LONG BEACH, Cali. – Karl-Anthony Towns knows what it feels like to hit a big shot in a crucial moment, or how to handle the pressure of a sold out arena watching his every move. He’s used to camera flashes, cell phones tracking him, Instagram comments, and eyes following him everywhere he goes. He can’t hide in plain sight, even when people don’t know who he is, they know he could or should be someone, and that someone is likely a basketball player.
Was at equinox here in the bay , enjoying my açaí bowl, and was asked if I would join a basketball league because I was “tall”. I told him “I’m out” and he said I look like I at least tried basketball in high school. In actuality, he was right 🤷🏽♂️.
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) October 9, 2019
Towns has been in the league for what feels like an eternity, but is entering just his fifth year as a pro. If he’s expected to know exactly who he wants to be, those expectations aren’t coming internally, but rather from those projecting their thoughts and opinions onto him. He’s 23, an age where it’s completely natural to still find one’s place in the world, but in pro sports, players don’t often have the luxury of “figuring it out” along the way. There’s always a steep learning curve, one where everyone is watching, and even through dominance and natural ability, there are those who want Towns to be something else, to be something more, to be moving at a speed that’s on their terms, not his.
Is it fair to say Towns is underrated among his peers, especially in the Western Conference? Absolutely. If anything he takes after another post player who toiled away among the Wolves, never quite occupying one specific skillset, never quite getting the attention or acclaim he deserved. And while it took Kevin Love moving to Cleveland to get a ring and secure a legacy, Towns seems apt to play it out Minnesota, signing a max extension prior to last season.
While the team looks – and feels – a lot different than it did heading into preseason a season ago, it’s somewhat hard to believe it’s only been a year since Jimmy Butler demanded a trade and played in one of the most famous intersquad scrimmages in recent memory. For all that, the 2019-20 Timberwolves are KAT’s team, fully and undoubtably. He’s embracing that role, following a year that saw him average 24.4 points and 12.4 rebounds, and shoot 40 percent on three-pointers on a career high 4.6 attempts per game.
What Towns isn’t used to was the scene following a win in the Mtn Dew Amp Game Fuel Call of Duty Pro Am in late September. The avid gamer was in his element trying out the new Modern Warfare maps and toggles, and seemed to lose himself in the game as the day wore on. Each round he showcased a bit more: skill, personality, trash talk. By the time he reached the championship round against T-Pain, there was no more doubt about whether he belonged in this competition; rather there was an expectation that the seven-footer should win this thing. He already believed he could beat just about any NBA player in Call of Duty; now he knew he could beat other celebrity gamers, and some pros, when given the chance.
When KAT and teammate Scump closed it out, with confetti popping, Towns let out a yell and sprinted to the middle of the soundstage. He grabbed the winner’s bomber jacket and put it on, despite the fact it was at least two sizes too small. And with a bit of Tommy Boy “little coat” humor, modeled it for photos, opting to leave it on a bit longer than necessary. Despite the obvious branding on the jacket, he asked if it was possible to get one in his size. He wasn’t going to leave without knowing he could collect his hardware to showcase the win.
This was Towns in his element, at his most comfortable, and it was hard not to see the power in that. He wasn’t worried about anything; as loose as he’d be streaming the game at home on Twitch or shooting in an empty gym. Tapping into that on the court could help unlock even more of his potential. If this is the version of KAT the NBA is getting in year five, he won’t just be an All-Star; he’ll be a viable MVP candidate.
DIME spoke with Towns following the pro am win about his love of gaming, learning how to enjoy life, taking control of his interests, and more.
You seem as hyped about this win as you would be about anything. It seems like you took a lot of pride in showing what you can do.
It’s competition. I get excited for competition all the time. That’s what I live for. I live for the thrill of competition, and I got it today against some of the best gamers that’s ever lived.
When you’re streaming generally and you’re playing, do you have the opportunity to go up against some of these guys when you’re playing by yourself?
Not really, but to come out here and play against the best on a big stage with a big audience and perform, it’s a lot of fun. Obviously, it’s something I do on a daily basis, but to step out of my craft and step into another craft, something they do all the time and be able to find a way to win is a huge honor. And I think that for the people that participated in this pro am and everything, it’s maybe one of the biggest video game victories for a basketball player of all time.
I mean it’s stepping up with some Call of Duty champions out there today.
On a big stage too, I always try to tell people that, you know, the difference between me and LA Fitness guys is that he could play good one day. I have to play good for 82 straight in front of 100,000. That’s the difference between the practice warrior and a superstar. So it was really fun to, in a way, make history for NBA players to go on pro ams, to find a way to win.
Is that something that you think over the next couple years we’ll see more of? We’ve seen athletes do it in Madden, 2K, FIFA, tournaments and stuff too. But to crossover into COD and some of the other big-time streaming games. Some of the ones that have the big tournaments that you guys play regularly.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that fans don’t ever get the chance. They don’t really want to take the time to understand that we’re humans as well and wake up to our own lives, and we’re already doing basketball most of the time from 10 to 5. We don’t want to go back and talk more basketball. We don’t stay in the gym 24/7 a week. We have our own lives, got our own families, do our own hobbies. And one of my hobbies is playing video games, and I got to show my talent today.
T-Pain told me that a lot of musicians and artists he knows game, but they’re not as proud about it as they should be because everyone games, you don’t have to hide that. Seems like athletes now they are taking a lot more pride in that.
I think there’s been pioneers and people taking the time to really show that they game on their free time. I’ve been on Twitch since day numero uno, so just really putting myself out there and just saying, ‘Hey, I play video games a lot, and I’m gonna stream and let people watch me play.’ Fans, obviously are going to say they rebuttals, ‘why are you not in the gym playing?’ But they don’t get the life. They don’t understand it, and they just want to see what they see. Because at the end of the day, I always looked at my Twitch as a way for fans to see beyond just the basketball player of me, and just actually see who I am off the court. And that’s why I Twitch. I Twitch more for the extension of access into my life.
It seems like stuff has been going that way, and the power is getting more in you guys being able to tell your story and be the person that you want to be without there being the barriers that we’ve seen. And this summer was real proof of that. The Timberwolves are pretty stable now, but a lot of the other teams and players made moves. You’ve got an opportunity then to showcase not just personality, but who you want to be.
Yeah. And I think making the effort to really show who I am and tell my story better. And I think that really having a person I can trust with the content we create, and we come up with, is a testament. Just like in basketball, I care about the quality of my craft. And I care about the quality of the content. So when you have someone who cares just as much about the quality as he does, it makes telling my story easier and then it makes it more fun and enjoyable.
You clearly do care about the craft on the court. Last season, you took big steps again, as you’ve done each and every season. What are you taking away from the summer, and all the work that you’ve put in the off season as you head into what could be a pretty big year for you and the Western Conference as a whole?
I’ve learned, it’s one of the things KG stressed to me a lot, and as I’m five years in I’ve been playing professional basketball – which fans still don’t take time to research – I’ve been playing competitive basketball for damn near nine years. I’ve been playing for nine years, so I’m just finally understanding how to enjoy my life. And this summer was a big step for me going forward. Learning how to enjoy life. And I’ve made a lot of steps as an individual, not from leadership and all that stuff. That stuff I always possessed. I get to show it this year now, but just as a man, just learning how to have more fun and be able to enjoy my life.
Does that open things up?
Yes, it does. It makes content funner, and it makes more opportunities to making better content and doing things that I may have second guessed about because of public opinion or because I just wasn’t comfortable opening up that much to people. And now –
I’m all in, and I do things a little differently.
That’s part of just getting older, right? Like you become … you trust who you are a little bit more.
I’ve always trusted myself, but I’ve learned how to mix … I’ve learned how to separate business and pleasure. I always made basketball such an emphasis on my life that I never had a life. And now I’ve learned how to separate basketball from life and be able to actually have a life outside the court and feel more complete. So it’s fun.
And those things tend to help each other.
Absolutely. It’s more comfortable. It’s more comfortable. So it’s a lot of fun.
It seems like you guys have really taken to Ryan Saunders and what he’s been able to do. What’s that relationship been like, and how has he kind of helped to bring out the best in you guys?
Just makes everything more comfortable when you have a guy you trust that much like Ryan, and we’re very fortunate we have him and we’re fortunate we got to sign him and that he took the job to be a coach for us. So when you have a person like Ryan at the helm, you feel like anything’s possible and he instills confidence and excitement and joy to all his players and the front office and every fan around. So it’s a special God-given talent he has to elevate the room without saying a word, just by his presence, and his energy, and his aura.
You mentioned the impact KG’s had on you. What does it mean to have somebody like that? Not just a guy you grew up watching, but somebody who continues to impact the game just every time he’s around.
I’m very fortunate that I got a vet like him because many times, a lot of NBA players tell stories about the vets they had and how they were very detrimental to their career and they had to find their way out themselves. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a lot of benefits from having KG as a mentor and as like an OG. So I’ve learned a lot and I have learned a lot more things through him that I’ve learned through coaches, but just different mindset is the stuff. But I think that the biggest teacher in life I’ve ever had was life itself. I’ve learned a lot just from experience and going through this life that fans just don’t understand, and I’ve been very fortunate to open up and do different things, aka playing this pro am and open my gaming world up to more fans.
You just keep having the experience and you get to share that with others and then they hopefully understand a little bit better.
Exactly. I got a lot of stories to tell my kids and the youth, and my book is only going to get longer and longer as I continue to go through this process of being an NBA player.