GUIDING LIGHT

In a year marred by personal loss and social unrest, NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns is using his platform to promote change.

Story By Gary Washburn
Photography By Keith Major

Last year, Minneapolis, known more as the hometown of Prince than as a civil rights hotbed, was in a state of chaos following the grotesque murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin. Protests and riots erupted throughout the Twin Cities and sparked others throughout the country.

The Midwestern metropolis, along with the nation, needed calming voices to help relieve its pain. Six weeks after the untimely passing of his mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, who succumbed to complications from the coronavirus, 6-foot-11 Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns emerged from his grief and stood tall alongside teammate Josh Okogie, former NBA veteran Stephen Jackson, and other notables in the wake of widespread unrest and upheaval. Towns held strong as leaders in the Black community addressed reporters and the public at a rally to mourn Floyd’s untimely death. His presence spoke volumes about his commitment to the cause.

The 25-year-old Towns, who plays center for the Timberwolves, is the cornerstone of the franchise. The former No. 1 draft pick in 2015 immediately became the head of a team desperate for success. And though he is determined to usher the T-Wolves to an NBA championship, his most pressing concern is being a changemaker. He is focused on improving the lives of the underrepresented and the oppressed.

Spurred on by the actions of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee to protest racial injustice, Towns is one of many Black professional athletes born decades after the Civil Rights Movement who have decided to use their platform to bring awareness to social causes. The sports figures realize that with their stature and outsized salaries comes great responsibility.

“I remember when Philando Castile was tragically killed in St. Paul [Minnesota, in 2016],” Towns says. “I tried to bring the local kids together with police officers and high-ranking officials, and show them that not all cops are bad. They can be allies. They can be just like us. But it’s hard to keep practicing that message when Minneapolis cops are going through the same events with the same people I’m trying to reach. It’s just unfortunate. I grieve with the community as much as I possibly can.”

But Towns could no longer idly watch his community suffer and was moved to join the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, a 12-person group of pro ballers, team governors, and coaches who meet and collaborate to bolster the league’s participation in social justice work. The coalition was formed on the heels of NBA players refusing to play in games in the NBA bubble last August. The athletes felt the league’s previous social justice efforts were ineffective; they wanted more action from team governors on issues that affected their communities. After days of negotiations with the league leaders about boosting those efforts, such as increasing voter registration marketing and using NBA arenas as polling locations, the pro ballers returned to play and finished the season once their demands were met.

I think we’ve taken big steps. [My teammates and I] made it known that we need to fix this. We don’t want to compromise.

According to the NBA, “The formation of the coalition is another step in the NBA and NBPA’s ongoing efforts to advance social justice, building upon a shared goal of the 2019–20 season restart in Orlando [Florida] and continuing decades of work by players and teams to address racial inequality, advocate for meaningful change, and promote greater civic engagement.”

Several teams, including the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, have pledged millions of dollars to help improve conditions in their local Black community. The NBA itself has pledged $300 million to increase economic empowerment in our communities overall.

And Towns has played a pivotal role in aiding the NBA’s campaign. “I think the message was heard [loud and] clear,” Towns says. “I think we’ve taken big steps. [My teammates and I] made it known that we need to fix this. We don’t want to compromise. We’re not fine with a deal that just gives us 10 percent of what we asked for; we want the whole pie. We want everything to be fixed and everything to be right. And for me, to be a part of this coalition, I won’t accept anything less than 100 percent change.”

Towns says it’s been amazing working with a coalition whose members come from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds: “It gives us different viewpoints on how we can attack the social injustice and inequality that we are witnessing. Sometimes you’re only looking at [things from] your own perspective. Having a mix of perspectives, faces, and age groups allows us to target the wide-ranging needs of our audience and to target them more effectively.”

And while professional basketball and social activism have kept him busy, Towns is still mourning the loss of his 58-year-old mother, who died on April 13, 2020, during the height of the pandemic. He was extremely close to her.

“My mother is the one who gave me the strength, the morals, and the values that I need to deal with this pain and to shoulder the pain of my sisters, my father, and the rest of my family,” Towns says. “[She taught me how] to navigate the scene and keep everyone in a good headspace. She also taught me to try to make the world better. That goal that I have in my heart and in my mind—that kind of mindset—I wasn’t allowing that to change when her physical self left this planet. It’s been something that’s been instilled in my soul and that will never go away.”

“In this life, the next life, no matter how many lives, [my mother and I] are always going to be connected,” Towns adds. “I strongly believe that she’s always with me. And when I need help, I just try to listen within my soul to hear what she’s trying to tell me and to remember the advice she’s given me.”

His mother has always been the voice in Towns’ ear, inspiring him. In his teens, he participated in a walkathon to raise money to fight cancer after his grandfather died from the disease. Towns also volunteered at a school for kids with autism after learning about the Newton, Connecticut, school shooting. So it’s not a surprise that the star athlete has taken up the cause to spread the word in the Black community about the deadliness of the coronavirus and the necessary precautions to take in guarding loved ones during the pandemic.

“I just think losing his mom, my wife, has made him more of a leader,” says his father, Karl Towns Sr. “Not only for himself, but for our family and for others, to inspire them, that despite tragic circumstances, you still have to [go on and fight for what’s right.] He’s part of a movement for those who are less fortunate. He wants to see everybody given the same opportunity, [so] he has to use his platform.”

In this life, the next life, no matter how many lives, [my mother and I] are always going to be connected.

Towns is also using that platform to advocate for women’s empowerment. When his agent, Leon Rose, became president of the New York Knicks, Towns replaced him with Jessica Holtz, the first-ever female agent to represent two maximum contract NBA players. (She also represents Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker).

“There’s a lot more I want to do,” Towns says. “There is a lot more I want to do to help people of color—but not only people of color. [I also want to help] the women of this world grow into the queens they are meant to be.”

 

We’re a generation that gets a chance to do something truly special, but we have to take advantage of it.

Indeed, the landscape for the professional athlete has transformed dramatically. Past attitudes and suggestions to “shut up and play” have been dismissed by a new vanguard of activist athletes and influential icons, such as Kaepernick, LeBron James, and Naomi Osaka, who speak their minds and lead with their hearts to make a difference. As part of this group, Towns is moving with a sense of urgency to meet the needs of the marginalized.

“This is an amazing time, not just in basketball history but in history in general,” Towns says. “We’re a generation that gets a chance to do something truly special, but we have to take advantage of it. Because if we don’t, who knows when the next generation will have a chance to instill true change.”

Gary Washburn is a Boston-based sports writer.

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