As fans and onlookers, we might not be out on the court or field with the athletes we admire and support. We might not be in the middle of an arena, with fans cheering our names and hanging on our every move, but we do get the trickle-on effect of those very same emotions. We jump for joy as the ones we adore fly through the air for that thunderous dunk. We sink to the ground in despair as our teams drop down the standings or falter in the final moments of a game. As kids, we mimicked them in the streets or at the park, as adults we unwittingly imitate them with the dizzying emotional highs and crushing lows.
However, far too often we treat the on-screen performers as just that, an alternate reality star dropped onto the earth to provide us nothing more than entertainment for the few hours that they’re between the painted lines. How easy it is to forget that they too are human beings, with real lives, feelings, accomplishments and tragedies taking place beyond the rolling cameras and the screaming fans.
When the news hit that Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns’ mother Jacqueline Cruz had passed away from complications of COVID-19, Wolves fans felt a fracture appear in that very barrier that shields us from the human side of our team’s star athlete. And when Towns himself sat down with Natalie Manuel Lee and told the heart-wrenching story behind his mother’s passing, that wall was completely shattered — the way it should always be.
We always hear about how athletes need to be role models for the young or the impressionable, but we rarely associate that with showing true emotion and allowing the guard that fame and fortune have naturally forged to slip away. In a world filled with silent sufferers and those forever seeking a way to properly vent their feelings, having those role models lead the way is vital. That doesn’t mean that any athlete should do anything they aren’t comfortable with, but it’s refreshing and, in a terribly sad way, uplifting when they do.
As Towns detailed the gut-twisting tale from the time of diagnosis until the moment he had to pull the life support plug on the matriarch of the Towns family, the wave of Towns’ emotions didn’t just spray his fans and followers, it crashed down on them. It took us away from worrying about wins and losses, about stats, narratives or accolades. All that remained was a regular 24-year-old human being doing something so immensely brave and personal that you could do nothing but applaud his courage. You could muster no more than hope, hope that this young man finds a way out of the maze of grief and despair that life has thrust upon his shoulders.
In his own words, telling his story and shedding light on a dark situation was therapeutic for Towns, and, for me, it felt the same way. Not because my current situation was comparable to the horror that he was going through, but because it hammered home the important message that these high-profile athletes are just like us. They aren’t ball-playing robots who are just another number in a salary cap or chess piece to be maneuvered around 94 feet of hardwood, they are living, breathing, feeling people. And they deserve to be treated as such at every opportunity.
Of course, we will still analyze Towns on the court. He will continue to garner recognition and criticism as his NBA career unfurls, I doubt he or any other professional sportsperson would expect anything else. But, there is a time to put that to the side and to recognize an inspiring act of courage and mental strength, and for the big KAT, that time is now. 2020 has been a tough year for so many people, many of whom are struggling with the exact scenario that Towns is, but I’m thankful that Towns broke down his walls and shared his story with us, pulling back the curtains and allowing us to feel a fraction of what those millions of people feel every day.
So thank you, Karl. Thanks for humanizing yourself when so often we forget to do it for you. Thanks for showing those who look up to you that being strong and brave doesn’t always mean staying silent. Thanks for spreading awareness and reality when so many in higher places refuse to do so. Thanks for being not only an inspiring athlete, but an even more inspiring person. We’re with you today, and for the many days ahead.