“Y’ALL ARE HERE?” Karl-Anthony Towns says with a smile, as he notices us sitting behind his couch in front of two screens that are part of today’s commercial shoot. He greets us with a handshake but is a little surprised we are at his house. “The media found my fortress!?” he exclaims.
This greeting comes an hour after we rushed out of Tom Thibodeau's season ending press conference in order to meet KAT at his house and watch him perform for the camera, something he does with a remarkable grace and comfort. It occurs that the whole day is redolent of the Wolves' future. Thibs discussed the young team's accomplishments and areas for future growth to a room full of media at Mayo Clinic Square, while across the street Target Center rumbled with construction as the long-planned renovations pick up steam. And now we are in the home of the most important piece of the Wolves future, a man of immense talent who seems to carry stardom remarkably lightly.
Towns is shooting a set of short commercials at his house and we have been invited to an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the production. Later in the day, we will get some time to sit down with the Wolves sophomore phenom to discuss his experience working with a new brand, his thoughts on the past season, and additional topics surrounding the franchise.
Towns’ newest endorsement deal almost seems too perfect, like it was meant to be. The Big Kat has teamed up with Kit Kat on a new campaign that seeks to reach GenZennials (millennials born after 1992 and members of Gen Z born in the 2000s). The relationship obviously plays off their shared names, and the timing of this all seems rather ideal. Kit Kat is celebrating the one-year anniversary of their very own Big Kat, a bigger and crispier version of the classic candy bar, while Towns is two days removed from becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds in a season after accomplishing the feat during the last game of the year in Houston.
“This partnership has been a match made almost in heaven. You couldn’t have a better legal name than I have,” Towns says with a smile and subsequent chuckle. It’s a full-circle experience for him, once a kid who went to the store specifically to buy Kit Kat bars. He is flattered to have an endorsement deal with the same company as Chance the Rapper.
“Chance is up there, man. He’s had such a great year. It’s an honor to be up there with Chance,” he says when asked who will have the funnier commercial.
THE MAJORITY OF THE SHOOT is done in Towns’ basement, where his indoor basketball court is located. After disappointing nights at Target Center, the 21-year-old franchise pillar might spend a few hours shooting away the agony of defeat until the early morning. He did exactly that until 1:17 a.m. after losing to the Utah Jazz in late November, which he posted on his Snapchat with the caption “no excuses.” Seeing a pair of his size 20 Nike Hyperdunks in Wolf Grey sit unlaced in front of the door that leads to a stairwell down to the small court evokes this memory from five months ago when Towns sat hunched over in his locker stall in front of reporters earlier that night, emotionally drained after another loss sent the Wolves to a 5-12 start.
Towns is running slightly behind schedule that morning because he needed to stop for a haircut following his trip into the city to the Wolves facility where he had five separate MRI’s conducted. He says this is a standard end of season process every player must go through to ensure full health. About five minutes after arriving back to his crib, an energetic young man makes his way downstairs to get started with the producer and film crew. Towns’ presence is immediately felt. His vibrant personality fills the room.
The “fortress” itself is humble considering his superstar status and future earning potential. If things go as planned, Towns will make hundreds of millions of dollars in the blossoming business that is the NBA. The house looks nothing like those we used to see on MTV Cribs. The walls are not lined with boujee works of art. There is no fancy aquarium and no pets at all. His office is filled with game worn jerseys and shoes, old trophies, one gigantic playbook from coach Thibodeau with endless tabs of unique defensive coverages, and a signed photo of Flip Saunders from his playing days with the Gophers. The picture rests above the fireplace and Towns tells us how important this image is to him. It serves as a reminder of the man who drafted him first overall and brought him to Minnesota.
The house has the feel of enough, not too much. Even the basketball court in the basement is reasonably sized. It’s large enough to foster free throw development or dunk practice, but nothing more. As we explore a random spare bedroom, clearly painted for a kid who must have lived here previously, we question how much time Towns even spends at his house. And that’s when the realization that Karl-Anthony is only 21 years old starts to set in. What’s he even supposed to do with all of these bedrooms and open spaces?
HIS ENORMOUS FEET EUROSTEP two cameramen in pursuit of his spot on the sectional couch for the first of three scenes in the commercial. A minute later he turns around to inform us we are the first media people to ever set foot in his home. Later, Towns tells us about the concept around having “the fortress,” as he refers to it. This comes straight out of Kevin Garnett’s playbook. The most iconic figure in Wolves history told his mentee about the importance of having a home he can disappear to.
We hear one of the members of the Kit Kat creative team gleefully whisper, “he’s a natural” to Karl-Anthony’s girlfriend as the first scene is being shot. We are similarly blown away. Towns is good at this. He’s not One take Hov or First take Drake but for a basketball player who doesn’t act for a living he’s clearly balling out on camera. Humor and acting have been staples of Towns’ life back to his upbringing in Catholic school.
“You know what, I’m just goofy,” he says when asked where his natural acting ability came from. “I’m more of a social guy and always had a lot of humor. I went to Catholic school and in their opinion God loves humor. I’ve always felt very comfortable in my skin; my parents always taught me to be comfortable in my skin.”
The same humor and acting skills Towns brought to his Catholic school in Piscataway, New Jersey were on display all afternoon. The commercial shoot starts with a brief introduction and description of the “Big Kat” candy bar he will be promoting from the director. After that, it requires numerous takes to get the first video as perfect as possible. The punchline is, “But there can only be one Big Kat.”
The room breaks out laughing after he throws the camera the same look Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson featured during his pro wrestling days—a hammed up eyebrow raise—followed by a massive bite out of the Big Kat. Candy bars with one bite removed begin to stack up on the couch as the producers search for the perfect take. Karl picks up and deposits them into the trash himself and even gets on his hands and knees to sweep up the rogue wafer chunks that have found their way to the floor.
The shoot drags on as we chat with Jess Holtz Steinberg of CAA Sports. She is part of Towns’ management team, and we suggest that she has a pretty easy client to work with. “He’s so great,” she says in full agreement. Detailing how fortunate she is to have easy-going clients, Devin Booker’s name comes up.
“Y’all talking about Book?” Karl-Anthony asks as they re-arrange the cameras for the second scene of the commercial. Booker clearly holds a special place in Towns’ heart from their lone season together as blue chip freshmen at Kentucky.
During the breaks in his shoot, Towns comes over to chat about a variety of topics with us. We are surprised to hear about his plans for the night since he had recently finished saying he slept only four hours the night before. Fatigue must not apply here. He is set to attend the Minnesota Wild’s Game 2 matchup against the St. Louis Blues at Xcel Energy Center after the day comes to a close.
“I follow all sports,” Towns said. Even hockey is growing on him since Minnesota became his second home. He has heard all about the State of Hockey and has a personalized number 32 Wild jersey with Towns embroidered on the back. What he doesn’t have is a pair of skates for himself. Not yet, at least.
Up close, his size is striking—gangly arms, monstrous feet, and ginormous hands—but what’s more surprising is how comfortable he seems in all of his interactions, and how personable he is.
A bigger golf fan than we assumed, Towns talks about needing to get his driver fixed. He plans to be on the course a lot this summer when he’s not perfecting his craft in the gym. He shares a story about colliding with a security guard at Staples Center when watching the Masters on the screen of his cell phone a few weeks back. He was pulling for Rickie Fowler.
But that’s not all. Towns asked arena personnel to put the Masters on the jumbotron so he could keep an eye on the leaderboard during shootaround. They obliged his request, which left his concentration wavering during pregame warm-ups. That didn’t stop him from dropping 40 points and collecting 21 rebounds. He and Andrew Wiggins became the 13th teammates in NBA history to score 40 points in a game that night, though his friend D’Angelo Russell got the last laugh with a buzzer beater.
Fast forward another hour and the third and final scene of the commercial is wrapping up. His old school royal blue and kelly green Wolves jacket hangs on the base of the stairwell. “Old Shep” (the original Wolves mascot) is on the breastplate of the jacket and serves to remind that everything is changing in Minnesota.
When pointed out Towns concurs, “Yeah, we don’t even have the same logo. We are starting fresh and building the brand we want.”
Towns remained tight-lipped when we inquired about how the new jerseys and court design look.
Before we get the opportunity to sit down with Towns for an extended interview, he leads us into his living room where a giant stack of fan mail sits on a glass table. “That’s what I was doing last night,” Towns said. Plenty of letters and packages were unopened, though KAT assures us that he intends to make his way through all of it. Fans across the globe send mail to the Timberwolves headquarters and they forward everything to Towns.
He even shows us a potato with a picture of his face printed on it. A message on the back written in black sharpie reads, “keep being a beast KAT.” He was 1 of the 150 NBA players that received one from Potato Parcel.
On his first night home since the season ended, Towns spent his time reading letters from kids and eating pizza. He tells us about “The KAT,” a barbecue chicken specialty pizza he orders from a place down the street on a weekly basis. He was getting it so often the place decided to do him a favor and put it on the menu.
We are beginning to understand the 21-year-old’s lifestyle; basketball during the day and late nights at the fortress look to be the normal day in his summer schedule. He shares that “Wiggs” tries to get him to come out, but Towns has the feel of an introvert at heart. The guy who was flashing eyebrows to the camera and Eurostepping through the crew is more comfortable being the person who chills at home with his girlfriend, often watching DVR-ed boxing matches.
It appears that he uses his home as a place to recharge the batteries so he can be that affable media maven when the cameras are on. The typical distractions of a young celebrity don’t seem to have appeal. His life is full.
As we finally head back down to his basement for the interview, NBA 2K17 is in the XBOX One in front of us with a special case for the game emblazoned with Towns’ caricature. John challenges him to a game of basketball where the scales will be balanced. Blogger vs. baller on an even playing field.
The video game duel is postponed as Holtz Steinberg reminds her client about the Wild game he is attending after our interview. The three of us eventually settle into the sectional couch where the first commercial was filmed.
Towns mentions his intention to stick around Minneapolis over the summer after he takes some time for himself. “Yeah, I have some trips planned,” he tells us. “I feel like I should take a little more time for myself [this off-season]. I was so anxious last year when the season ended, so antsy to already get to year two. I never really got the chance to enjoy myself. I was already so locked into proving people wrong in my second year. Now, I’m going to take a little more time for myself. Enjoy some time with my family, enjoy some time to relax my mind and my body. Then I will get ready because I’m planning on having a long year next year. I have to take the time now.”
During his time away from the hardwood, one might imagine room for some self-reflection after becoming the youngest player to ever tally 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a season. Add in his 101 three-pointers and KAT is the only player ever to have a season like this. Will he take some time to think about how he has progressed in the past couple of years, from high school to college to now? Towns says eventually he will get there.
“Yeah, I think it’s going to happen at one point this summer. It takes time for me. I’m always looking ahead, looking at what we need to do to be the team that we need to be. The goals I want to accomplish. I’m already setting goals for myself for next year. It’s going to happen sooner or later. Every time with a positive there comes a doubt in my mind to not only trump that positive but blow past it. There’s a lot of things I want to do this year, it’s time to make a change. And that starts today.”
Towns realizes this change is not limited to him. He suggests that discipline will be key for the whole team next season. This is in addition to the three key adjustments—defense, shooting, and toughness—Thibodeau brought to the forefront at the end of season press conference that morning.
“I think that's what cost us a lot of games this year, just our lack of discipline. Freelancing sometimes when we're not supposed to, you know it hurts us,” Towns says. “For me, defensively, I'm going to take that next step next year. Because I'm willing to learn the system so much better. It's hard to jump into a system defensively when you're in the NBA and just try to work it out. A lot of big time players have taken time. That's a big goal of mine to come back and be a better player all-around, but I really wanna be the anchor to our defense next year.”
Defensive aspirations are high. He shares that both he and Thibodeau believe he can be on the All-Defensive team someday. He shifts in his seat to say, “I just can't wait. Now you're getting me excited. I'm already getting antsy for my third year.”
Continuity in the organization, or lack thereof, is brought up. Towns is insistent that regardless of roster turnover he has confidence in this team to get the most out of whatever is on the floor next season. He seems patient with the process but eager to take the franchise to new heights.
“Not everyone is gonna be blessed their rookie year to be like Tim Duncan on the Spurs,” Towns says. “There are growing pains. This game is not fair all the time.”
He explains how this is an adjustment for himself and many of the young players on the team who, before entering the league, found success on the first try. These trials and tribulations may be what makes the Wolves something special after the learning process is complete.
“Learning, learning, learning. You know, we became better professionals.”
This reminds Towns of a similar process in college. “At Kentucky, we all put our egos aside, our draft stocks aside, all that stuff you can't control and you just worry about winning, and it showed,” he says. “The Warriors are another team who does it really well, everyone plays their role and never tries to step on each other’s toes.”
The talent on the young roster in Minnesota has never been questioned but the path to maturity certainly has.
“Thibs helped a lot. He gave us someone we needed, someone who's going to put the foot down and tell us what we need to do and how we're going to do it. We are head over shoulders better than we were day one. We're going to be the team we want to be,” says Towns as he details his coaches leadership style.
There is a clear connection between the Wolves head decision maker and the organizations best player. The aesthetics of the rebrand seem to pale in importance to the value of the culture within the walls of the locker room. Towns knows that building the brand begins with winning.
He closes the interview by saying, “When you change the culture in the city to winning they are going to be the sexiest jerseys on the market. It's about what we do. If we change the culture, we change the perception.”
If there is any reason to believe in the future of the Wolves, the conviction in which Karl-Anthony Towns talks about what’s in store is reason number one. KAT knows what needs to be done. Now the fun part begins.