Kevin Love always wanted to play football, a childhood aspiration diverted in part by a registered-nurse mother who feared he would get hurt.
Some 15 years later, the Timberwolves star is living out some of that dream nightly on NBA courts, playing the role of world’s tallest quarterback to teammate Corey Brewer’s fleet wideout in a successful and sometimes indefensible connection that has transformed the Wolves offense and perhaps even their season.
With just a twist of his body and a flick of his wrists, the league’s most efficient rebounder gathers a ball from the defensive backboard and propels it on an arc 70 or 80 feet down the floor with uncanny accuracy into Brewer’s flying and waiting hands.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m Jerry Rice and Joe Montana’s throwing it deep,” Brewer said.
Their collaboration has inspired a fast-paced offense that is second in the league in scoring. It produced a franchise-record 47 first-quarter points in a rout of the Lakers on Sunday in Los Angeles and a season-high 124 points in Wednesday’s victory over Cleveland.
That collaboration also has NBA old-timers remarking they haven’t seen anything like Love’s freakish outlet passes in two generations, not since a guy named Wes Unseld snapped the ball from his chest far down the court on his way to winning league MVP honors as a rookie in 1969 and leading the Washington Bullets to a championship a decade later.
It’s no coincidence that Love’s middle name is Wesley, chosen by his father, Stan, to honor his former pro teammate (even if Unseld’s given name is actually Westley). It’s also no coincidence that the old-timer character Love plays in Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving’s second “Uncle Drew” soft-drink commercial is named Wes.
Stan Love took his son to a basketball court when the boy was 8, pointed to the painted area under the basket and told him he could play his own physical version of football in that space as much as he liked.
As he grew older, Love adopted in his training routine something of a trade secret his father learned from Unseld: the fingertip pushup, an exercise that strengthens the hands and wrists.
Unseld did them when he was a teenager because a ninth-grade coach believed in the exercise, but he doesn’t credit it for a skill that has become the gold standard by which every good-intentioned outlet pass since the 1970s has been measured.
He credits that ability instead to sheer survival instinct: Cut as an eighth-grader, Unseld played in the ninth grade for powerful Louisville Seneca High School with Dave Cosby and Mike Redd, two of the more acclaimed players ever to come out of Kentucky. He practiced rebounding and learned to snap the ball ahead to them quickly so they could do the rest.
By doing so, he said he looked good enough to make the team. A Basketball Hall of Fame playing career and work as an NBA coach and general manager followed.
“It’s not a trick,” Unseld said from the Baltimore school he runs with his wife. “It’s a learned skill of just anticipating and having a little imagination when and where you throw it. You also have to develop some skill to get the ball to where you want it to be.”
Quarterback in shorts
Love developed the ability to fling the ball accurately 80 feet away by playing three grades up with his brother and his brother’s friends when he was young. He wasn’t strong enough to get his shot to the basket, so he learned how to fling it from his chest precise enough to find the basket.
“That’s how that touch came about,” Love said.
The technique came from youthful ingenuity. The inspiration and desire came from the forbidden after he and his parents attended a Portland, Ore., high school game when he was little and a player suffered a frightening neck injury.
“All I can try to do is emulate those great quarterbacks,” Love said. “My parents never let me play football, so this is my football out there.”
He entered the NBA five years ago known for his freakish outlet passes that already drew comparisons to Unseld, but it was seldom used as a real weapon until this season, when Brewer returned as a free agent after playing nearly three seasons with the Wolves at the start of Love’s career.
Brewer is the sleek runner who seemingly never gets tired, and never tires of beating everyone down the floor. Sometimes his best defense is his offense by running his man to exhaustion on the other end.
“He just goes, that’s him,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “I don’t think I could tell him no. He’d still do it. I called a timeout the other night and we actually had a layup going the other way. I didn’t realize him and Kevin had their own play going on.”
Back together again
Love attributes the emergence of what Dallas coach Rick Carlisle calls “throwing missiles all over the place” and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers terms “home run passes” to Brewer’s return after two-plus seasons with Dallas and Denver.
“Plain and simple,” Love said. “When Corey was on the team before, he was always looking for that. But I don’t think I had figured out yet the speed and athleticism of the NBA. Now I kind of have figured out when to throw the pass, when not to throw the pass. It even took Peyton Manning a little time to get used to the NFL.”
Wolves coaches searched during the preseason to get the team into its offense more quickly. They hoped to use Brewer in a reserve role because they liked his energy off the bench, just as then-Nuggets coach George Karl did the past two seasons. But he became the opening day starter by default when nobody else grabbed the starter’s job and … voilà!
Opponents will try to defend the Wolves’ newfound weapon by keeping players back like the Clippers did Monday or by shadowing Love and trying to block the outlet upon its release. Cleveland coach Mike Brown acknowledged doing so is difficult because Love delivers the pass so quickly and with such accuracy, and because Brewer might be league’s fastest floor runner.
“His completion percentage is pretty darn good,” said Wolves assistant coach Jack Sikma, a fine outlet-passing big man back in the day himself. “It’s not easy to do. There’s a reason it’s pretty unique. Those two guys are pretty unique.”
Brewer played wide receiver in high school, and his Portland, Tenn., team went 25-1 and won a state title his freshman and sophomore years before he quit football to concentrate on basketball. Love always wanted to play, of course, but never did.
“He’d have been good, he’d see over everybody,” Brewer said. “He makes the best passes I ever saw. I just go catch ’em and lay ’em in.”