During a transformational week when both grief and joy overwhelmed him, Timberwolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns sat inside the shower of his luxurious Los Angeles hotel room Wednesday before he made his NBA debut and let the water and feelings rush over him.
“I just thought about every coach, I thought about every time I ran a sprint, I thought about every jump shot I took, I thought about all the gyms I played in,” he said. “And I just sat there for 20 minutes, water hitting me, and I’m just thinking about how much work I put in to be in this moment, just to be here, to be wearing this jersey, to be part of this fraternity. And it wasn’t tears coming down or anything. I was just smiling.”
He thought about his New Jersey boyhood right up to present days and a week that would include two season-opening victories in which Towns looked every bit an NBA star and Saturday’s memorial service that said goodbye to Flip Saunders, the Wolves president of basketball operations who drafted Towns No. 1 overall last summer but never lived to coach him in a game.
Saunders died last Sunday at age 60.
“I was thinking about just everything,” Towns said, “but I definitely had Flip in my heart.”
So did Towns’ coaches and teammates, who began the week learning in the middle of a Sunday practice they instantly canceled that their coach, basketball boss and friend had died less than five months after he had been diagnosed with cancer. They ended it with a private memorial service on Saturday afternoon in Plymouth in which Wolves assistant coach Ryan Saunders eulogized his father.
NBA coaching peers Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich, George Karl, Randy Wittman, Fred Hoiberg, Tom Thibodeau, Mike Malone, Rick Adelman and Jeff Van Gundy, among others, as well as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo attended Saturday’s service. So, too, did many other colleagues and friends from across the league, including Saunders’ former players Sam Cassell and Mark Madsen.
Commish opens the floor
In the week between last Sunday and Saturday’s service, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver visited with players and coaches in their Staples Center locker room 45 minutes before Wednesday’s season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers. He spoke for several minutes about his 20-year friendship with Saunders, expressed his condolences and urged the Wolves’ many young players to speak about death and their memories and feelings rather than hide from them.
Interim coach Sam Mitchell called Silver “just a good-hearted guy.” Veteran Kevin Martin said Silver’s presence “just speaks to the strength of the NBA family.”
In the week between, the Wolves won that season’s first two games, starting a season 2-0 with consecutive road victories for the first time in franchise history.
On Wednesday, they trailed the Lakers by 16 points in the second quarter, led by nine points with two minutes left and hung on to win 112-111 when Lou Williams’ short, floating shot just before the final buzzer missed.
“I can only imagine in my mind that Flip somehow had something to do with Lou Williams missing that last shot,” said Malone, Denver’s coach whom Saunders befriended last season after Sacramento fired him.
On Friday, the Wolves’ defense and Towns’ double-double night — 28 points, 14 rebounds — soundly beat a Denver team that thumped the Rockets in Houston by 20 points two nights earlier.
Afterward, Towns starkly, poignantly called Friday’s 95-78 victory and season’s 2-0 start significant mostly because “we can go tomorrow as winners to bury our coach. That’s more important.”
A week of sorrow also included moments of elation and unity for a team that now wears “We” shooting warmups, an adaptation of last season’s theme when Saunders gave his coaches block letters that could be turned to spell either “Me” or “We” depending on his team’s commitment to sharing the ball and each other.
“We really deal with it on our own,” Wolves second-year guard Zach LaVine said during the week that was. “Each person is different. I feel like we’re letting it settle in. It happened so soon. We don’t have time to talk about everything. You just deal with it on your own.”
LaVine found refuge in a late-night shooting session at his alma mater UCLA the night before the season opener, and in memories of a post-draft steak dinner after Saunders selected LaVine 13th overall in 2014.
Saunders took LaVine and his family to dinner the next night, handing him a piece of paper on which Saunders had written LaVine’s name the morning of the draft believing he’d become a “home run” pick and potential superstar. Then Saunders did one of his favorite magic tricks with a Timberwolves coin, one of three Saunders had minted to spread his team’s name and goodwill.
“He pulled a coin from behind my ear,” LaVine said. “I didn’t know how it happened. He told me to keep the coin. It’s in my drawer right now. I’m going to have to go home and put it somewhere safe. That means a lot to me. That’s a memento for me.”
Towns soaked himself with rushing water that next afternoon. Teammate Kevin Garnett wore a sweatband on his arm during the two games on which he remembered “Flip” and the number “2” to honor his longtime coach and former teammate Malik Sealy, who died in a 2000 automobile accident.
Garnett spoke only once publicly during the week, briefly at Friday’s shootaround in Denver when he said: “We all are carrying each other and holding each other up throughout the week. Tough week for all of us, but we’re managing.”
With their play, they managed to produce the seventh 2-0 start in franchise history. With cracking voices and teary eyes, they managed their emotions the best they could.
After Friday’s victory, point guard Ricky Rubio said he and his team started the week intent on “taking care of our business” with the two season-opening road games. He briefly turned his eyes skyward as he spoke.
“Especially for the guy who’s up there watching for us,” he said.