The Karl-Anthony Towns Story: Kentucky's Ultimate Role Model with a Big Upside

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagFebruary 17, 2015

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The top NBA prospect on the nation's No. 1 team sits in a dimly lit film room at Kentucky's practice facility, staring toward the floor as someone recounts a tale he's too humble to tell.

Last August, during an exhibition tour of the Bahamas, the Wildcats took a break from basketball to participate in a community service activity with Samaritan's Feet, a global outreach program that helps impoverished youth.

Armed with buckets of soap and water, at a church just outside of Nassau, Kentucky's players bent over and scrubbed the feet and washed the toes of hundreds of Bahamian children before providing them with new pairs of socks and shoes.

With supplies running low toward the end of the event, a volunteer scurried about the room, trying unsuccessfully to locate larger socks for a boy in his early teens.

"Are we really out of size 10-13?" the volunteer shouted.

The room fell silent.

But only for a moment.

"He can have mine," a voice said softly.

Photo courtesy of Deborah J. Moore

Sitting a few feet away, Karl-Anthony Towns Jr. kicked off his sandals and removed the pair of "Captain America" socks he'd purchased a few weeks earlier. Beaming, the boy plopped into a chair and stuck out his legs as Towns—a 6'11" freshman who wears a size 20 shoe—slid the socks all the way up to his knees.

Only a handful of people witnessed the moment. One of them was Deb Moore, Kentucky's assistant media relations director, who holds up a cell phone picture of the exchange as she recounts the story in front of Towns six months later.

The freshman winks.

"You're lucky she's here," he says. "I never would've told you that." 

The following afternoon, during a light workout before a mid-January game against Vanderbilt, John Calipari blows his whistle to halt a drill. Towns had given up an easy basket after being caught out of position, and now he's feeling the wrath of his head coach.

Jan 20, 2015; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts in the huddle with guard Tyler Ulis (3) guard Andrew Harrison (5) and forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) during the game against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the second half

"My bad," Towns whispers amid Calipari's screams. "My bad."

The drill resumes, but Calipari continues his rant as Towns trots down the court.

"It doesn't matter that you're a nice guy—not out here," barks the coach of America's lone undefeated team. "Being a nice guy doesn't do anything for you on the court."

Unwinding in his office 45 minutes later, Calipari explains his scolding of Towns, a consensus top-five pick in this summer's NBA draft.

"I want him to be the best big man in the country by the end of the season," Calipari says. "I'm not settling for anything less because I know he can do it.

"But he can't think that being a nice guy is going to get him off the hook. I'm like, 'You're not doing what you're supposed to. Is that OK because you're a nice guy? You're a great kid. Does that mean I should accept anything less than your best?' "

Therein lies the biggest conundrum surrounding Towns.

Off the court, Kentucky—and, for that matter, college basketball—couldn't ask for a better ambassador.

A kinesiology major, Towns boasts a 3.6 grade point average and is determined to become a doctor "when the basketball goes flat." He signs autographs for anyone who asks, shows up at hospitals unannounced to visit sick children and empties his loose change into the cups of beggars in downtown Lexington.

L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

When it comes to basketball, though, Towns has yet to live up to the gargantuan expectations that have steadily increased since high school, when he became the subject of a 90-minute documentary after making the Dominican Republic national team as a 6'10" ninth-grader.

It's not that Towns is performing poorly. His statistics (9.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and a team-high 2.2 blocks) are actually commendable considering he averages just 20.2 minutes per game in Kentucky's platoon system.

Still, as good as the Wildcats (25-0) have been, their chances of winning an NCAA title and being remembered as one of the most dominant teams in history will significantly improve if the flashes of brilliance Towns has shown become an every-game staple instead of a tease.

"He's the X-factor that could take them from good to great," says Darrin Horn, who has called multiple Kentucky games for the SEC Network. "If the light comes on and he fully grasps how good he can be, there won't be anyone who can stop him."

Towns knows he can take his game to another level—"I haven't even scratched the surface of what I can do," he says—but even with just one month remaining in the regular season, he's hardly in panic mode.

Multiple times during a recent interview, Towns labeled his freshman season as "a process" and said he's pleased with the strides he's made thus far.

"It's almost scientific," Towns says. "When you try to make something grow quicker than it's supposed to grow, it doesn't come out right. It's not as good. But when you let things happen naturally, the way it's supposed to be done, you get way better results."

As much as he admires Towns' even-keeled approach, Calipari wants him to increase his sense of urgency.

The coach notes that, while players at other schools spend three or four seasons improving and mastering a system, the "process" in Lexington is a six-month accelerated course, with the NCAA title being the yearly expectation for a program that loses multiple players each year to the NBA draft.

Nov 23, 2014; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) dunks the ball against the Montana State Bobcats  in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Montana State 86-28. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

"It's not fair what we ask them to do," Calipari says.

Towns vows he isn't overwhelmed by the challenge. If anything, he's embraced it.

Taking his game to new heights, he says, will be achieved by leaning on the same principles—work ethic, positive attitude, high character—that were instilled in him long ago.

The ones that got him here in the first place.

When Karl Towns was in the fourth grade, his father approached him on Christmas Day and apologized.

"I can't afford any presents," he said.

Still, Karl Towns Sr. made a promise, a "special plan" that made his son smile. As soon as the weather got warmer, he would withdraw most of the money from his savings account and construct a basketball court behind their home in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Sure enough, a few months later, Towns watched from the window as his father dug holes, spread gravel, poured concrete and spray-painted lines until the project was complete. "I leveled it as best I could," recalls Towns Sr. "It wasn't beautiful, but it was enough for him to practice on."

Towns Sr. even constructed a sidewalk so his son wouldn't have to trudge through mud when walking from the back door to the makeshift court.

"We couldn't afford to put up a basket for the first few months," Towns Jr. said, "so we just used a Fisher-Price goal until my dad had enough money to buy the hoop. I'd just run around while he played defense on me."

Towns pauses.

"My dad doing that for me," he says, "was one of the best moments I've had in my entire life."

Karl Jr.'s mother, Jacqueline, and father, Karl Sr., often are bombarded by fans at Kentucky games telling them how good of a person their son has become.
Karl Jr.'s mother, Jacqueline, and father, Karl Sr., often are bombarded by fans at Kentucky games telling them how good of a person their son has become.Photo courtesy of Karl Towns Sr.

It wasn't just because Towns had his own court. The grade-schooler was also moved by the deep love and compassion his father exhibited through his financial sacrifice and hard work. Not even a teenager, Towns realized then how lucky he was to have such a supportive family.

"So many people my age don't have a dad in their life or a mom in their life," Towns says. "I'm blessed to have both. My childhood was a yellow-brick road compared to a lot of people."

As much as he appreciates their love, Towns is also thankful his parents set such a good example. His father and mother, Jacqueline, both worked for McKesson, a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey.

When Towns was in junior high school, his father usually picked him up from school and drove him to Piscataway Prep, where Karl Sr. worked a second job as a coach. Towns worked out with the JV squad while his dad, a former college star at Monmouth, worked with the varsity on another court.

By the time he reached high school, Towns' parents were planning their lunch breaks around his class schedule. Some days Mom rushed from 1-1:40 p.m. to cook Towns chicken breast, corn and rice ("Spanish food, his favorite," she says). Other days, Dad snuck away late in the afternoon for a quick game of NBA 2K on Sega Dreamcast.

"Anything we could do to spend time with our son," Jacqueline says.

Emphasizing the importance of an education, Towns' parents required him to study three hours per night during the school year, so it was no surprise when he graduated with a 3.96 GPA. He was also taught to look people in the eye, to not interrupt anyone and to say, "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am."

The lesson that stood out the most to Towns, though, was selflessness.

Even though money was scarce, Towns said every time his father passed someone at the grocery store raising money for the Salvation Army, he reached into his pocket and pulled out loose change or a dollar bill. He did the same thing for homeless people on street corners or women standing in the median, flashing cardboard signs asking for help with rent money.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 12:  Karl Towns #12 (L) of the Dominican Republic and Anthony Davis #14 of the US Men's Senior National Team tussle for a rebound during a pre-Olympic exhibition game at Thomas & Mack Center on July 12, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Davi
David Becker/Getty Images

"They just taught me to be grateful for what I had," says Towns, who has an older sister, Lachelle. "We may have been poor, but we weren't homeless. We might not have had a whole loaf of bread, but we had half-a-loaf."

By the time he reached high school, Towns was adhering to those same principles in his own life.

Towns was a ninth-grader at St. Joseph High School when a classmate he hardly knew broke his nose in a flag football game. Towns accompanied the boy to the hospital and stayed with him until his parents arrived.

In a basketball game that same year, Towns paid tribute to U.S. Marine Cpl. Kevin Reinhard, a St. Joseph's graduate who was killed in Afghanistan. Towns scored 25 points to match Reinhard's age and then never attempted another shot.

When Towns' grandfather died of cancer, he participated in a walk-a-thon to raise money to fight the disease. And Towns was so moved by the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, that he began volunteering at the REED Academy, a New Jersey-based institution for children with autism.

"It comes from within," Towns' mother says. "I don't know how else to explain it. Karl will never think he's bigger and better than anyone. He follows his heart and does what's right because it makes him feel good inside."

One of the most impressive things about Towns in high school was that his acts of kindness and generosity weren't altered with his ever-increasing national profile. By the time he was 16, Towns had played against LeBron James and his idol, Kevin Durant, and had been taken under the wing of Dominican Republic national team member Al Horford, who still mentors Towns today.

Mix in the documentary crew that tracked Towns' every move for the film Center of Attention, and the threat of an inflated ego seemed more than realistic.

"He sneezes, someone writes a blog on it," St. Joseph coach Dave Turco told The Star-Ledger in 2012. "But he doesn't get caught up in all the hoopla."

Even though he shares it with other high-profile teammates—Kentucky's roster features nine McDonald's All-Americans—the spotlight shines brightly on Towns in Lexington, too. But his persona has hardly changed since enrolling in college.

That's why no one was surprised when Towns went straight from the airport to a walk-in clinic after flying home for Christmas break in December. A few days earlier, his father had visited the facility to get a diagnosis for flu-like symptoms. The doctor who treated him mentioned that his terminally ill son was a huge fan of Kentucky and, more specifically, Towns Jr.

Nov 14, 2014; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) before the game against the Grand Canyon Antelopes at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

"Set it up," Towns Jr. said when his father told him the story over the phone later that evening. "I want to meet him."

A few days later, Towns Jr. walked into the clinic and spent 30 minutes dribbling basketballs and taking pictures with the nine-year-old boy, who couldn't believe he was hanging out with the same guy he had watched play against Louisville fewer than 24 hours earlier.

"There are millions of kids who grow up dreaming of playing at Kentucky," Towns says, "but only 16 get to be on the team. I'm one of them. That's why I feel so compelled to give back. I'm in a position to make people smile. It makes me feel good."

It makes his parents proud, too. Earlier this month, Karl Sr. and Jacqueline made the 10-hour drive from Piscataway to Lexington to watch the Wildcats play Georgia. Both before and after the game, fans and administrators approached the couple to dote on Karl Jr.

"My favorite thing," Karl Sr. says, "was when people walked up and said, 'Your son is the nicest, most polite kid we've ever met.'

"That's what it's all about."

If things unfold as expected, Karl Towns will be an NBA millionaire by the end of June. But if he'd stuck to his plan five years ago, the riches may have never come.

Towns spent his high school years making St. Joseph's Prep in New Jersey into a three-time state champion.
Towns spent his high school years making St. Joseph's Prep in New Jersey into a three-time state champion.USA TODAY Sports

One summer during junior high school, Towns told his father he was finished with basketball. He'd decided to quit. It wasn't that Towns no longer enjoyed the sport. He just needed a new challenge.

"Everyone was saying I was the No. 1 this and the No. 1 that," Towns says. "I got it in my head that there was nothing more to accomplish. I don't like being at the top of a mountain. I like climbing them."

Thus, instead of traversing the country on the AAU circuit, Towns spent June, July and August on the baseball diamond. As a 14-year-old pitcher, Towns says his fastball was clocked at 80 miles per hour. He took so much batting practice that his hands were peppered with callouses and Towns' coach threw out his arm.

"I wanted to try something that no one thought I was the best at," Towns says. "I was good at baseball, but I wasn't the No. 1 guy in people's eyes. It was challenging to me, and I loved it."

By the start of the next school year, though, Towns had found his way back to the basketball court. He says he missed dribbling and scoring and being with his teammates.

Instead of complaining about not feeling challenged, Towns established a mission on his own. Despite being courted by perennial state title contender St. Anthony and Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley, Towns chose to attend St. Joseph, which was hardly known for a history of success on the hardwood.

"St. Anthony would've been the easy choice," Towns says. "But I wanted to do something special. I wanted to have pressure on my shoulders. St. Joseph's had no championship banners. I wanted to change that."

He did.

Towns led the team to three consecutive state titles before graduating in 2014. Even more impressive is that he was twice selected to represent his mother's country on the Dominican Republic national team.

After meeting LeBron James in 2012 as a member of the Dominican national team, Towns may facing off against him in the NBA next season.
After meeting LeBron James in 2012 as a member of the Dominican national team, Towns may facing off against him in the NBA next season.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Barely 16, Towns was hardly old enough for a driver's license and couldn't get into an R-rated movie. But there he was on television, going against LeBron and Durant and the U.S. national team while his classmates watched from back home.

"It was a big jump," says Towns, who played for the team in 2012 and 2013, "but I'm proud of myself for taking on the challenge. I didn't just step into the ring. I laced up the gloves and was trying to win. I treated myself like I should be starting."

Towns may not have won a place in the starting lineup, but he earned the respect of Dominican teammate Horford, currently a member of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.

"He told me he believed I could be something special," Towns says. "I'd heard that from other people, but it's different when an NBA All-Star says it. It boosted my confidence to a new level."

The experience also gave Towns a chance to learn under Calipari, who coached the Dominican team during Towns' first stint with the squad. Barking orders from the sideline the following summer was Orlando Antigua, a Kentucky assistant who was involved heavily in Towns' recruitment.

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 20: Karl Towns Jr. #15 of the World Select Team battles for positioning against Rondae Hollis-Jefferson #10 of the USA Junior Select Team during the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit game on April 20, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Or
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Although it probably didn't hurt that the Dominican team held some of its practices in Lexington, Towns says that Calipari and Antigua's involvement with the squad had nothing to do with him signing with Kentucky over schools such as Duke and Florida.

Kentucky's kinesiology program played a big part, says Towns, and when it came to basketball, "the program's history speaks for itself."

It only takes a minute or two of watching Towns to understand why he's been tabbed as the most versatile big man in the country. When he worked with his son in elementary school and junior high, Towns' father stressed the importance of ball-handling and shooting and being a force outside the paint.

Those lessons stuck with the 250-pound Towns, who can penetrate and dish one possession, swish perimeter jumpers and then score on a left-handed hook shot a few minutes later.

Calipari, though, says Towns needs to improve his pick-and-roll defense to be a force in the NBA. Further, Towns needs to improve his lower-body strength so he'll have more leverage when fighting for position in the paint, according to his coach. Right now, the only things he's using are his arms and upper body.

"This isn't unusual," Calipari says. "These are the steps I take with all of these McDonald's All-Americans. Big men take even longer, but he'll get there.

"I'm pushing Karl to grow up fast. If I didn't think he could take the coaching, I'd approach it differently. But I know he can. He wants to be special. By the end of the year I hope he's thought of as the best big man in the country where it's not even a question."

Towns may not be very far off.

Duke's Jahlil Okafor is generally regarded as the best post player in college basketball and is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's NBA draft. But Darrin Horn, the ESPN analyst, can't help but think that Towns would be putting up significantly bigger numbers if he were playing 30.8 minutes per game like Okafor, who averages 18.1 points and 9.3 rebounds

"People say he needs to be more assertive," Horn says, "but it's hard to be assertive when you're on a team that plays nine guys.

"If his teammates made him the focal point and fed him the ball all the time like Duke does with Okafor, it'd be a different story. But that's not how Kentucky plays, and that shouldn't be how it plays with that talented of a roster."

Whatever the case, Towns' performance this season hasn't altered his NBA draft stock.

"He's almost like an overseas kid," an NBA scout said last month. "Everything you look at and evaluate with him is geared toward the long-term future. He's a guy you may not feel great about right now but are excited about down the road."

Just as they do nearly every day, Karl Towns and his parents engaged in a FaceTime chat the night before Kentucky played Georgia last week.

One thing stood out to Karl Towns Sr. about his son.

"Just before we hung up," the father says, "Karl looked straight into the phone and, 'Just so you know, it's about to be on.' "

Karl Sr. laughs.

"I know my son," he says, "and when he makes a comment like that, he's about to go on a tear."

The following evening, Towns scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against Georgia. Over the past three games, he's averaging 13.4 points and 7.8 rebounds. In what was arguably his most complete effort of the season, Towns had 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in a win at Florida on Feb. 7.

"He was the best player in the game," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said.

Towns helped Kentucky remain unbeaten three nights later by hitting a go-ahead jumper with 1:38 remaining in a 71-69 victory over LSU.

"We all know 40-0 is the magic number," Karl Sr. says. "They're more than halfway there. Karl is looking at this like it's his second season."

And everyone, it seems, is positive it will be better than the first.

Especially Towns, who is determined to maximize his gifts—no matter how long the process may take.

"I feel incredibly lucky," Towns says. "I could've been thrown back into the regular loop of life. I could've gone to high school and maybe to college and gotten a 9-to-5 job. But instead I get to pick my job. And if I fail or have a bad game, I get to come back the next day and try again.

"How great is that?"

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.