garnettIt’s hard to recall a more cumulatively emotional week-plus stretch of time in Minnesota sports than the one we just experienced. Quite possibly we need to go back to 2006 and the untimely death of Kirby Puckett for a comparison, but even this last week felt heavier because of the news coming on multiple fronts.

The heaviest piece of news, by far, was the death of Flip Saunders a week ago Sunday. A few days later, the retirement of Jerry Kill because of health concerns — not a death, but still something that brought out plenty of emotion and thoughts of mortality by its nature — added to it. Since then, games have been played. They have offered a diversion in some cases, while at the same time forcing thoughts back to the heaviness of the overall situations as well.

We’ve all considered and dealt with the week in different ways. In writing about it, there has been a push-pull of detaching from the emotion of it all in order to deliver the most relevant pieces of stories for mass consumption while also being pulled back in quieter moments to the simple facts. A respected, beloved man is dead. Another has had his career taken from him. Those are big, sad, overwhelming things to consider in your own life.

As such, it’s hard to even imagine what it’s like for those much closer to the situations. On the Timberwolves and Gophers football team, this almost exclusively relates to men.

Read any psychology text, and you’re likely to find references to gender roles and some version the idea that “restricting emotions is a staple of traditional masculinity.” We’re used to hearing male athletes in particular say that games offer them an escape from pain — and their stoicism and ability to push through is lauded in the process.

It’s not to say that’s right or wrong because everyone grieves and processes in their own way. But I will say it has been refreshing to me in the midst of this difficult time to find multiple examples of local male sports figures freely showing their emotions. Quite contrary to what tradition tells us, this isn’t a sign of weakness but rather a sign of healing, strength and positive mental health. 

The examples that stick most notably in my mind — though this is by no means a complete list: Jerry Kill, Milt Newton, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Garnett.

Kill gave one of the most emotional news conferences I have ever seen last Wednesday in announcing his retirement. He spoke honestly and openly, breaking down in tears on multiple occasions.

Newton, as part of a video that was included in a pregame tribute to Saunders last night, said this: “I remember the first time he told me he loved me. That really hit me because usually at this level people try to keep those kinds of feelings to themselves. I’m glad you were able to say that while you were here.” Newton gathered himself a little bit and continued, with tears building: “But, I just want to tell you … I love you, too. Rest in peace.” It was, to me, the most touching part of an incredibly well-done tribute.

Towns, the 19-year-old rookie, has sounded mature and thoughtful well beyond his years throughout an intensely difficult first week of his NBA career. He was the first player to speak last Monday at media availability, the day after Saunders died. And after last night’s game, he reflected on what this has all been like for him, saying that he’s been emotionally drained since hearing of Saunders’ death and particularly felt that way at Target Center on Monday. “I was drained from the beginning. I was crying the whole time, the whole pregame. I was emotionally drained coming out.”

Garnett, who some have wanted to be more vocal in this process, might be the most emotional player this market has ever seen. That he didn’t speak to reporters last Monday after Saunders’ death and wasn’t part of last night’s tribute indicates to me the very opposite of stoicism. This is a man so broken up by Flip’s death that he can’t even compose himself to speak about it in a public way.

For better or worse, these sports figures are treated as role models. And they are telling us that it’s OK to feel and express emotions. In a very difficult week, that’s a great lesson and gift they have given us.

(Photo by our Carlos Gonzalez. See entire gallery of the night here).

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