Portrait by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Naz Reid’s path to breakout stardom featured a mentor unlike any other.
Rudy Roundtree moved from New Jersey to Louisiana to Minnesota to help Naz make it in the NBA.

By Chris Hine Star Tribune

April 18, 2024
Portrait by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

In the garage of her apartment building in downtown Minneapolis, Sheila Roundtree has New Jersey plates on her gray 2010 Audi A6.

She has them even though the car has been in Minnesota for the past five years and Louisiana for one year before that, when her husband, Rudy, was the primary driver.

The black leather interior, with a small tear on the driver's seat, is mostly empty. Among the few things in the car are dozens of Rudy's compact discs ― Al Jarreau; the Notorious B.I.G.; Earth, Wind & Fire, and … the Police.

"Like, who listens to the Police, really?" Sheila said.

Four graduation tassels hang from the rearview mirror. Three belong to the Roundtrees' two sons, while the fourth, green and white with "2018″ from northern New Jersey's Roselle Catholic, belongs to Timberwolves center Naz Reid.

"His boys," Sheila said.

Naz, or "Nazy," as he's called in New Jersey, helped power the Timberwolves into the NBA playoffs with a breakout season that could win him the league's Sixth Man of the Year Award.

And yes, he offered to buy the Roundtrees a new car many times.

"Even if I would have surprised [Rudy], he'd be upset that I surprised him. He'd probably say, 'I'm sticking through thick and thin with my Audi,' " Naz said. "Sheila is the same way."

About 10 years ago, the Roundtrees became a second family to Naz, with the approval of his mother, Anashia. Rudy would drive Naz in that Audi from their home in Newark, N.J., to Roselle Catholic High School and back — 40 minutes each way. After quitting his job at ExxonMobil, Rudy packed up that Audi and moved it to Louisiana State University in 2018 because Naz needed him there.

Then when Naz signed with the Wolves in 2019, Rudy moved to Minnesota, driving the Audi to Iowa to see Naz's G League games. It even survived Naz hitting a deer.

How much time did Naz spend in that car?

"Years," he said. "Years."

Said Sheila: "I still won't give that car up. … It's just an attachment. It symbolizes this journey."

The 24-year-old center has blossomed in five years after signing as an undrafted free agent, a journey measured in the Audi's 172,502 miles (and counting).

As the years and miles went by, Rudy became a father figure to Naz.

"He's been with me throughout every step of the way," Naz said.

Rudy and Sheila Roundtree's Audi, at top with Sheila, accrued thousands of miles as Rudy drove Wolves center Naz Reid to high school, moved to follow his career and traveled to his games. Naz won championship rings at Roselle Catholic High School and LSU, displayed above in Sheila's Minneapolis home.
Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

That continues now, even after April 29, 2022. The Timberwolves, in an elimination Game 6 of a playoff series with Memphis, listed him as out for "personal reasons."

That's because earlier that day, Rudy Roundtree, the man whom Naz and everyone around him credit with making sure Naz made it in the NBA, died at age 60.

"He made it possible for me to have my blessings happen," Naz said. "Just that right hand. That's just what it was. It was just like having a right hand with me."

Getting to know you

On a late March day, Naz discussed his memories of Rudy at the Wolves practice facility, explaining why a man who wasn't related to him became family. There were wide smiles and laughter over Rudy's unvarnished sense of humor, stories such as Rudy pointing out an attractive woman to Naz and his friends with Sheila standing right there, just to get on Sheila's nerves.

"He definitely was hilarious," Naz said. "Straightforward. ... Man, if you really had a chance to be around him, you would love him. It was definitely a bond that nobody could really have."

Even when Naz spoke of the tough times, there were no tears, just a sense of peace that he has fulfilled the vision he and Rudy formed.

Rudy had an outsized personality despite standing just 5-7, much shorter than the 6-9 Naz. He was sociable and always had a joke ready.

Former LSU coach Will Wade said Rudy had a "high-pitched laugh through his nose" that still rings in his ears.

"You heard him before you saw him," Wade said.

He first met Rudy in a restaurant he called "the most Rudy place ever."

"Some out-of-the-way pizza place, and I thought the place was condemned," said Wade, who now coaches McNeese State. "We walk in, and everybody knew who he was. He was like the mayor."

Rudy Roundtree, seen with Naz Reid in the bottom row, second from left, of a photo wall in Sheila Roundtree's Minneapolis home, played a major role in the Wolves center's journey to the NBA.
Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Naz grew up in Asbury Park with his mother, grandmother and two sisters. After playing football, where his father coached him, and basketball, Naz decided to attend high school at a budding hoops power about an hour north, Roselle Catholic. It helped that Roselle's coach, Dave Boff, lived in Asbury Park and took Naz to school in the morning. Naz would take the train home, but trying to sync basketball and train schedules became laborious.

Naz had become friends with the Roundtrees' son, Peace, also a basketball player at Roselle, and Rudy had already been a fixture around the program.

"Rudy was the guy showing up with Gatorades for all the kids, or at the end of practice, he was checking who doesn't have a ride," Boff said from his office at College Achieve Asbury Park, where he coaches now. "He was piling five kids into his car, driving all over."

Rudy was able to drive the boys in that Audi, and Naz was always hanging out at the Roundtrees' house in Newark.

"He's teaching me about life, teaching me about on-the-court things, teaching me how to treat women ... like a father figure," Naz said.

Naz, a quiet kid, felt comfortable with the Roundtrees. Naz's mother, who also had her daughters to raise, trusted the Roundtrees, and in a move that Naz is grateful for, his mother consented to have him spend a significant amount of time with them, so much so that he had a bedroom in their house.

"For her to be able to say, I can go miles away, with another [family], that speaks for itself. She knew what I had to do to pursue my dreams," Naz said. "As long as I made the phone call to check in, I was good."

Naz Reid helped power the Wolves into the playoffs this season with career highs in points (13.5), rebounds (5.2), assists (1.3) and minutes (24.2).
Carlos Gonzalez and Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

'The odd couple'

Naz would end up the 22nd-ranked recruit in the country, leading Roselle to the title in the Tournament of Champions (where state champs square off against one another), and the inevitable hangers-on started popping up. Rudy served as Naz's guard against any shady influences, or "street pimps," according to family friend Ed Bright, who helped run Naz's AAU program.

"Nazy was somewhat shy," Bright said, "and Rudy became very much his protector."

Seeing Naz and Rudy together was a part of life at Roselle Catholic, and those around them often got a kick out of the dynamic of Rudy being so short and Naz being so tall but willing to accept criticism and discipline from Rudy.

"They were like the odd couple," Wade said.

"It was just like day and night," Naz said. "Nobody could understand it, but they also understood it at the same time."

Naz recognized what Rudy meant to him, and he was vulnerable but secure enough to ask for his help in a big way: He wanted Rudy to move with him to LSU.

"I told him, 'Well, I need you. I need you here,' " Naz said.

Thanks to Rudy's and Sheila's careers (she worked at Comcast), the Roundtrees had the means to make it work. So Rudy quit his job at ExxonMobil — retirement was near anyway — and packed up the Audi.

"I remember saying to him, 'Rudy, that's a big step,' " Boff said. "He was like, 'Honestly, Dave, if I don't do it, I'll be kicking myself. I've got to do it. … I know he may need help along the way.' "

Rudy got a place near Naz, and he trekked to the road games. Naz could always hear that voice in the crowd, no matter how boisterous the atmosphere was.

"I knew what he was saying, how he was saying it, why he was saying it," Naz said. "He had to be heard."

Naz averaged 13.6 points per game as a freshman on a team that won the SEC regular-season crown and advanced to the Sweet 16. There was comfort for Naz having Rudy so close. There was no problem he couldn't help solve.

"If I needed something in the middle of the night, I could call him, go right down the street — stuff like that was a must," Naz said. "I needed that. That's what molded me to understand life outside of basketball."

Naz declared for the 2019 draft, but he was a projected mid-second-round pick. He ended up playing video games as a distraction at his draft party in Atlantic City. He went undrafted, now a free agent, and he already knew how he wanted to try to find an NBA home.

"I felt like, all right, who calls me first, that's who wanted me to be on their team," Naz said.

It was the Timberwolves. Naz agreed to a two-way deal that night. And after he had a great showing at the summer league in Las Vegas, the Wolves tore up the two-way and signed him to a four-year contract.

The team wanted him in Minnesota for the announcement, so Rudy and Naz rushed to the airport. They had to get changed in the bathroom there before attending a news conference.

"I was putting the suit on and everything," Naz said. "It was crazy."

A beginning, and an end

Up north came the Audi, as Rudy moved to Minnesota. Naz spent time in the G League with Iowa, time which Naz didn't care much for, Sheila said.

Boff said he would often get a call as Rudy's Audi went back and forth between Des Moines and Minneapolis.

"Rudy was amazing that year with him," Boff said. "How many examples do you have of G League kids that get off the rails and flame out and start complaining, start pouting? Naz, to his credit, never did that, and Rudy was a big part in helping him through that."

Naz's career began ascending in his second season, but his minutes took a hit in 2021-22 from 19.2 per game to 15.8, and there were frustrations. Rudy was the one who calmed him down.

In December 2021, just before Christmas, Rudy began feeling sick. He went for test after test, and eventually, the results were in: leukemia.

"I took him to the hospital," Sheila said, "and he never really came out."

Rudy, trying to build strength for a possible stem cell transplant, grew restless there and tried to check himself out of the hospital multiple times.

"He called me one day and said, 'Ed, I just want to call you and thank you,' " Bright said. " 'Thank me for what, man?' He said, 'Just for being my friend.'

"I got emotional. ... But he knew it was his time. He knew."

Rudy couldn't attend games because the omicron variant of the coronavirus was rampant and his immune system was compromised. But that didn't stop Rudy, in a wheelchair now, from trying.

"I would call Nazy and say, 'Your boy tryin' to break out of the hospital,' " Sheila said.

The hospital restricted visitors, so Naz and Rudy only spoke — often — on the phone. COVID-19 restrictions made it easier for Rudy to pull off what he instructed everyone to do: Nobody was to tell Naz just how sick Rudy was. He wouldn't have it. Rudy did not want Naz to be distracted from a season when the Wolves were making a playoff push.

Everyone around Naz respected Rudy's wishes and kept Naz in the dark as much as possible.

"A lot of that stuff I had to hide," Sheila said, "and deal with a little bit on my own."

Naz could sense something wasn't quite right, but he didn't want to dig too deep, afraid of what he might find.

"I'm not thinking it's that severe," Naz said. "I tried to figure out what's going on, but at the same time, I got to play basketball."

Just as Rudy wanted it.

As the Wolves played the Clippers in a play-in game, Rudy's situation was deteriorating. Sheila decided to tell Naz to get to the hospital. On Naz's first visit, Rudy appeared fine. Not on the second.

"I didn't really know ... how to understand it," Naz said. "I was still kind of left out on the details, on purpose, as I should have. I didn't really know what to think, understand."

On the morning of Game 6 of the Memphis series, the word came that Rudy didn't have much time left. Sheila gathered people, but by the time Naz got there, Rudy was gone.

"I didn't cry because it was just like, you were just fine one minute," Naz said. "So I didn't really know or understand how to take that in."

Naz went through the day numb, and he watched with Sheila, his mother and others as the Grizzlies eliminated the Wolves.

Then he went into the bathroom of his apartment, locked the door and started crying.

"I was fine until after the game," Naz said. "That was when it was like, I didn't really know what to think at that point."

At Rudy's funeral in New Jersey, Naz placed in the casket a signed neon green Timberwolves jersey — Rudy's favorite.

Staying in Minnesota

Naz's NBA future, and life direction, hung in the balance. For a month, Naz, Sheila and some friends rented an Airbnb in Arizona to get away.

"Arizona was definitely random," Naz said. "We just picked it."

After taking some time off, Naz attacked his 2022 offseason with more ferocity. He never wanted to let Rudy down, never more so than now. But the NBA threw Naz another curveball involving someone named Rudy as the Wolves swung the blockbuster trade to bring in Rudy Gobert.

Naz Reid, seen against the Cavaliers on Jan. 14, 2023, became a key player for the Wolves last season after Karl-Anthony Towns' injury, setting up for the three-year, $42 million deal he and the team agreed to last June.
Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

Naz had been Karl-Anthony Towns' backup center, but now what would happen?

"I'm just trying to figure out like, how are we about to do this?" Naz said.

Naz got some clarity when Towns went out in late November 2022 because of a calf injury. He became indispensable off the bench before a wrist injury ended his season in late March 2023. He averaged 11.5 points per game in 18.4 minutes, and the Wolves learned they could incorporate three big men into their rotation.

Naz was positioned perfectly for free agency, and "Sheila motivated me, pushed me and navigated me the same way Rudy did," he said. This time, it was Sheila working the phones with Naz's agent, Sean Kennedy, as they agreed to a three-year deal (player option in the third year) for nearly $42 million with the Wolves last summer.

The Wolves had another news conference for Naz at a Boys & Girls Club. This time, there was no hustling to get changed in the airport bathroom. The team paid for them to fly out, and there was a car service from the airport.

"I was trying not to be so emotional," Sheila said. "But I got back in that car, and ... I just started crying because I was like, 'You made it. This is what Rudy wanted for you.' "

Two words: Naz Reid

Naz said Rudy was able to catch some of the borderline-obsessive love affair that segments of the Wolves fan base have with Naz. His name has become a meme everywhere.

Earlier this season, Naz posed for a picture outside of Parkway Pizza, which has a sign that reads "Honk if you love Naz Reid." "Jeopardy!" champion Anji Nyquist said on air that she has a cat named Naz Reid; some fans dress up for games as "The Wizard of Naz."

"[Rudy] got the early end of it," Naz said. "But if he would've seen it today, man, it would've been crazy. I could only imagine."

In the fourth quarter of the Wolves' win over the Cavaliers on March 22, Naz hit a three-pointer late that gave the Wolves a 99-87 lead. The fan giveaway that day was a beach towel that simply said, "Naz Reid." For a moment, Target Center turned into a soccer stadium and created a lasting memory for Naz, as thousands unfurled their lake-water blue towels during the timeout and held them high.

Naz Reid, center, has become one of the Wolves' biggest names off the court as the subject of memes, signs and more. It's the product of both his work and the support of Rudy and Sheila Roundtree.
Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Sitting in her usual seats halfway up behind the Wolves bench, where she used to sit with Rudy, Sheila was "speechless. It was an emotional moment because for me I think it just represented, it finally represented where he came from to where he was at."

Sheila saw Naz had his head buried in a sweat towel. She thought he might've been crying. With a laugh, Naz denied this. But his mind went to the same place as Sheila's.

"I could just only imagine the excitement and emotion [Rudy] would've had," Naz said. "He used to tell me all the time — this is where we want to be."

Ten years ago, Rudy Roundtree came into Naz's life, and though he's gone, he'll never leave. The Audi sitting in Sheila's parking garage doesn't have a lot of things in it, but it now has one of those towels.

"Dang, Rudy," Sheila said. "If you could just see this now. If you could just see it."