LEXINGTON, Ky. — Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most marketable players in the NBA. In his one season at Kentucky and two seasons as the No. 1 pick turned Rookie of the Year turned budding superstar, it’s hard to remember a time he didn’t flash a perfect smile and say the most universally lovable thing.
That changed Friday afternoon, when Towns risked a great deal by writing an article for The Players’ Tribune in which he strongly criticized President Donald J. Trump and his response to a rising tide of racism in America. Then, he doubled down Friday night, back at his alma mater for the UK Alumni Charity Game, by wearing custom Nike sneakers with anti-racism messages — including “Love Trumps Hate” — while he threw down a dazzling array of dunks on his way to 33 points at Rupp Arena.
Towns took a stand that risked alienating a number of his fans, not to mention consumers of the many products he endorses.
“I always seem to take the safe road,” he admitted after Friday’s exhibition game, where he was received with roaring applause and a swarm of autograph requests. “Sometimes, you worry about what people are going to say and you try to be in the right all the time, [but] I wanted to do something that meant a lot to me. These have been large moments in U.S. history … and when you live in this time, you want to make sure that you don’t have history repeat itself. I felt with the platform that I have and everything I learned about how to use my voice effectively here at the University of Kentucky, I could do something positive for the world.”
Still, Towns hesitated. He knew there would be many angry (and some nasty) responses — and all it takes is a quick glance at the Facebook comments about Towns’ piece to know that he was right.
“The first thing you do when you write an article like that is you think about all the consequences and the backlash that could come from it. When I thought about all that, it was, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do it,’ ” Towns said Friday night. But “that’s exactly, I think, what [detractors] wanted me to do. I decided to go the route that I felt was right.”
Towns took his time to write the piece, saying he needed four drafts to reach the finished product.
“I put my passion, my soul, my feelings, my ideals, my values, my morals into that,” he said, adding that the goal was not to bash Trump. “The intention is to spread love, to say how racism, bigotry, gender equality all could be fixed with love.”
Naturally, many focused on the rebuke of America’s controversial president. Predictably, a large number encouraged Towns to shut up and play basketball.
“The responses have been very positive — for the most part,” Towns said. “A lot of people keep saying, ‘Stick to sports.’ I think everyone thinks we’re athletes, so our intellectual capacity is not enough to understand topics or not enough to verbally explain … but that’s not true.”
Former Kentucky teammate and current NBA player Trey Lyles seconded that notion after the alumni game.
“I agree with everything he was saying. I think it’s good that guys like that, players all around, are voicing their opinions and people are starting to notice that we have more focuses than basketball,” Lyles said. “We know what’s going on in the world. Karl is an outspoken guy, so I wasn’t surprised he did it, but I’m glad he did.”
Towns said he feels lucky to have never been a victim of race-related violence — “it’s like a card you’re given for finding success in your life” — but his goal is to some day have children of his own who don’t have to fear that as a possibility.
“I would really love — my dream is to avoid having that conversation about the color of their skin,” Towns said.
His father, Karl Sr., was at Rupp Arena on Friday night, beaming as Towns put on a show for the fans and then stayed to sign every item they shoved in front of him until security finally pried him away from the shrieking crowd. His father has had no shortage of things to be proud of: Gatorade National High School Player of the Year, college All-American, No. 1 pick, NBA Rookie of the Year, TV commercials for Nike, Kit Kat, Gatorade.
But now his little boy has grown into a man unafraid to stand for his convictions.
“More proud than you can imagine,” Towns Sr. told SEC Country late Friday. “Very inspirational, very well-written, just the way he is. He just wants everyone to love each other.”