the action immediately. “We’d seen it so many times,” Love says. A screen by Andre Iguodala at the top of the key, prompting a switch onto Draymond Green, and a second screen by Green on the right wing, prompting a switch onto Curry. Exactly what the Warriors wanted. The guy who supposedly couldn’t miss against the guy who supposedly couldn’t guard. “That’s Steph’s thing,” Love says, “get switched onto a big guy and break him down.” The unanimous MVP started left, dribbled behind his back, and probed right. He threw a crossover and a step-back, the moves that singed defenders all season. “It was like in Old School when Will Ferrell is on the debate team,” Love laughs. “‘What happened? I blacked out!’ ” He stayed on Curry’s hip, his hands up and his feet down. Curry passed to Green, who passed back.
“He’s going to have to do this again?” Lue thought, irritated that Love did not stick with Curry and deny the pass back. Curry faked a 40-footer, and Love lunged but didn’t leap. Curry drove left and tried another step-back, but Love contested with his left hand. Curry crossed over, and Love contested with his right. The shot clock was down to :04. Curry had to let fly. “He can get separation with any of those moves,” Love says. “More than that, it’s the release. He has such a quick release.” During a film session after Game 6, Lue told Love he was giving Curry and Klay Thompson too much space. “You think you’re there, but it’s not the same against these guys,” Lue said. “You’re not there. You have to get here.” He demonstrated with something very close to a chest bump. As Curry fired, Love followed his eyes. “So many times, he looks at the person he’s shooting over,” Love says. “I was like, ‘Is he going to look at me?’ ” He didn’t look.
Three plays defined Cleveland’s first championship in 52 years. “The Block, the Shot and the Stop, maybe in that order,” Love says. Maybe. But you expect LeBron to deliver a superhuman swat and Kyrie to sink a fadeaway three. You do not expect Kevin Love to smother Steph Curry, and yet, the Stop was no fluke. From Isaiah Thomas to Ben Howland, from Flip Saunders to Tyronn Lue, from 270 pounds to 240, he trained for it.
"Hardest thing you’ve ever done?” Bosh asked, when he ran into Love after the Finals at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills. “Oh, yeah,” Love sighed. “Hardest thing.” Winning changes people, and while Love struggles to articulate how, the man nicknamed Champ does not. “When you’re losing, you’re constantly searching because you’re never getting the result you want,” explains Jones, who has accompanied LeBron to three titles. “When you win, you start to trust yourself, because you see that the path you’ve taken works. You can finally sit back and say, ‘I do have the skill set. I do have the approach. I do know how to prepare.’ And you have the confidence to do it again.”
Love returned to Park City with Moore this summer for another six-week grind, but he wasn’t just building endurance this time. When Love reported back to the Cavaliers practice facility, he was a chiseled 248 pounds. Stories about players adding off-season muscle are a training camp cliché, but Love did 15 reps of the dumbbell bench at 100 pounds compared with 10 at 80 a year ago. Then he hosted the Cavs for dinner after they screened The Birth of a Nation. Of course, there will be nights that Love scores eight points. Such is life on a super-team. But it’s easier to endure the lean times after experiencing the ultimate upshot. “In a weird way, winning made me hungrier, like I have more to prove,” Love says. “It always comes back more to what I can’t do than what I can.”
He swears he has not replayed Game 7, has not deconstructed the Stop, and he may be the only person in Northeast Ohio able to say that. Even in L.A., the Harvard-Westlake water polo team studied the sequence one day this summer, to examine the effort a champion expends. Tyler Kandel sat quietly among them, the scar running down his left hand, watching the friend who did what he had to do.