In the final moments of the Timberwolves' 111-101 season-opening victory over the Pistons, Karl-Anthony Towns said guard and friend D'Angelo Russell came over and told him not to throw away the game ball.
"For D-Lo to ... say 'Don't throw the ball, keep the ball, that's for Moms, that's for Moms,' it meant a lot for someone like him to remember that and take that into consideration," Towns said.
Towns carried the ball off the court and still had it when he sat down for his postgame media session, in which he didn't hold back how hard it has been to get himself to the point he got to Wednesday, when he willed the Wolves to a win with 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. It seemed like he might never let that game ball go.
The night at Target Center began with the Wolves holding a moment of silence for three people close to the organization who died since the team last played in March: Wolves play-by-play broadcaster Tom Hanneman, Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman and Towns' mom, Jacqueline, who died of COVID-19 in April.
“You may see me smiling and stuff, but that Karl died on April 13th. He's never coming back. I don't remember that man. I don't know that man. You're talking to the physical me, but my soul has been killed off a long time ago. … To say it's been day by day is probably an understatement. I think it's more moment by moment.”
The night ended with Towns dishing out assists to Russell and Malik Beasley for open three-pointers in the final 2:05 as the Wolves, who hadn't held a lead through three quarters, broke through in the final minutes of an otherwise choppy game. So perhaps it was fitting given those assists that his teammates gave him the ball back afterward. Towns said that gesture meant much to him on such an arduous night, and he said it was difficult to even get through warmups.
"I made a promise to these guys to be here for them, and no matter how bad my situation is ... I'm going to keep being here for these guys, regardless of what it is," Towns said. "And I'm going to let them see me smile, even though inside, I'm not smiling whatsoever. I owe that to these guys as a leader and I owe that to them as a teammate."
Coach Ryan Saunders, whose father, Wolves coach Flip Saunders, died in 2015, said Towns was going to have to endure a lot of painful firsts in the wake of Jacqueline's death. Even in the first win, there was a reminder of the hurt.
"He's playing with a heavy heart," Saunders said.
Ricky Rubio, who got the start after Russell (18 points) was benched early for being late for a COVID-19 test, said it was "really emotional" to see Towns with the game ball. Rubio lost his mother to cancer in 2015 and has said he will be an ear for Towns should Towns want one.
"We're here for him," Rubio said. "We know it's not going to get easy. It's going to get harder before it gets easier. Life is not easy. But you keep going. Keep pushing and keep helping our brothers out."
That's what Towns did.
Josh Jackson scored 19 for the Pistons, who led through the first three quarters and most of the fourth as the Wolves shot just 43%, 27% from three-point range. The Wolves didn't get a lead until Towns hit a three with 3:38 left.
"When you go through what I've been through, you just find a different source of strength. I don't know how to explain it," Towns said.
Towns was asked how his mind-set is different as he approaches his day-to-day life. His answer was soul-baring, at least what is left of it, he said.
"I only know what happened from April 13th on," Towns said. "You may see me smiling and stuff, but that Karl died on April 13th. He's never coming back. I don't remember that man. I don't know that man. You're talking to the physical me, but my soul has been killed off a long time ago. … To say it's been day by day is probably an understatement. I think it's more moment by moment."
There were some good moments for Towns in Wednesday's opener, but even in the good there was still profound, unshakable sadness.