Kevin Love, that is. The Timberwolves forward with the Beach Boys in his blood is rising up and pulling down rebounds at an astonishing rate
This is an article from the Dec. 20, 2010 issue
The monster comes out when the shot goes up, an affable 22-year-old transformed by the sight of an airborne ball. Timberwolves forward Kevin Love can feel the metamorphosis occurring inside him, the sudden thirst for violence and disregard for well-being. He careens toward the basket, all elbows and forearms and hips, turning the key into the Octagon. Every body part is a weapon, to be wielded for the sake of the almighty rebound. "When that shot goes off, I don't know what happens to me," Love says. "It's like I become Colossus. I'm busting heads, going after guys, throwing my body at the rim."
Rebounding is half blood sport, half science. If a shot rises from the right wing, Love bolts to the left, in search of the low block on the weak side, which he straddles as though he's barricading his front door. His knees are bent, his back straight, his shoulder blades pushing into the chest of whoever is unfortunate enough to be stuck behind him. He turns his head to track the flight of the ball, gauging trajectory like a centerfielder. A low liner will smack straight against the rim. A high archer will bounce around awhile. A three-pointer could carom all the way to the elbow. A floater might not reach the charge circle. He considers the shooter. One teammate, forward Michael Beasley, tends to miss off the back rim, so Love braces for a long rebound. Another, center Darko Milicic, usually misses off the front, so he tries for a tip-in.
"A different sense knocks into me when the ball is in the air," Love says. "I know where it will hit and where it will land. I'm playing percentages, but it's not a guessing game. Most of the time I'm right." His navigational powers position him for the rebound, but he still has to snare it. He uses one hand to clear space, the other to palm the ball, sometimes not bothering to jump. When he brings the ball down, he slaps it with his off-hand, hard enough to hear through the television. What is also being heard with increasing frequency around the NBA is the chatter of opposing players, peppering one another with the question, "Can anybody box him out?"
Love is listed at 6'10", but no one believes he is that tall. His leaping ability is average at best. His hands are not exceptionally big. His backside is hardly Barkleyian. At the end of last season he was not starting for Minnesota—and it was the second-worst team in the league. When he went to his exit meeting before the final game, coach Kurt Rambis told him he needed to work harder. Love was used to having his athletic ability questioned but never his commitment. "That was the angriest I've ever been in my life," Love says. "I wanted to come out this season and be a monster."
He is a creature from a bygone era, putting up the first 30-point, 30-rebound game since Moses Malone 28 years ago, racking up four 20-20s in November, outrebounding the entire Knicks roster in the second half on Nov. 12 and then doing the same to the Warriors in the first half 15 days later. At week's end Love led the NBA with 15.6 rebounds per game, but that number should be higher, since Rambis was playing him fewer than 30 minutes a night for seven games, until he became impossible to sit. The more accurate representation of Love's prowess is his rebounding rate, the percentage of rebounds he snags when on the floor. Love's was 24.6% through Sunday, the highest since Dennis Rodman's 25.6% in 1996--97.
Love's approach, as described by Timberwolves assistant Dave Wohl, would make even Rodman squeamish: "We've got two two-by-fours, now let's go beat each other to death and see who comes away with the rebound." For current players the contact can be disconcerting, but it makes old-timers rejoice. "Kevin has what all the great ones did," says Swen Nater, whose career rebounding rate of 21.4% is second to Rodman's 23.4%. "An obsession for the ball and a mentality to do whatever is necessary to get it."
Love does not fit the typical profile of the street fighter. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers. His Uncle Mike is the lead singer of the Beach Boys. Stan and Mike's cousins were most of the rest of the band, apostles of good vibrations. Coming out of UCLA two years ago, Kevin was known mainly for a skill he rarely got to use, flicking outlet passes from one baseline to the other.
He grew up in Lake Oswego, Ore., an affluent Portland suburb, where he enjoyed all the perks of being an NBA player's son. He served as ball boy for former UCLA coach Jim Harrick when the Bruins came to Oregon and had to be shooed off McArthur Court for launching threes during timeouts. His big man coach at Lake Oswego High was Chris Dudley (10th best rebounding rate alltime). Nater, the former UCLA center, worked him out at Pauley Pavilion. Maurice Lucas stopped him in Portland restaurants, offering to "swing by the house and teach you some mean." That's when Stan would interject and say, "He's mean enough. We don't want the cops coming over."
Stan was not a natural rebounder—6'9", wiry, in love with his outside shot—but Harrick coached him at Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., and said he had "the sharpest elbows I've ever seen." As a star at Oregon, Stan once came across an opponent lying on the court and stepped on his chest. In the NBA his elbow broke Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere's nose. Stan was not going to raise a soft son of the suburbs.
In addition to 1½ seasons in L.A., Stan played two for the Washington Bullets, and he gave Kevin the middle name Wesley in honor of rebounder extraordinaire Wes Unseld. Kevin did his best to live up to the name, doing fingertip push-ups like the ones Unseld did to grow his forearms bigger than other boys' biceps. Kevin watched NBA Superstars videos over breakfast, and when he had devoured them all, he called family friend Bill Feinberg, a sports p.r. executive, for footage of Philadelphia Warriors Hall of Famer Paul Arizin because he liked Arizin's rebounding technique. Kevin was eight. Several years later he sent Feinberg an instant message: "I want to be a rebounder like Dennis Rodman. I want to get every rebound and f--- everybody up on the boards."
By fifth grade Kevin was spending weekends at the Boys & Girls Club in northeast Portland, yearning to experience inner-city basketball, the hunger and physicality of it. "Those guys punished you, pushed you into the ground, didn't care if they beat you by 50," Kevin says. "I loved it." He wanted to play football in high school, but his mother, Karen, was a nurse at Emanuel Hospital, and she saw the players come in on Friday nights woozy from concussions. Stan took Kevin to a local gym, pointed at the key and said, "You can knock down anybody you like right here." Kevin became one of the best basketball prospects in the nation, the latest member of a family touched by fame.
To outsiders, the Loves were charmed, but Kevin had a different perspective. Stan would tell him stories about life in the NBA and life with the Beach Boys, forever framed as cautionary tales. Some were about Stan himself, how he could have lasted longer in the league if he worked on his craft every summer instead of partying on the beach. But most were about another affable prodigy named Brian Wilson.
When Stan retired from the NBA in 1975, the Beach Boys hired him to move in with Wilson, Stan's first cousin and the band's brilliant but fragile songwriter. "Kevin used to ask me what Brian was like at his age," Stan says. "He was Tom Brady and John Elway rolled into one, smart and good-looking, the perfect all-American guy." But by the time Stan went to work with Wilson, he also had schizoaffective disorder and was a drug addict who weighed more than 300 pounds. He was so steeped in depression he rarely left his bedroom. Recalls Stan, "When I found him, he was catatonic on the floor."
Stan's responsibilities included driving Wilson to his many doctors' appointments and keeping LSD and cocaine out of his hands. "I had to get in the way of the Hollywood creeps who were telling him, 'Brian, you're so great, here's another bag of coke,'" Stan says. He tried to rehabilitate Wilson the only way he knew, with basketball. They played pickup games at Pauley Pavilion, and Wilson began to lose weight, developing a passable jumper. But progress was slow. Once, a friend rushed into Wilson's house in Beverly Hills to alert Stan that a homeless man wearing nothing but a robe was standing in the middle of the street, bumming cigarettes from passing cars. "Oh, no," Stan said. "That's Brian."
In 1983 Wilson's first wife, Marilyn, found him a new caretaker. Eugene Landy was a self-proclaimed "psychologist to the stars" who moved in with Wilson for the better part of a decade, cowriting songs and partnering in a record company. Wilson grew estranged from his family and changed his will to make Landy the primary beneficiary, even after Landy lost his medical license in California for unlawfully prescribing medication. Stan filed suit against Landy in 1990, claiming he had brainwashed Wilson, and a year later a court-appointed conservator was put in control of Wilson's affairs.
Wilson eventually extricated himself from Landy, but the episode made a lasting impact on the Loves. Stan was a Southern California original—his mother, Emily, lived on the beach in San Clemente for four years during the Great Depression—but he had seen what L.A.'s drug culture did to Brian, and he could not take the same risks with his own children. When Kevin was two, the family moved out of their house overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades and relocated to Lake Oswego. "What we learned from all those stories," says Kevin's older brother, Collin, "was how not to do things."
Stan was a stay-at-home dad, and when Kevin started playing AAU basketball, he insisted on being allowed on all his son's road trips. He believed the AAU creeps were no different from the Hollywood ones. When Kevin went to UCLA, Collin joined him, and they lived in an apartment instead of the dorms. "We wanted to keep the circle tight," Collin says. Kevin led the Bruins to the Final Four in his lone college season, but he often felt teammates were freezing him out, so he came to think of rebounds as passes. If he wanted the ball, he had to grab it himself.
During downtime Kevin visited John Wooden and Jerry West, but he longed to see the other L.A., where his dad grew up. He also asked a former AAU coach and community outreach manager, DeAnthony Langston, to drive him to Watts and take him for haircuts at the Our People Barber Shop in Carson. "I had to call ahead," Langston says. "I didn't know if they could cut a white boy's hair."
Even though he averaged 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds in his season with the Bruins, pro scouts worried that Love was undersized as a power forward and not dynamic enough to compensate. One NBA coach left Pauley in a huff during a game, and when he spotted Harrick in the crowd, shouted at him, "Where's he going to play?" Harrick barked, "Anywhere he wants." Former Timberwolves G.M. Kevin McHale was panned on draft night when he sent guard O.J. Mayo to the Grizzlies as part of a deal for Love, but McHale told staffers, "This guy can do something at an elite level that not many can."
McHale recognized the hands like vises and legs like Oregon sequoias, tools of a rebounding fiend. Love was not fast, but he was quick in small spaces, and once he positioned himself, he could not be moved. Regardless, Love started just 59 games in his first two seasons in Minnesota, and when he returned to his downtown apartment after nights on the bench, he would ask Collin, "Am I stuck in this situation forever? How am I going to get out?"
He never bought a house, never even bought a winter coat. But it was Al Jefferson whom G.M. David Kahn jettisoned to the Jazz, to make room for Love. He still played only 24 minutes in the opener, learning to savor every second because there were so few. The Timberwolves never had a problem with Love's rebounding, but coaches viewed him as the big man's equivalent to Rajon Rondo, transcendent in one area and developing in others. Rambis wants the monster out all the time—on defensive rotations, fast breaks, pick-and-rolls—and not just when the ball is in the air. "We're hard on him," Rambis says, "because we see what he is capable of."
Love is much more than the second coming of Ben Wallace. He blends a soft touch—he recently hit eight straight three-pointers—with methodical post moves copied from those old Superstars videos. He is averaging more than 20 points and 15 rebounds, which no one has done for a season since Malone led the 76ers to the 1983 championship. Of course, the Timberwolves are not winning the title. They are 6--18, yet Love has made them relevant, along with the primal art of rebounding. Even Brian Wilson has taken notice, calling Stan excitedly when he sees Wolves highlights.
After Love put up 25 points and 18 rebounds in a loss in San Antonio earlier this month, Spurs forward Antonio McDyess left the locker room uttering a familiar refrain: "He's not that tall. He's not that athletic. He just outworks everybody." Meanwhile, Love walked slowly to the team bus, lamenting the latest fourth-quarter lead that slipped away. He had another game in Minnesota the next night, another chance to do what he does better than anyone in a long time.
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