After winning the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for April, Minnesota Timberwolves guard sat down with Sports Illustrated to discuss his charity and community service work, as well as the team's bright future. LaVine received the award for donating his $10,000 dunk contest winnings to the Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minn., to build a new kitchen space.
As a monthly winner, LaVine is nominated for the season-long community assist award. The NBA and Kaiser Permanente, which presents the award, will donate $25,000 to the season-long winner's charity of choice. You can visit the NBA Community Assist website for more information.
The other nominees are Carmelo Anthony, Mike Conley, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard, Victor Oladipo and John Wall. Fans can vote through May 18 on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #NBACommunityAssist and #PlayerFirstNameLastName.
Jesse Kramer: You've been involved with the Metro Deaf School for a little while now. When you decided to donate your dunk contest winnings, what made you choose them?
Zach LaVine: I just have a connection with sign language. I always thought the deaf community was a different community to be a part of. In high school, me and my friend took sign language. I just felt like [donating to MDS] would be something different because it's a community not a lot of people give back to. I felt strong about wanting to donate [the dunk contest winnings] to a cause that would be good.
JK: You appeared at the Metro Deaf School when they unveiled the new kitchen. How important was it for you to actually be present rather than simply provide the money?
ZL: It was great. It was really, really early in the morning, and to see them all awake and excited—because I remember me in school at 7 a.m. I was knocked out. So just to see their faces and to show that I'm there, I care, show my face. I didn't want to be someone that just donates money and doesn't make an appearance or talk to them. I've made about three of four appearances there and I'll continue to do that throughout the next couple of years. I just thought it was really cool.
JK: When you were in high school, what made you want to take sign language in the first place?
ZL: To tell you the truth, a lot of people ask me that. [Laughs] I don't know. Me and my teammate did it. We wanted to take Spanish, and then we took sign language. At the time, it was actually kind of difficult. Now looking back on it, it's a unique skill set that not a lot of people have. In high school we used to sign to each other during the game, signaling different plays and stuff like that. It was kind of fun. It was definitely unique.
JK: There are a number of videos of you visiting the Metro Deaf School, and it's pretty clear these kids really appreciate having you around. Do you think you could have the same impact on them if you didn't know sign language?
ZL: I feel like it's different than me not knowing sign language because I'm able to talk to them. It's a connection that I feel like would be different if I couldn't sign to them because they'd know I'd still be there and still care, but I would have somebody else talking to them for me. So I'd still be able to help, but being able to do the same things they can do, understand them, communicate back and forth with them, hold a conversation with them—I feel like they especially respect that.
JK: What's it like to be in a position where, not only do kids look up to, but you also have the means to make an impact on their lives?
ZL: It's great. The main thing for me is being able to see the impact I make if I put a smile on somebody's face from me just being there interacting with them. It's cool because, for me and my family and my friends, I'm just me. But to other people, they see me in a different light. I have to respect that, keep it professional and show them that I care. I'm a role model and I have to show them the right path.
When I was younger, me and my dad used to do different things. I don't think I would call it community service. It was more just us doing nice things. We used to donate to Goodwill or do can drives. Give people money if they needed it. Little things like that. We weren't able to do the things I'm doing now because the money situation is different.
JK: Your charity for the NBA Cares Community Assist Award is the Flip Saunders Legacy Fund. The NBA and Kaiser Permanente have already donated $10,000 there, and if you win the season-long award they will donate an additional $25,000. What was your relationship like with Saunders?
ZL: I just appreciate him a lot. That's the person that believed in you and drafted you. He had very high expectations, and I just wanted to make him proud. We all loved him and miss him. So I always want to just give back to him and just show I appreciate him and I care and keep it in the family. The family goes through a tough time especially with a loss like that. Knowing the family and knowing my background, how I am with my dad and how tough that would be, I just want to show I appreciate him and want to give some help.
JK: To wrap things up, let's talk a little basketball. It's an exciting time for the Timberwolves with the young core you guys have and the hiring of former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. What's the vibe like in Minnesota right now?
ZL: We're very prepared. We had a strong end to last season. We're definitely looking to make a push this year. We have a lot more experience. We're all working out in the off-season to get better and keep our goals. We're very excited and we're ready to get back to training camp already.