Commentary

Laid-back Love lets his game stand out

Updated: December 31, 2010, 4:23 PM ET
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN.com

Kevin LoveDavid Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Love has stepped out of the shadows this season to become one of the NBA's rising stars.

Kevin Love laughs when he realizes what's being asked of him.

Driving along the streets of downtown Minneapolis in a white Range Rover, the 6-foot-10 California-born, Oregon-bred forward is wearing gray Minnesota Timberwolves warm-up gear and sneakers. He has no jewelry on; when he smiles, there's a hint of the clear braces lining his upper teeth.

Love speaks clearly and without a discernible accent. When he laughs, it's most often at his own expense, such as when he tells the story of appearing onstage as a 6-year-old with his Uncle Mike's band, The Beach Boys. When the microphone was placed before him, Love was supposed to sing; instead, with an audience of thousands watching, he stood silently until he stepped off the stage a few seconds later, marking the beginning -- and end -- of his musical career. "It was bad," he laughs, grinning and shaking his head.

That small anecdote is, in fact, part of the larger purpose of our afternoon, spent first at a Target retail store for a team charity event and then at the Starbucks across the street from the Target Center.

Love sips his hot chocolate (he doesn't drink caffeine, except for the occasional soda) and talks about his current reading list. One of his favorite subjects is other pro athletes, and he prefers learning about them by reading profiles of the athlete away from his sport -- no stats, records or highlights, but scenes from home, the road or, say, sitting in a coffee shop on a cold December afternoon. Love says that this glimpse into the athlete's non-sporting life intrigues him, while offering insight into the modus operandi behind their sporting success.

Soon after, when the topic turns to him, the modest big man pauses. While he's very conversational, he doesn't think readers will bother.

"I'm not that interesting of a guy, to be honest with you," he laughs.

His on-court performances -- such as his 43-point, 17-rebound night against the Denver Nuggets (when he became the first NBA player in history to score at least 40 points, grab 15 rebounds, and knock down five 3-pointers) or the 31 and 31 he put on the Knicks (the first 30-30 game in 28 years) -- prove otherwise, while also bringing back the national attention that Love first garnered as a McDonald's All-American in high school and during his single All-American season at UCLA. Fans -- and not just those in Minneapolis -- are curious about the respectful, gregarious 22-year-old and how, in only his third professional season, he's become a dominant big man through a throwback style of play.

"It's always been in my blood"

Love's first spark of basketball intrigue came through his father, Stan. The elder Love played in the NBA for four seasons before he retired to become a bodyguard for his musician brother. Stan's stats weren't remarkable (he finished with career averages of 6.6 points and 3.9 rebounds), but his awe for his fellow competitors' game was palpable, and he wanted to pass that kind of athletic dedication on to his children.

Stan and Karen Love's older son, Collin, (they also have a daughter, Emily, 16, who is a model) liked basketball, but it's Kevin pictured in baby photos holding a basketball in his stroller, or holding a tiny foam ball in his crib.

[+] EnlargeKevin Love
The Love familyWith a former NBA player for a father, basketball has been in Kevin Love's life from an early age.

"It's always been in my blood," Love says. "And I always wanted to be like my dad."

Family friend Ernie Spada Sr. remembers picking up his son, Ernie Jr. (now a basketball player at Humboldt State University and still Kevin's best friend), and Kevin from daycare one afternoon. Ernie Sr. told them about the importance of paying attention in school and how that would influence what they chose for their careers. Ernie turned to Kevin and asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up.

"He's 5 years old, and he looks at me as serious as can be and says, 'I'm gonna play in the NBA,'" Spada remembers. "And I said, 'Really?' And he says, 'Yea, Ernie, just like my dad. There's no doubt about it.'"

Spada dropped off Kevin and drove toward his home. Before getting out of the car, he turned to his son and said, "It wouldn't surprise me for a minute if that kid plays in the NBA."

But many NBA stars are born into basketball. The difference with Love was that he lived it -- constantly -- from a very young age. He devoured instructional videos of NBA greats and can still rattle off their names like an alphabet sing-along: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Pete Maravich, the "Boston outlet drills" video with Danny Ainge and Bill Walton, and Pete Newell's "Big Man Moves," which taught him how to maneuver in the post.

"My father will tell you that while other kids were watching Big Bird, I was watching Larry Bird," Love laughs.

He spent every free minute on form, moves and drills: dribbling a basketball out the passenger-side window of a car at about 10 mph or the "50 free throw" drill, where he had to go through three or four drills, make 10 shots and then make 10 free throws.

Love My father will tell you that while other kids were watching Big Bird, I was watching Larry Bird.

-- Kevin Love

Love skipped school not to play hooky but to work on his hook shot. Even on rainy Oregon mornings, Love walked outside to the driveway hoop, his family listening to the sound of the damp ball against the backboard as the raindrops fell.

High school friend Travis Anderson says he and Love used to drive around in Anderson's old Ford Bronco with the top down. They'd head to the local park where their friends hung out and drill them with water balloons, or shine the roof's large spotlight onto their friends and pretend they were in trouble before breaking into fits of laughter. But soon, Love would be ready to head home -- to the basketball hoop.

"I don't think there was ever a time when we were leaving the house -- whether we'd be going to the store or out or whatever -- when he wouldn't pick up the ball and get in a quick five or 10 shots," Anderson says. "He always wanted to pick up the ball no matter how soon we'd be back."

Keeping things loose

Love describes himself as "extremely close" to his extended family and his friends. Growing up, his family held music appreciation nights. Kevin and Collin blasted Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg from the speakers before his father would veto their selections and switch to the medleys of Sam Cooke, Rod Stewart and Jimi Hendrix. Two of Love's aunts are now professional harp players and, of course, there are the melodies of Uncle Mike, a gene that skipped Love. "Kevin can't sing at all," good friend and former UCLA roommate and teammate Russell Westbrook said with a laugh when asked about Love's musical abilities.

Besides his family, Love and his group of high school buddies talk or text almost daily and still gather at least once a year in Las Vegas, Cabo San Lucas or another beach destination. They'll discuss movies, girls, video games, fantasy sports (though Love doesn't play), cars, comedy and, occasionally, basketball.

"I think the best thing about Kev, which is why we've always been such good friends, is that, yes, we talk about basketball, but basketball isn't the thing we talk about most of the time," says Anderson, who works as the director of corporate events for the Eugene Emeralds, a Class A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.

[+] EnlargeMichael Beasley, Kevin Love
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Love and AAU friend Michael Beasley have given fans hope.

Love is the guy keeping everyone loose, telling jokes and reminiscing about favorite high school humiliations. One of Love's favorite stand-up routines is Zach Galifianakis' "Tough Crowd," a 2-minute, 25-second excerpt that ran as part of the "Funny or Die" series. The sketch is deadpan, sophisticated and a bit R-rated, similar to the humor that Love demonstrates around friends and teammates.

"Kevin is a funny guy -- a lot of people don't realize how funny he is," teammate Corey Brewer says.

Says another teammate, Michael Beasley: "Whether you're in a good mood or not, he's going to mess with you. He always puts a smile on your face."

Beasley and Love, who first met playing AAU basketball almost a decade ago, are the team's resident jokers.

"I have a drier and -- I shouldn't say this but I will -- sophisticated sense of humor, while Mike is just all over the place," Love says. "That's how he gets his laughs, and it's still funny."

When Love learned that Beasley had been traded to Minnesota this past offseason, he was excited, since the two have remained good friends. Still, Al Jefferson's departure brought on mixed emotions. "I was really close with Al, so it was a little bittersweet because he was a mentor," Love says. "But it also opened up more playing time for me and more opportunities, so I can't say that I was mad."

Love has started every game this season; Beasley has started all but two. Together, they offer a much-needed 1-2 punch for the youngest team in the NBA. Their disparate styles of play complement one another: Beasley is the flashy, quick-footed, slash-to-the-basket and alley-oop dunk showman while Love is the below-the-rim, post-up, old-school player who'll surprise defenses by stepping out for the occasional 3-pointer.

Fitting in

Love works out hard, arriving at least an hour early to practice on most days. At 260 pounds, he weighs less now than he did in high school. Jason Fawcett, Love's former high school trainer, says Love's constant dedication has helped him become far more athletic than some realize. "He's never going to have a 42-inch vertical jump, but his intelligence, combined with fundamentals, combined with his athleticism is a really rare combination," says Fawcett, who has worked with numerous elite athletes. Fawcett points to Love's single-leg balance and hand-eye coordination in particular, noting that Love performs at elite levels in each category.

Love has also morphed his slightly doughy frame into a chiseled physique through his diet. He has a personal chef, Isaac Werre, a 26-year-old Minnesota native who comes to Love's downtown apartment three times a day when the team is in town. Unlike Beasley, who reputedly orders Skittles by the case, Love's eating habits are very structured: three healthy meals a day, lots of produce and protein from local markets or Whole Foods, and very few sweets or snacks.

Werre says that Love doesn't keep 12-packs of beer or bottles of wine in his refrigerator, nor ice cream in the freezer. Bags of chips will remain in the pantry for months at a time, untouched. Recently, when he'd grown tired of drinking plain water, Love went out on a limb and started adding Crystal Light.

Love thanks Werre for every meal, a respectfulness that Werre says isn't always common among high-profile clientele. "He's 22, but you'd never guess that in a million years because he's so respectful and mature for his age," Werre says.

When dining out, Love says he is recognized sometimes -- more often this year -- and that the "Minnesota nice" adage holds true. Fans are polite and supportive, such as the middle-aged woman who spotted him inside Starbucks and wished him luck in the game the next evening, but didn't ask for an autograph or photo.

Getting the brand back together

This season has brought an expansion of Love's brand away from basketball. Watch the Timberwolves video game screens during timeouts in December and Love is offering his best Zoolander imitation, modeling used coats as part of the philanthropic coat drive he coordinates with the Salvation Army each Christmas. The drive, which collected more than 1,600 coats this season (more than double the two previous seasons) was Love's brainchild, which he brought to the Wolves as a rookie. Listen to him on Dan Patrick's radio show, laughing about his awkward handshake with teammate Wes Johnson that became a YouTube sensation with more than 1.3 million hits.

Read his blog for GQ, where he brags about Beasley's season and tells behind-the-scene stories of his performances. Love originally laced a few four-letter words into the blog, true to his own voice, but both the team media relations staff and Love's agent suggested he remove the profanity so that his audience could remain young-reader friendly.

[+] EnlargeKevin Love
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty ImagesLove credits his progress to his summer abroad with Team USA.

Follow him on Twitter, where he plans to return after a brief hiatus (his return date isn't set yet, but he says it'll happen "soon.") Love knows about the @FreeKevinLove Twitter page, which has 216 followers, and under its bio reads: "Release Kevin Love from NBA Siberia. Trade him to a team that could use a top-tier rebounding power forward." Love doesn't know who authors the feed (ESPN's Sports Guy Bill Simmons also Tweeted a similar FKL phrase on Oct. 28) and he doesn't necessarily agree with their message.

"Hopefully I'm in the Timberwolves' long-term plans," Love says. "I know that we can be better. We have a ton of cap space, another draft coming up, and we're only going to get older. All those things will help us." He points out that he is only 22 years old and that many players peak at 27, 28. And while there hasn't been much improvement in the wins and losses columns, the gap in final scores is shrinking, like the Wolves' recent six-point loss to Denver.

After the Thunder defeated Minnesota 111-103 on Dec. 8, a reporter asked head coach Kurt Rambis which player he considered the team leader. Rambis said that no one had filled that role -- yet.

But when asked the same question, Love doesn't hesitate. "I'd like to say me, I feel like it's my job. I know I'm very young and I have to lead by example and earn that trust and respect first."

Aside from his father, his best lessons in leadership came this past summer as a part of the gold medal-winning Team USA at the FIBA World Championship. "More than anything, this summer made me realize that I can play at the top level of the NBA, and be one of the top-five, -10, -15 most productive guys in the league," Love says.

Statistically, he's done that this season. He leads the league in rebounds per game (15.5), double-doubles (28) and points-rebounds-assists (38.6 average). His epic 30-30 performance had fans nationwide buzzing and filled Love's phone with texts and calls. Westbrook says he saw Love's stat line while preparing for his own game that night and sent a congratulatory text to his good friend. "Is it good enough?" Love responded. The one-liner was a reference to a conversation earlier this summer, when Love had told Westbrook he'd turn in that "kind of night" this season and Westbrook said it wouldn't happen.

"Clearly, he had all those tools already within himself and just his mindset changed [after this summer]," teammate Wayne Ellington says. "His role changed, too, so he's in a position where he can really excel."

Lucky number

Back at Starbucks, Love has finished his hot chocolate and is ready to head home. The topic he hasn't spoken much about is his humility. Fortunately, others are happy to do so for him.

Much like his younger son, Stan is outgoing, friendly and eager to discuss his family. While he is proud of what Kevin has done on the court this season, one of his favorite stories happened many years ago.

Kevin was in fourth or fifth grade, Stan recalls, playing in a local basketball game. He'd already scored the majority of his team's points when he grabbed an offensive rebound under the basket. Kevin looked around, dribbled out and passed to his teammate, Johnny, who attempted a shot.

[+] EnlargeKevin Love
David Sherman NBAE/Getty ImagesDylan Witschen (right) became close to Kevin Love last season. Witschen passed away in June.

Stan says that afterward, he walked over to his son. "'Kevin,' I said, 'what were you doing, you were two feet away, why didn't you lay it in?'" Stan remembers.

"And Kevin said, 'Because, Dad, Johnny didn't have any points yet.'"

Ed Witschen calls a few days before Christmas to talk about how his son, Dylan, met Love in November of 2008. Dylan, 14, an Andover, Minn. native, was receiving treatments at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis after doctors had discovered a tumor in his brain. Love had begun working with St. Jude's as part of their Rookie Relief program in conjunction with NBA Cares. The two were matched up for an ad campaign and immediately hit it off. Witschen, an avid athlete and Minnesota sports fan, offered Love a few pointers for his rookie season.

Soon, the two began e-mailing. Witschen would send Love a note after the latter had a poor performance, ribbing him for his lack of blocks. Love would fire back with his own joking barb. Love met up with Witschen again twice during the 2009-10 season, and wrote the number seven on his sneakers in small print, Dylan's lucky number. And when Witschen relapsed in November of 2009, Love funded a trip for Witschen and his friends to go snowboarding that January in northern Minnesota.

The two hung out again after the Wolves' final 2009-10 home game and Witschen gave Love grief about not reaching 20-20 that night. It would be their final meeting before Dylan passed away in June.

The Love family has stayed in touch, sending donations for the foundation the Witschen family began in honor of Dylan. Ed Witschen says that earlier this season, he sent Love an e-mail. "You must have a special person above helping you get all these 20-20s," Ed wrote. "Dylan considered him a friend, someone he really looked up to," Ed says of Love. "[Love] wasn't just saying, 'Hey, here's a kid with cancer, I'll spend five minutes with you,' it was keeping in touch through e-mails back and forth where they'd give each other grief, like friends do. It made Dylan feel important. It made him feel like a good friend." Further proof that Love's story isn't just about the stats that may put him in the All-Star Game, but the number of lives he reaches each day: family, friends and teammates. And that's a story worth following (even if he thinks otherwise).

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.