MINNEAPOLIS — As it heals, Kevin Love’s right hand is encased in a flesh-colored glove, barely noticeable unless you’re looking.
His ego, too, is in a similar, if intangible splint; barely visible but decidedly present. It, too, is recovering. Because this season, those pesky metacarpals and Love’s public image have been inextricably woven together, each in some cases preventing the other from healing.
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Love played too soon, again, after his first hand injury in order to prove something to fans who had been suspicious for months that their star would eventually bolt to another city. He played too soon, and it only did more damage to that fragile image when cries of “they’re better off without him” erupted across Minnesota. He played too soon, and it left his hand weak, broken again on Jan. 3 in Denver, just 11 weeks after the first break, and again, there was no way to play, no way to win, no way to call off the hounds barking of his discontent, his desire to bolt.
Now Love must wait until mid-March, most likely, to prove anything.
The Timberwolves forward returned to Minneapolis on Wednesday after spending the three weeks since his Jan. 15 hand surgery in New York rehabbing under the close watch of his doctor, Michelle Carlson, at the Hospital for Special Surgery. While in New York, Love consulted with Carlson twice a week, getting progress evaluations and X-rays. He also worked out and got hand therapy five times a week, building his range of motion as well as receiving massages to reduce the fluid buildup in his hand after the surgery.
It’s been a far more intensive process than the last time, when Love was surprisingly cleared to play just five weeks after Oct. 17, the day he broke the third and fourth metacarpals in his shooting hand while doing knuckle push-ups. Love still won’t admit that he’s certain he returned too soon, but he said Thursday that doctors after the fact told him they were unsure as to whether the first injury had indeed healed correctly. This time, he’s taking it slower, he says; his full range of motion has not yet returned, and he’s unsure when he’ll be able to start shooting or dribbling. Surgery necessitates a longer recovery period, and Love has accepted that.
“Surgery is making me be patient, making me heal, rather than trying to get out there the first time the doctor says, ‘Okay, maybe you can (get) out there and play,’ ” Love said. “So I think in that regard it’s a good thing. … I definitely want to heal and do things the right way this time around.”
In the case of doing things the right way, healing is just the beginning. Love opened his comments Thursday by discussing how much he missed his team, how it seemed like he’d never left. “It’s family,” he said multiple times, and he seemed genuinely pleased to be back around his teammates and coaches. Call it overkill. Or call him smart.
This will mark the third time in five months that Love has for all intents and purposes begun his season. First was in training camp, when the wilder predictions had the Timberwolves as a No. 3 or 4 seed in this year’s playoffs, the more prudent a No. 7 or 8 at best. Then came that November comeback as the team began to falter after its 5-2 start, when it became quickly apparent that Love was not that Love, not the player who might lead the league in rebounding and rank among its best scorers.
And now March looms, his third attempt at a season, and this time, the hole to dig out of will be far deeper. Love’s team will likely have a losing record — the T-wolves are 18-28 now and giving little indication they can sustain a long winning streak — and he will have to battle months off the court, one damning Yahoo! Sports article and its blowback. When he returns, Love will be charged not only with salvaging something positive for his team’s season, but also with gathering the pieces of his image and proving — if it is indeed the case — that he wants to remain in Minnesota.
Love is adamant of such, and really, right now, the matter is irrelevant. He’s under contract for two more seasons after this one, and a trade in the near future is unlikely at best. The fact is, Love is stuck with Minnesota, and it with him. And really, stuck is a ridiculous word to use when talking about a franchise-type player who claims he genuinely enjoys the city in which he plays.
“I just think that they need to realize that I love being here,” Love said. “I don’t know where the misconception came along, but I love this team. I love this organization, and somewhere along the line it went the other way. I think that wholeheartedly they need to realize that I do want to be here.”
His comments were genuine, although at least somewhat in spite of the facts. Love knows where that “misconception” came from. He knows what he said in December about the team and his perception that it had been poorly managed. He knows his words might have been taken out of context — Love never explicitly said he wanted out or disliked this season’s team — but he had to expect that. He’ll need to craft together a healthy PR campaign as he eases back in with his team, and he knows why.
“All I can do is, you know, be happy with and only manage things that I can control, and with that continue to be humble,” Love said. “In some cases, just shut my mouth and continue to go out there and work. I think the same applies for everybody on the team, and you know, everybody involved with the organization.”
Love was borderline philosophical in some instances Thursday, discussing the lessons this season has taught him — “This has been a season that has put a lot into perspective,” he said — and the future of his struggling team. That future, though, is a longer-term project right now, when it comes to Love. Coach Rick Adelman said Thursday that he has no idea what the forward’s impact will be this season, and it’s hardly something he can consider in the near term.
“You have to deal with today in this league,” Adelman said. “If that happens and he comes back, great. That decision will be made purely on where he is and how healthy he is. The time for that is later. It’s not right now.”
So for now, Minnesota is left with Kevin Love on the bench, Kevin Love traveling on some road trips, Kevin Love doing what he can at practices. There’s no timeline other than mid-March and Love’s pervasive “sooner is better” attitude, and that will have to be enough. No doubt Love will be showing his face now, more and more, reintegrating himself with his team and re-ingratiating himself to his city. They’ve been something of a nightmare, these past few months, but there’s little more he can do than what he did Thursday, which was talk and grin and assure.
There’s no way to know how much will be left to salvage when Love returns, how worthwhile it’ll even be for him to put on a uniform this season. But you have to think he’ll do it because there’s only one thing that’s going to fix the mess of regrets and frustrations this season has been.
“Winning solves that,” Love said. “It doesn’t matter, whatever turn it takes for the bad, in any case, in any sport, in any walk of life, I think if you go out there and work hard and do right by others . . . going out there and proving you’re trying to win, I think that’s good.”