Timberwolves' Kevin Love now helps raise funds for St. Jude hospital.
Kevin Love once kept Dylan Witschen's picture in his Timberwolves locker and wrote Dylan's No. 7 on his sneakers before every game. Now, Love says he carries his inspiration's infectious smile with him wherever he goes.
The bond between the pro basketball star and former Anoka High School football player continues to burn brightly -- more than two years after Dylan succumbed to a cancerous brain tumor.
"I see a lot of Dylan. ... I'm proud to call him my friend," Love said recently of the kid from Andover, who would have turned 19 this coming Monday and remains the driving force behind Saturday's fundraising walk for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital at Target Field.
Last year, Dylan's family was the top fundraising team in the nation, collecting $29,000 during the annual drive for St. Jude, the internationally renowned pediatric cancer research and treatment facility in Memphis, Tenn.
In 2011, Love donated to the Dylan Witschen Foundation the Kia Sorento SUV he won for being named the National Basketball Association's most improved player.
Love takes his role as ambassador for St. Jude's seriously and isn't bashful when talking about Dylan's influence.
"It puts everything into perspective when you meet someone like that," Love said.
Dylan was 14 when he returned to the Anoka High locker room after making a tackle during a freshman football practice in August 2008. His left hand went numb. He'd had a concussion nine months before and called his father, telling him he thought he had endured another.
Diagnosis: Brain tumor
Ed Witschen arrived within 20 minutes, but an ambulance had beaten him to school. Dylan had suffered a seizure.
Tests at Mercy Hospital and Fairview University Medical Center revealed that this vibrant, athletic kid had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball.
"They said at the time it was treatable," Ed Witschen remembers. "We had hope."
Debbie Witschen, Dylan's mother and the store manager of the Roseville Target store, was familiar with St. Jude. Dylan agreed to go to Memphis, where, over a seven-month period, he underwent 31 rounds of radiation to his brain and spine and four treatments of high-dose chemotherapy with stem-cell replacement.
Love, then a Timberwolves rookie and looking for a charity he could embrace, found a natural fit in St. Jude. Cancer had claimed his paternal grandmother and an aunt. Another aunt is a breast-cancer survivor. He loved St. Jude -- and its policy that no patient is turned away, regardless of financial resources.
While touring the hospital, Love, who had just turned 20, met this precocious patient from Minnesota. The 6-foot-10-inch basketball player who left UCLA after his freshman season had met his match in the 5-foot-6 football player who dropped to 118 pounds during treatment.
"I'm living out a dream and he's facing life with the world on his shoulders," Love said.
A friendship blossoms
When Dylan returned to the Twin Cities in April 2009, seemingly healthy and having been told that his cancer was 85 percent curable, Love did more than exchange text messages. He invited Dylan and his family to Timberwolves games and into the locker room.
There is a photo in which a towering Love playfully holds a ball over his head while Dylan swipes at air. But Dylan could get even, Love recalled. After one of Love's better games, Dylan offered this critique: "You should have had more."
For six months, there was no evidence of Dylan's cancer. Then, in November of 2009, his arm again went numb. After an examination at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, Dylan returned to St. Jude in Memphis.
He had another form of brain cancer, this time inoperable and incurable. He was told he had three to six months to live.
The next day, at a fundraising walk at the Mall of America, Dylan spoke to the crowd.
"Maybe there's a reason I got this cancer," he told his mother. He wanted his story to be told, hoping that somebody might be inspired to donate funds that could lead to a cure for the disease, she said.
He implored his family and friends to raise money for cancer research at St. Jude. In two years, the Witschens have donated more than $100,000 -- including the Kia that Love offered.
Dylan died on June 8, 2010. Love continues to visit with Ed and Debbie Witschen and Dylan's sister, Megan. Love spent Halloween trick-or-treating at the Mall of America with young cancer patients.
'We're not done yet'
When Ed Witschen thanked Love for his charitable contributions, Love responded, "We're not done yet."
Registration for Saturday's walk at Target Field begins at 7 a.m., with the walk, beginning at 8 near Gate 14.
For Love, who has yet to play this season while his broken hand heals, the talk of Dylan is anything but somber.
"Just a fun-loving kid," Love said. "He's in a better place.
"He's laughing at me."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419