As D’Angelo Russell arrived at a corporate charter hangar at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thursday night, a few dozen media and Timberwolves staffers were there to greet him.
A lot of people were filming him, but Russell had a handheld camera of his own, documenting the moment for himself. Russell didn’t have much to say in that moment except for, “This is a movie to me.”
The Wolves’ pursuit of Russell played out like that last week. There was Act III disappointment in the form of reports that said talks between the Wolves and Warriors had stalled, and perhaps Thursday would come and go without a deal. But less than two hours before the trade deadline the plot twist came — the Wolves got Russell and had sent Andrew Wiggins to Golden State for a fresh start that the fan base and Wiggins likely needed. A day later, Russell was in Minneapolis, seated alongside his good friend Karl-Anthony Towns at his introductory news conference — two friends tasked with rebuilding a long-suffering franchise.
Now to write that sequel.
“You go through things like this and not realize how surreal it is,” Russell said. “Once I got off the plane, I felt the love. It felt like home right away.”
Russell and Towns have known each other since high school, back when Towns said Russell beat Towns in a game his team should have won, to hear Towns tell it. According to Towns, his team “ran out of gas.”
It was around that time that their friendship formed, one that carried through their one year of college and the draft process before both entered the NBA as the Nos. 1 and 2 picks of the 2015 draft.
“It’s surreal to really think that instead of us just talking on the phone or playing video games with each other and talking about how our teams are doing and everything, but now we’re getting to do this every day with each other,” Towns said. “He’s never just been a friend of mine. He’s been a brother of mine. Our families are so intertwined and connected. It’s going to be real fun to be able to be out there with someone I call not only my brother but is more like blood to me.”
This new reality, one that both have wanted for years, was still setting in for both on Friday.
“We talked about it. We joked about it,” Russell said. “We laughed about it in the summer time. Any time we were going to dinners, we were kicking jokes about it. For it to come true like this, it’s a dream come true.”
Their paths in the NBA have not been easy, despite their lofty status entering it.
Towns has endured questions about his desire to win, questions that became amplified when Jimmy Butler bullied his way out of town a season ago. Butler may have handled his exit unceremoniously, but what he said about Towns — specifically, that he didn’t work hard relative to his talent — has stuck to Towns around the league. Perhaps that contributed to Towns’ saying he was “desensitized to being disrespected” after he was not picked for this year’s All-Star Game.
Russell fell out of favor in Los Angeles after the Lakers drafted him. He became infamous after recording and posting online a private conversation with then-teammate Nick Young about Young’s personal life. That was a precursor to a trade to Brooklyn, where Russell rehabilitated his career and became an All-Star and the kind of player Wolves President Gersson Rosas just had to have upon coming to town.
But the Nets ditched their plans to re-sign Russell when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving came to town. Golden State dealt him less than a year after signing him, and questions have persisted about his maturity. The Wolves are his fourth franchise in five years.
It’s no wonder Russell was soaking in the adoration the past few days. Perhaps for the first time in his career, he feels wanted. Russell was out because of a right quad contusion for Saturday’s game against the Clippers, but he addressed the crowd and thanked the fans for their support. Cheers showered down on him, and Russell said he had felt the appreciation since landing in Minnesota.
“I’m going to repeat myself. This is crazy to me to wake up and see the situation that I’m in,” Russell said. “To feel the love of somebody wanting me to be here. It’s a surreal moment for me right now.”
For Towns, this week was a yo-yo of emotion. On Monday, it began with him professing faith in the front office ahead of the deadline but adding that he wished Robert Covington, his “best friend” on the team, would still be with the Wolves when the smoke cleared. About 24 hours later, Covington was gone in a four-team trade that represented a huge shakeup of the Wolves roster, with or without Russell. That led to disengagement during Wednesday’s loss to the Hawks and Towns sounding fed up with losing and hurt that Covington was gone.
“I’ve been losing for a long time,” Towns said that night. “I’m not trying to do that anymore. Every possession means a lot. You obviously see my patience running low with a lot of things.”
Towns was certainly happy on Thursday, and his patience meter is likely refilled.
“It’s going to be very scary for opponents when they’re going to have to figure out ways to guard us,” he said. “It’s going to be very scary when they have to see what we can do, especially together with the cohesiveness and connectedness that we have.”
Rosas said getting Russell was a basketball move first and foremost. The fact that he and Towns are friends was a secondary benefit, but there’s no denying that the Wolves have to keep Towns happy if they want to keep him here. This is the era of player empowerment in the NBA, and teams have to cater to the desires of their star players.
The Wolves saw that up close with Butler. Anthony Davis forced his way out of New Orleans in a situation similar to what many fear will transpire with Towns and the Wolves if they don’t become a playoff team soon. The Wolves have 32 games this season to see what they have with a revamped roster, and then the clock really begins ticking next season. Rosas did say he was hopeful the bond between Russell and Towns might accelerate how they mesh on the court.
“They already have a relationship where they can talk to themselves at a different level than if it was just two guys that didn’t have that before,” Rosas said.
Russell said in watching Towns these past few years, he sees where he can fit.
“Players come and go from here. I think they didn’t appreciate the situation here or whatever that may be,” Russell said. “Watching from a distance, I knew I could help Karl. I’ve never played with a big with the ability like him, that can stretch the floor, that can make plays like a guard.”
There was one awkward moment at Friday’s news conference. Russell could have come to the Wolves in the offseason, and this grand rebuild could already be under way. The Warriors acquired Russell in a sign-and-trade with the Nets, and the Wolves were heavily courting Russell.
But he ended up in Golden State. Russell said earlier this season the weather played a big part in his decision.
“I did my first winter in New York and that was tough,” Russell said. “So to get the opportunity to go somewhere where it’s warm again, I think that played a major part in my plan.”
Russell, while not revealing details, said the situation was more complex than simply choosing to play with Golden State. “You say I didn’t choose [the Wolves]? I don’t think it works like that,” he said. “I’m appreciative of this situation. When you’re in this league, you get blinded by what your job is, by off-the-court nonsense or whatnot. … Whatever team I was going to be on or whatever team showed they wanted me, I would love to go there.”
The Wolves have done nothing but show that over the past nine months. That empty free-agent pursuit will be a distant memory should Russell and Towns be the formidable combination the Wolves are expecting.
“It’s up to us to make it work and to make it happen,” Towns said, invoking him and Russell as the new Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury.
The two have a lot to prove to naysayers around the league. That will come in due time. For now, they are enjoying this moment and the prospect of what’s to come.
Towns has made a home here in Minnesota these past five years. He hopes one of his best friends will like it here, too.
“I’ve been put through the fire in this league,” Russell said. “So the opportunity to settle down and be with a team … to be the best me I can possibly be, I’m putting my feet down and I’m enjoying this process.”