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Karl-Anthony Towns has a heart as big as his game

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Karl-Anthony Towns conversation

Kentucky forward Karl-Anthony Towns discusses his excitement to be a part of March Madness lore and the Wildcats' intimidating defense.

Karl-Anthony Towns was never going to be your garden-variety ninth-grade big man, something he made clear in his early workouts at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, New Jersey, wearing a New York Yankees jersey and shooting jumpers from two steps inside the midcourt line and making them with uncommon ease.

"Like they were layups," said Daniel Brix, then a St. Joseph senior among the astonished witnesses.

Towns was already pushing 6-foot-10 as an entering high school freshman, and it appeared his ambition was to someday become the NBA's tallest 2-guard. His teammates remembered Towns as the varsity's surest long-range shooter in his first season, even as the seniors tried to persuade him to get his rear end under the rim. Brix and his co-captain, Quenton DeCosey, now a guard at Temple, "wanted him to get in there and dunk on people and get the crowd going," Brix recalled, but somehow Towns always found a way to drift back to the perimeter.

"He had absolutely no post game," said Brix, now a guard at Stonehill. "Everything you see at Kentucky, I don't know where that came from."

But the upperclassmen noticed Towns honored his height advantage over the opposition on defense, planting himself in the paint and blocking his share of shots. They noticed he wasn't afraid to assume a leadership role in practice, like the time Brix and DeCosey were dragging during sprints and the newbie shouted that they weren't going to win a state title if they didn't run hard, showing the seniors he cared less about enhancing his own stock and more about making those around him better.

Yes, the older boys noticed Towns never carried himself with an air of entitlement. Despite the fact he was a blossoming star in a warped celebrity culture, already identified as the real thing on all social-media fronts, Towns was the prodigy with guaranteed scholarship offers in the dozens who acted like the last man on the bench.

"He's the nicest kid on and off the floor that I've ever met or played with," Brix said. A lot of people have said that, or things like that, about Karl-Anthony Towns, the Kentucky freshman whose career-high 25 points against Notre Dame saved the Wildcats' perfect season and sent them back to the Final Four. One NBA scout with a lottery-bound team called Towns "an off-the-charts sweetheart." John Calipari's assistant, Barry "Slice" Rohrssen, said he told scouts representing the franchises most likely to land the No. 1 pick in the draft the following:

"He's one of the best young men I've coached in twenty-plus years of doing this. When you bring Karl in for the pre-draft workout and interview, and then you drop him off at the hotel after taking him to dinner with your owner, that owner is going to turn around and ask you, 'How do we not take this guy?'"

For reassurance, those owners might want to place a phone call to Bill Bunk, a western Pennsylvania auto parts dealer who became the biggest Towns fan in America some 17 years after he accidentally backed his car over his 23-month-old son, Matt, causing a traumatic brain injury. Bill's niece, Deb Moore, works in the media relations department at Kentucky, and she arranged for Bill and 19-year-old Matt to attend a Sports Illustrated shoot the day before the Wildcats' final regular-season game against Florida.

"But Karl really did all this by himself," Bill said by phone. "We met him and his mom and dad, and then after the game Deb was in the locker room and Karl said, 'Is Matt out there?' Karl had the equipment manager bring him his shoes so he could give them to Matt. And when he came out and did that, I was blown away. I was bawling, and I had to run over and hug Karl's mom and tell her what an outstanding job she's done raising that young man."

In his wheelchair, Matt beamed as he held the player's size-20s. He later authored a handwritten note to Towns to thank him for his common decency and grace. "It was the best day of my life," Matt said. "And he told me the next time I'm in Lexington I should let him know."

Towns already understood that little things are big things when given a chance to touch families in need. As freshman class president at St. Joseph, Towns attended funeral services for a 25-year-old St. Joe's graduate he'd never met, Kevin Reinhard, who was among six Marines killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Jan. 19, 2012. Towns decided he needed to honor Reinhard by scoring a career-high 25 points in his next game against Perth Amboy, and by telling his coach he had no interest in scoring a 26th. So yeah, you bet the Reinhards watch Kentucky basketball from their New Jersey home every chance they get.

"It was such a beautiful gesture for someone his age to do," Reinhard's mother, Kathleen, said Tuesday by phone. "You don't find too many 16-year-olds who would've done something like that. We've seen him a couple of times at the local eatery my husband and I go to, where my son used to go, and he's so well-grounded and I can't say enough about how well his parents raised him. Karl-Anthony told us he thought it was something he just needed to do, and it was a tremendous, tremendous thing in our eyes. We told him it was something we will never forget."

In the immediate wake of the December 2012 Newtown massacre of 20 children and six adults, Towns wrote on his sneakers messages of prayer for "26 angels" and a reminder that "children are our future," and visited a school for autistic students. Last summer, Kentucky was playing a series of exhibitions in the Bahamas when Calipari had his players serve the global cause known as Samaritan's Feet, which supports children whose families are poor enough to see socks and shoes as luxuries, not necessities. The Wildcats were asked to wash the feet of children before supplying them with new gear, and the event was a smash hit until organizers ran out of socks with one boy still in line.

So Towns pulled off his own brand-new Captain America socks and gave them to the boy. "My son loves cartoons and he really liked those socks," said Towns' father Karl, "but there was no way he was letting that kid walk out of there without a smile on his face. That's Karl. He knows that just because you're a McDonald's All American and Gatorade National Player of the Year doesn't mean you shouldn't be nice to people."

A 6-5 forward out of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Karl Towns was a relentless rebounder at Monmouth University in the mid-1980s who played a bit for the Jersey Jammers of the United States Basketball League. He later became the head coach at Piscataway Vocational Tech High, and with his Dominican-born wife, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, working as a nurse, Towns would bring young Karl-Anthony to practice and have him perform drills with the JV.

This is where a star was born. Karl-Anthony had the given name that stood out from the crowd -- his mother and older sister, Lachelle, didn't want him known as Karl Jr., and they liked the cadence the hyphen provided -- and he also had the size and commitment that separated him from other junior high players.

"He was born into basketball and became a professor of the game," Towns' father said. "He mastered the art of basketball from watching how I taught my players, and from taking game film home from St. Joseph and going to his room to study the tape of his next opponent. He used to come to my night practices after his St. Joe's practices, and sometimes he would shoot 3-pointers until he made 500 of them, and it could take two to three hours."

Karl-Anthony had also fallen hard for baseball, and his mother and maternal grandmother didn't do a good job hiding their hope that he might someday put the basketball down and focus on the Dominican pastime. They loved watching him play first base on his summer travel teams, and they loved watching him throw high heat from the mound.

"He could've been a dominant pitcher like Randy Johnson," Karl Towns said. "When he wound up and lifted that size-20 foot up, he could intimidate a hitter."

In fact, there was some talk during his St. Joseph days that Karl-Anthony might join the baseball team and form a Twin Towers tandem with the school's 6-10 lefty, James Ziemba, now a pitcher at Duke. But the pull of basketball was too strong. Karl-Anthony played for the Dominican Republic's junior national team, and then spent two summers on that country's varsity squad coached by none other than John Vincent Calipari, who swears to this day he'd never heard of Towns when he agreed to take the job.

Calipari, his Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua, and veteran NBA coach Del Harris implored Karl-Anthony to make the transition from the perimeter to the low post, where he would have to make his future NBA living, and as a 16-year-old role player for the Dominican team he found himself facing a United States team that included the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Al Horford and other Dominican veterans embraced Towns because of his team-centric approach. "And if he had the wrong attitude," said Antigua, now the head coach at USF, "it would've crushed him with those pro guys."

In nine minutes against Team USA, the 16-year-old made a 3-pointer, threw a no-look bounce pass for an assist, muscled up to Davis, and stuffed a Russell Westbrook drive. No, Calipari wasn't about to let him sign with Coach K or anyone else.

The same day Towns announced he would attend Kentucky, he also announced he'd graduate in three years to get an early jump on his college career. The straight-A student took online and summer courses to earn his diploma early, yet still left St. Joseph with the championships its previous NBA grads, Andrew Bynum and Jay Williams, did not win. In Lexington, Towns has proven to be a skilled center who can handle the ball, pass it, shoot free throws, and make the power moves and short jump hooks required of a true center. He's the best player on a 38-0 team that faces Wisconsin in the Saturday national semifinal, and then, possibly, Duke and Towns' competition for the top overall pick, Jahlil Okafor, on Monday night.

Bob Hurley Sr., the legendary coach at St. Anthony High of Jersey City, had met with Karl-Anthony, the eighth-grade version, at Karl Towns' urging before the prospect's parents figured the commute from Piscataway would be too tough on their son. Hurley has been around long enough to have won more than 1,000 games than he's lost at St. Anthony, long enough to have seen it all, and he can't believe the player Towns has become at Kentucky, the player Towns was in his perfect second half against Notre Dame.

"I've always felt he had unlimited potential but this transformation from last year to this year has been incredible. He's completely changed his mindset about where he's playing the game of basketball."

Bob Hurley, head coach at St. Anthony High in Jersey City

"I've always felt he had unlimited potential," Hurley said, "but this transformation from last year to this year has been incredible. He's completely changed his mindset about where he's playing the game of basketball. I didn't think he could go from shooting 3s to being this dominant around the basket. I want to write John Calipari a note to say this is the most amazing transformation I've seen.

"We played against Bynum twice, and Towns is much further along in his career at the same stage. In my mind he's the No. 1 pick in the draft. Okafor is a more polished offensive player, but Towns is a better defender, rebounder and foul shooter, and is a bit more versatile now. He's personable, a great interview, plays with passion, and has a more outgoing personality than most big kids do. You can put him on the Knicks and he's an NBA All-Star."

The Knicks don't have the first pick yet, but if they get it, Mark Warkentien is the man who will give Phil Jackson the most thorough report on Towns. One NBA scout said Warkentien has spent so much time in Lexington he could "vote in local elections." And given that Calipari's roster is loaded enough to force his best players to accept reduced minutes (Towns is averaging 20.8 per game), some scouts were more inclined to attend his practices than, say, a game at Mississippi State.

"You're a basketball scout," said one NBA executive, "and they've got a hockey rotation." It makes the evaluation of the Wildcats challenging, and the comparison of the more athletic Towns to Okafor (30.3 minutes per game) fascinating.

"With the No. 1 pick in the draft I would take Karl-Anthony Towns," said Antigua, who was raised in New York. "He'd be a perfect fit for the Knicks and a city he's spent his whole life around and knows very well. He's already part of one of the biggest stages there is with Kentucky, so I don't think New York would be a problem for him. You can't go wrong with either guy, but [Towns] will work out for teams that will be blown away by his versatility, and I don't think Okafor has the same range and skills."

If NBA teams have any concern about Towns, at least beyond his need to strengthen his lower body, it would revolve around his sweet disposition. In fact, much like some NFL scouts worry that Marcus Mariota is "too nice" to be a franchise player in the cutthroat business of professional football (even if the Oregon quarterback wasn't "too nice" to win the Heisman Trophy), some NBA scouts wonder if Towns will develop the killer instinct required of a No. 1 pick charged to carry a franchise to multiple championships (even if Notre Dame could tell them a thing or three about Towns' killer instinct).

"He craves acceptance," one scout said. "He does want everyone to like him."

And pretty much everyone does. Calipari can't call him "a great kid" enough, even if he says he's harder on Towns than any other Wildcat to ensure he keeps his on-court edge. Nobody should mistake Towns' kindness for weakness, but there is an awful lot of kindness there.

Jacqueline said her son forever gravitated toward kids who were considered outsiders, kids who might not have felt wanted or comfortable in social or classroom settings, "because Karl was also the outsider when he was younger. He was too tall, his feet were too big, he didn't fit into his desk, and sometimes kids can be cruel."

Jacqueline laughed when recalling the time she asked Karl-Anthony if she could quit her job at the behavior health hospital at Rutgers after he made his NBA millions, only for her son to express concern for the patients who might need her continued help. But truth is, Karl-Anthony is always looking out for his mother. When Jacqueline's father died, Karl-Anthony brought her a gift in a box -- new sunglasses for the funeral. "I know you've been crying a lot," he told his mother. "I thought you would need these."

Karl Towns, the father? He can't get over his son, either. Karl-Anthony also happens to be one of the world's tallest golf junkies, someone who would play 54 holes by sundown if he could. On a rare off day, Karl-Anthony might leave his home at 8 a.m. and return at 4 p.m. after hitting buckets of balls on the range and driving them more than 300 yards on the course.

The old man is awed by his son's level of concentration and patience from tee to green. "Me?" Karl Towns said. "I'd be like Rory McIlroy throwing my club in the water."

And yet Karl-Anthony is very much his father's son, and his mother's son. Go ahead and Google the video of his announcement that he would attend Kentucky, and of his emotional Gatorade award acceptance speech. Only a pair of fairly remarkable parents could've raised this fairly remarkable young man.

Karl-Anthony might want to become a kinesiologist someday, and he might want to open a hospital in the Dominican Republic. He was quoted before the season by Kentucky Sports Report as saying he treats everyone equally. "I treat everyone as if they are LeBron James," Towns said.

That's why his father cried on the phone when talking about the humble centerpiece of one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history, a season that could end gloriously Monday night with a 40-0 record and a national title. Karl-Anthony spoke last weekend about all the relationships he's established at Kentucky, about how "blessed I am to share this journey with my brothers," though he still immediately returns postgame texts from his St. Joe's brothers, too.

One of them, James Ziemba, the pitcher at Duke with the Plumlee-brother size, swears to his friends that Towns is just as genuine as he comes across on TV. Ziemba said the St. Joe's alumni all feel they're a part of what Towns is achieving at Kentucky because Towns makes sure they feel a part of it.

So the Dookie is a bit torn between his Blue Devils and his cherished 6-11 Wildcat.

"If they meet in the final," Ziemba said, "I guess I hope Karl scores 100 points and Duke pulls out a late victory. But you know, I just want what's best for Karl. I just want him to succeed. If that means Duke loses, hey, he deserves it."

Until further notice, Karl-Anthony Towns deserves whatever trophies and riches come his way. Unless NBA fortune changes him in ways that high school and college fame have not, the son of Karl and Jacqueline Cruz-Towns has already established his legacy in the post.

The big man with the big game has an even bigger heart.