CHARLOTTE – Before the Timberwolves’ opening game against Brooklyn, Karl-Anthony Towns pulled out a book by the Lebanese-American author Kahlil Gibran and began reading.
Towns is a fan of Gibran, specifically his most famous work, “The Prophet,” which has sold millions of copies since its original publication in 1923. It’s a collection of over two dozen prose poems that touch on life’s major issues — love, family, freedom, friendship and death. It came recommended to Towns by his cousin, and then Towns saw it in a bookstore.
“That book, at a time in my life I needed help and needed wisdom, it gave me everything I needed …” Towns said. “I always feel like when I go into Barnes & Noble, it’s more God telling me what he wants me to read. I just felt that was the book that he was telling me I needed to read at that point. I did and it was very fortunate.”
Towns swears by Gibran’s philosophies so much that he gifted a copy of it to the rest of the Wolves before the season with an accompanying note.
“It said how the book would empower us,” guard Josh Okogie said. “Little things like that show what kind of leader he wants to be.”
This is Karl-Anthony Towns, the leader of the Timberwolves. There is no one in his way any longer.
Not Jimmy Butler, whose Heat will play the Wolves in their home opener on Sunday (though without Butler, who recently became a father to a baby girl). Not Tom Thibodeau. Towns has help in the form of veteran forward Robert Covington, but President Gersson Rosas has made clear this is Towns’ team in every way.
Over the past few months he hasn’t been shy about imprinting his style across the team, whether that be spearheading a team trip to the Bahamas or giving the team a book to read.
“No matter what the circumstances were, whatever it was here, I just kept leading by action,” Towns said.
In a better place
The results have been nothing but positive. Towns has had two monster games to open the season, averaging 36.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists, and the Wolves have two wins.
“I’m in a spot right now where I got to lead these guys,” Towns said. “I’ve got to lead them. And no matter what I go through in life or whatever I went through, I got to make sure I take those experiences, teach the guys, especially young guys, how to go from boys to men, no pun intended.”
When Towns earned his second All-Star appearance last season, he spoke about how “trying” the season was for him personally and professionally. He didn’t name names, but Butler’s presence loomed large when he was here. Butler was the dominant personality, the alpha dog, and wasn’t afraid to call out Towns for what he perceived as shortcomings, like not working hard enough.
Now he has the unflinching support of the organization, his teammates and a coach with whom he is close in Ryan Saunders.
“I’ll say for one, he’s definitely more confident,” Okogie said. “Last year, it was kind of like, especially the start of the season with Jimmy — it was him and Jimmy. And then when Jimmy left, I don’t want to say he wasn’t ready, but that confidence that I’ve seen now wasn’t there. Now, he’s more vocal.”
Towns’ college coach, Kentucky’s John Calipari, said Towns is better for having experienced adversity early in his career.
“You got to have some failure,” Calipari said in a phone interview this week. “You have to have things happen to you that knock you on your heels so you can learn about yourself. That was a trying year on a lot of different fronts. But it was good for him, because he had to deal with it, and you know what? He came out the other side OK.”
If you poll his teammates, Towns has changed in one major way — he is more vocal.
“I think he’s trying to take it upon himself to embrace that role,” guard Jeff Teague said. “He definitely got better, way more vocal. Takes criticism. Talks to guys and does it all.”
Towns has done his best to try to bring these Wolves together, to form a bond within this team that was lacking in others while he has been here. He did things like attend the charity basketball game Jordan Bell had.
“I was new to the team at the time, so he was going out of his way to show they’re going to be here for me on and off the court,” Bell said.
Then there was the trip to the Bahamas, of which a picture hangs in the Wolves practice facility. Towns invoked that trip after the Wolves’ season-opening overtime win at Brooklyn, calling out those who might’ve found the whole thing hokey.
“Unity, cohesiveness, Bahamas was not a joke,” Towns said. “This is something that was real. … We bonded, and you saw, when the game got close, no matter how close and how rough it was getting, we stayed very unified, and we kept to each other.”
Calipari has seen a fair share of his players go on to make big money in the NBA. Towns, he said, has remained the same person throughout his career, even as the checks have gotten a lot bigger in the first year of a max deal.
“I’m rooting for him because he’s one of the great kids, most loyal part of our family that I’ve coached,” Calipari said. “He’s not changed. He’s a wonderful kid, and that’s hard. You got a max deal, more money than you know what to do with, you’re being treated like royalty, can you stay who you are?”
Another effect of the Butler trade was it brought Covington, who knew Towns previously, to the Wolves. Covington said he hasn’t been afraid to prod Towns where he feels like Towns needs a little push.
“When you got a like me that’s always on his head, it causes you to adjust,” Covington said with a laugh. “I see the capabilities in him. I know the type of leadership he has within him. He just needed the right person to bring it out. I’m fortunate enough to be that guy. But I’m also going to tell him when he does something wrong. He expects that about me.”
Towns has said individual accomplishments don’t matter much to him, that the people where he grew up in New Jersey don’t care how about his points or rebounds.
“Every time I go home they look at me and go, ‘Wow, you’re really good, but you never win,’ ” Towns said.
Towns has played so far like a man out to prove people wrong, whether it’s the people back home, his doubters around the league like Butler or just random folks on social media.
But he knows he’ll need his teammates along for the ride, and he’s doing his best to make sure everyone has each other’s back.
“It’s up to me to do a lot of things … ” Towns said. “And I accept the challenge willingly.”