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‘[He] was our Michael Jordan’: How Kobe Bryant touched the lives of the Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves held a memorial for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna before the Monday, Jan. 27, game with the Sacramento Kings at Target Center. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA TODAY Sports1 / 2
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) puts the ball down and walks away to start the Monday, Jan. 27, game against the Sacramento Kings in honor of the passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna at Target Center. The act resulted in a time violation and on the ensuing play the Kings did a similar play as well. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA TODAY Sports2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kobe Bryant was Karl-Anthony Towns’ childhood. The same can be said for so many current NBA players. They were too young to see much, if any, of what Michael Jordan did as a player.

For them, Kobe Bryant was that guy.

“I grew up watching him, mimicking his moves, wanting to take those last-second shots because of him in that moment, the pressure moments. For me and my family and my closest friends — who I call my brothers — we watched a lot of Kobe,” Towns said. “(Kobe) for a lot of us, in our generation … was our Michael Jordan.”

Like Jordan, Bryant delivered so many awe-inspiring moments.

Towns remembers the championships, the all-star appearances, all of it. But what he’ll remember most is a game-winner from the 2009 regular season.

“He was playing against the Heat and he just refused to lose,” Towns said.

Los Angeles was trailing by two with three seconds to play. Towns was watching the game with a close friend, and he fully expected the Heat to deny Bryant the ball on the ensuing inbounds pass.

When Bryant got the ball, Towns called “the game is over.”

He was right.

“He hit an unbelievable shot over Dwyane Wade, from the middle of the key, falling sideways to the left, off the backboard and in. I remember watching that with my brother, and we were going crazy,” Towns said.

Towns specifically thinks of that experience because the friend he watched it with — a childhood friend he refers to as a “brother” — is the biggest Bryant fan Towns knew.

“I remember just talking yesterday to him and consoling him and he’s a very unemotional guy,” Towns said. “But it was tough for him to, like a lot of fans, to know a person that you idolized so much, someone who, in essence, was so invincible, so untouchable, and see him go like that, it makes us all feel pretty mortal.”

Bryant’s tragic death sparked a slew of emotions, and also reflection, from those within the Minnesota Timberwolves’ organization. They all crossed paths with Bryant at various points in their careers, and a few shared their experiences prior to Monday’s game against Sacramento.

Competitive and caring

Wolves coach Ryan Saunders heard a number of little stories about Bryant from his father, Flip, over the years.

Many of those centered on how competitive the Lakers star truly was. That held true even during an exhibition event often criticized for its lack of intensity.

Flip Saunders was the head coach of the Western Conference All-Star team in 2004, and Bryant was on his roster. Generally, players don’t take the exhibition seriously.

Nobody told Bryant.

“He was making sure in timeouts, coverages, what we’re running,” Ryan Saunders said. “Just the competitive standard that he set for others and he expected of others, I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again. He always expected more out of others and wanted everybody to exceed expectations.”

Saunders remembers watching a Lakers game in which Bryant tore his rotator cuff on a turnaround jumper. There wasn’t a stoppage of play, so the next time down the floor, the Lakers ran the same play for Bryant.

"He shot it with his left … and he made it,” Saunders said. “Stories like that make you think somebody isn’t human.”

But Bryant was a superhuman with a soul. The first game of the Timberwolves’ 2015-16 regular season came just days after Flip Saunders’ passing. The Timberwolves’ players sported “Flip” shirts in warm-ups that night.

So, too, did Bryant.

“I remember just seeing him at the free throw line during the national anthem,” Ryan said, “wearing a Flip shirt and him paying tribute. It’s hard to wrap your head around right now with everything.”

A life changer

Robert Covington got to match up with Kobe Bryant exactly once. He’ll never forget it.

It came in Bryant’s farewell season, and Covington was tasked with guarding the Hall of Famer.

The start of the game went … not well.

“He came out and he hit four of his first six shots,” Covington said. “Very tough shots. Couldn’t guard him no better, but still it was going to be one of them long nights. It felt like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know how this is going to go tonight.’”

It got a lot better than there for Covington. Bryant finished the night 7 for 26 from the field.

“He kind of cooled off a little bit,” Covington said. “But it still was an amazing feeling to get to go against somebody, especially in that moment where it’s possible I’ll never have that opportunity (again).”

Covington met Bryant at center court after the game, and the NBA icon told the former G-Leaguer that he had an opportunity to be “a very good player in this game.”

“He was like, ‘I like your work ethic. I like your hustle. I like how you carry yourself,’” Covington recalled. “Within that I took from a big change in my life. I understand that someone that I looked up to tell me those positive words of encouragement, he was like, ‘Stick with it. You got an opportunity to be someone great in this league. You can be someone that can really change the game. Just stay with it and just overall just keep going. Don’t give up because like you said you got a real nice opportunity.’”

From there, Covington evolved into an all-NBA defender, and is now one of the league’s better two-way wings. Bryant’s words played a role in Covington’s ascent.

“That’s what kind of helped me get over that hump as well to make that transition to being a complete player,” Covington said. “I’ve had that stuck with me to this day, and yesterday it was the only thing I could think about. That defining moment where I was able to have that moment with him and share those thoughts with him. It’ll stick with me. It’ll stick with me forever to be able to share that experience with somebody I looked up to, to hear those encouraging words. It’s something that I’ll hold forever.”

A role model

Towns first played against Bryant when he was 15 years old, when the Dominican National team was going up against Team USA. That, Towns said, was a “special moment.” The Wolves’ center cherished every opportunity to go against one of the game’s greats, but he seemed to most admire Bryant for everything he’d done away from basketball — the part that made Sunday’s tragedy hurt that much more.

Towns loves playing basketball, but he’s a man who can’t wait to start a family, be a father and enjoy life after basketball.

That’s where Bryant truly shined. Between coaching his daughters, working on films and books and just being a dad, Bryant was thriving in his “second career.”

“He had big plans, he had big aspirations. The one thing, you never count Kobe out for anything,” Towns said. “It’s unfortunate that all of us will never get to see his second career, the fruition it would’ve came to, but it really could’ve been just as good, or even better, than his first career.”

What impressed Towns most was the level of comfort Bryant quickly found in life after basketball. For someone who dedicated a large portion of his life to the sport, Bryant transitioned out of it with pure grace.

“[He was] so happy with his kids, he was extremely happy with the media and the business and entrepreneurship he was going through,” Towns said. “Fans don’t realize how much we truly give up of ourselves for this game and for them. To put these jerseys on, there’s a certain amount of commitment and dedication that’s unmatched anywhere else in the world. … Just to see that comfort that he was having and the grin he was smiling with and the happiness he had is, for me personally, something I look forward to and strive to get in my second career.”

Bryant’s legacy, Towns said, will be remembered forever. And that has nothing to do with the titles or individual achievements.

“Because Kobe did the one thing that, as athletes, all of us hope our legacy does — and that’s make you feel,” Towns said. “He made us all feel a certain way when he was on the court or his presence was in the room, the building or the state. … He made us all feel that anything was possible, that any injury or anything handed to us was just a challenge or an obstacle that we needed to conquer. I feel that the impact he’s made on so many of our lives, from my generation to the next generation to the generation before me is why he’s going to be living forever as a legend.”

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