By Tim Casey
It took only a minute or two watching Karl Towns Jr. play basketball before Rafael Salazar realized he had seen something special.
Towns was 6-foot-9. He consistently hit three-pointers from beyond NBA range. The form on his jump shot was "artistic." Unlike other tall kids, he wasn't awkward or uncoordinated. And, oh yeah, he was an eighth grader.
That meeting in a New York gym in early 2011 began the transformation of Towns from an intriguing prospect in his home state of New Jersey to his current status as among the nation's best high schoolers and a potential NBA lottery pick. He's drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Rasheed Wallace and other versatile big guys. He's also a top student, articulate, gregarious and mature, attributes that should serve him well in front of the most rabid fan base in college basketball.
In the fall of 2014, Towns is set to play at Kentucky for coach John Calipari, who spent a couple of months last summer around Towns thanks to an unusual situation that indirectly started with Salazar's discovery. It was an advantage, perfectly legal, that no other coach could match, although Calipari insists the arrangement occurred by happenstance, not by design. Not everyone believes him.
In 2011, Calipari agreed to coach the Dominican Republic's men's national team. His staff featured former NBA coach Del Harris, plus two Kentucky assistants: ex-NBA point guard Rod Strickland and Orlando Antigua. Calipari claims he had never heard of Towns before accepting the job.
At the time, Salazar was running a New York City-based AAU team and was an assistant on the Dominican Republic's under-17 national team, a position he didn't even initially want. He only relented as a favor to his friend Oliver Antigua, Orlando's younger brother, who had recently been appointed the head coach. Antigua knew Salazar had strong connections with young players of Dominican descent living in the New York area. Salazar's role was to find the best ones and recruit them to join the team. Convincing Towns turned out to be a coup, for all parties involved. Salazar considers him a better prospect at this age than Felipe Lopez, Charlie Villanueva and Francisco Garcia, players with Dominican roots who were first-round NBA draft picks and once played with Salazar.
"I'm telling you, man -- he's something amazing," Salazar said. "That kid is something amazing. He's going to be special. And I don't throw around that word too often."
Towns, whose mother is Dominican, played on the country's under-17 team in 2011. Last summer, as a 16-year-old a few weeks removed from his freshman season at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, N.J., he made the men's national team as it tried, unsuccessfully, to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London. No teenager, arguably, had a more memorable break from school than Towns did.
His teammates included Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks and Garcia of the Houston Rockets. He traveled to Puerto Rico and Venezuela for tournaments. He played in an exhibition in Las Vegas against the United States national team. Afterward, he met and took photos next to his idols, such as Durant and LeBron James. Calipari and the assistants showed him the best way to prepare. He didn't play much in games, but he spent every day learning post moves from Harris and Antigua and working on his dribbling and perimeter game with Strickland. During the team's training camp in Lexington, Towns lived on campus and interacted with Calipari and other Kentucky staff members. Everyone fell in love with Towns' talent, personality and willingness to accept criticism and learn.
"I think that he's a natural," said Harris, who won more than 500 games in 14 NBA seasons and coached star centers such as Moses Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. "It's so difficult to make it in professional basketball, what with the injury potential that one faces. But if he can stay healthy and continue the same attitude he has now, he has basically unlimited potential."
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On a recent afternoon, after Towns finished a set of bench presses, he walked around the gym sweating and a bit uncomfortable. He still had more than an hour left of training, but he couldn't help but think about how much better it would be if he had just remembered to bring his shorts. He couldn't recall where he had left them, so he instead wore gray sweatpants with the NBA logo on the left thigh.
Towns and Andrew Silber, his trainer and a former wrestler at American University, had a good laugh. It didn't surprise them. Towns always forgets things, and the two love giving each other a hard time. But their goals are clear: making Towns a stronger, faster athlete capable of withstanding the pounding inherent in his position and remaining healthy. So far in his short career, he has remained injury-free.
Four days a week, Towns works with Silber and speed guru Armando Sanchez at East Coast Conditioning, a non-descript, multi-sport facility located in a secluded area next to a karate gym, pre-school and gymnastics academy in Edison, N.J. When Towns started the program last spring, he couldn't do a pull-up. Now, he can do several with 20 extra kg attached to his body. Towns is 7-feet and 245 pounds, but Silber and Sanchez don't want him to add much more weight because the heavier he is, the more impact his knees will endure, which could lead to injuries.
On a wall in the weightlifting area hangs a framed motivational poster: "Persistence: There is no step that does it. It's a lot of little steps." It's a mantra that Towns and his father, Karl Towns Sr., have followed for years, and one they are trying to maintain. Karl Sr., a former star at Monmouth University and a longtime high school and AAU coach, brought his then-grade school son to his practices where he squared off against future Division I college players such as Da'Sean Butler of West Virginia and Dexter Strickland of North Carolina.
"I used to get absolutely demolished," he said. "But that's what you need to do. You've got to play the best to learn."
Since Towns Jr. began playing, he has always competed against older kids, at the behest of his father, who knew his talented son needed to challenge himself. His father. has tried to have other, more highly decorated coaches tutor his son in one-on-one sessions, but his son threatened to quit the sport if anyone other than his father was the primary coach. He sees no need to change, although he is fine with others coaching him in team settings and has a good relationship with Dave Turco, his high school coach.
"What people sometimes fail to give [his father] credit for is really the development and the job he did with his son," Turco said. "You can tell he was raised the right way. He hasn't allowed all of this [attention], which I think a lot of people would have, to get to him … He understands there is a need to continue to work in order to [be] what everybody believes he can be."
Towns is working with his father to hone his mid-range jumper and low-post moves, attending sessions with Silber and Sanchez and playing again for the Dominican national team. To them, it's crucial to have Towns play against older men in national team tournaments and focus on developing his body and conditioning.
"For me, the way people know me, I'm not really too big on summer camps," Towns said, although he did participate in the NBPA Top 100 camp in June and will also attend the LeBron James Skills Academy, July 5-8. "I'd rather stay home and work on my game and get stronger in the weight room and all that. It's one of those things, the camps are more for exposure. I've already got my college decision. I got the Dominican team. There's no reason for exposure. Exposure's always going to find me even if I like it or not."
The local attention began when Towns was in middle school in his hometown of Piscataway, near the Rutgers University campus. All of the private high schools in New Jersey were interested before he chose to attend St. Joseph, an all-boys Catholic school eight miles from his house.
In two years, Towns has already surpassed the accomplishments of Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum, St. Joseph alums who became top-10 selections in the NBA draft. He has led the Falcons to consecutive state group championships, the first such titles in school history. This past season, he averaged more than 20 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks per game and became the first athlete in his school to be named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year.
He's made a similar impression off the court with a reported 4.0 grade point average and reputation for uncommon maturity. As freshman class president, he attended the funeral of a St. Joseph graduate killed in Afghanistan. The man was 25. During the school's next game, Towns had 25 points by the second half and decided to not score any more, an homage to the soldier.
"I've been in education 47 years, and he is the greatest kid I've ever met," St. Joseph athletics director Jerry Smith said. "I'm not just talking about athletic ability -- just as a human being."
The hype surrounding Towns has only grown since the high school season ended. At the Nike Hoop Summit in April, a gathering of the best prospects in the world, he was the youngest player invited and excelled in front of scouts and executives from every NBA team. He helped the world squad to a 112-98 victory over a group from the United States, whose roster included Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, three of the top 10 seniors in the country who will be freshman at Kentucky this fall.
During the event, Towns roomed with Andrew Wiggins, a Canadian who signed with Kansas and is projected to be the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft. A YouTube video from a practice that has been viewed more than 50,000 times shows a shooting contest between Towns and Wiggins. They each made several shots from the hash mark between half court and the three-point line, around 30 feet from the basket. They displayed near perfect form. On their last attempts, Towns swished his shot while Wiggins' shot grazed the front rim and fell short. Towns celebrated by smiling, bending down, waving his right arm in a circle and then holding his arms above his head.
"[Towns] is a very good player with a huge upside," said Mike Jones, the Team USA coach at the Nike Hoop Summit and coach of DeMatha Catholic High School, a traditional basketball powerhouse in Maryland. "He's going to be able to play basketball for years and years to come. You can clearly tell he's one of the more skilled 7-footers that you'll see. And the fact that he's only a high school junior is almost ridiculous."
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On Dec. 4, the entire St. Joseph student body gathered in its gym. Towns, only a sophomore, was about to announce his college decision. MSG Varsity, a television network devoted to high school sports, broadcast the proceedings as part of a 30-minute special focused on him.
Sitting on a stage between his parents, Towns first told the audience he planned on finishing high school in three years, so he could start playing college basketball in 2014. He is currently taking online classes in addition to his regular course work in order to become a senior in the fall.
Next, he said he would play at Kentucky. His mother smiled, looked up at the ceiling, clapped numerous times and hugged him.
"Thank you, son," Jacqueline Cruz-Towns said. "Thank you."
The decision didn't come as a surprise to most outsiders, but Towns swears he was seriously considering other schools, including Duke, Florida, North Carolina and North Carolina State. He said he chose Kentucky mainly because of its kinesiology program, not because of his time playing for Calipari last summer.
While playing for him, Towns said he and Calipari didn't discuss recruiting much at all. Rather, Calipari and his staff treated him like any other player, working with him mostly on improving his inside game and talking about preparations for upcoming opponents.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Playing against some of the most talented people in the world, especially the most talented people from my country, and then for them to say that I'm one of the most talented people in the country just meant a lot to me."
Karl Sr. said college coaches have continued to call, but his son remains committed to Kentucky as long as Calipari is in Lexington. Calipari and Antigua could not discuss Towns because NCAA rules prohibit coaches from talking about unsigned high school players. Oliver Antigua, his coach on the under-17 national team two years ago, is now an assistant at Manhattan College and thus is subject to the NCAA's regulations, as well.
However, Calipari was allowed to address the issue last May when Towns was trying out for the national team. He claimed he had not heard of Towns before agreeing to coach the Dominicans, yet he knew others were skeptical of the situation.
"Everybody has an opinion -- they know what's in my mind," Calipari told reporters. "It's amazing you all know what's in my mind before I even figure out what's in my mind. He is a player who's a good player that I did not know a year ago, didn't know anything about. He's a pretty good player."
The questions surrounding the Calipari-Towns relationship have not gone away and likely won't stop, fairly or unfairly. Calipari is a polarizing figure, admired for his winning but not universally beloved for his recruiting prowess and tactics. Kentucky's freshmen class entering this fall may be the mostly highly regarded in the sport's history. Towns will follow a year later.
"People accuse Calipari of just accepting the job with the Dominicans to get this young kid," Harris said. "He really had not heard of him. We didn't know who he was until he came into practice. Cal saw him and asked if this was the guy that people question him about all the time. I know nobody will ever believe that, but that's true."
Calipari's association with the Dominicans began in early 2011, shortly after Southgate Sports reached an agreement with the Dominican Basketball Federation to operate the team. Eduardo Najri, a representative of Southgate Sports and a member of one of the country's wealthiest families, reached out to Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua, a former two-time captain at Pitt who played on the Dominican national team in the 1990s. Najri had not known Antigua, but he explained to him that the company was committed to helping the Dominicans qualify for the 2012 Olympics and to building basketball at the grassroots level.
Antigua helped set up a meeting between Najri and Calipari. Najri flew to Kentucky and spoke with Calipari about his plans. To Najri's astonishment, Calipari agreed to coach the team, continuing his commitment to international basketball. Calipari previously had a partnership with the Chinese Basketball Association, and Nike has been involved with basketball overseas for years. Nike sponsors Kentucky as well as the Dominican Republic's national team.
"We wanted to raise the profile of our Federation -- what better way to do it than with coach Cal?," Najri said "It's a testament to coach Cal and his desire to really help people. I was surprised he accepted, but I'm very happy he did."
Najri and his colleagues at Southgate Sports have developed stronger relationships with the Federation's office in New York, too. The area has a lot of kids with Dominican ties, so Najri wants to build a feeder system in which players from the United States can represent the Dominican Republic in international youth competitions and then possibly join the men's national team someday. FIBA, the world governing body for basketball, allows players who are not born in the Dominican Republic to be eligible if they obtain legal nationality in that country before they turn 16 years old and have a parent or grandparent born there.
Towns, who has lived in New Jersey his entire life, has benefited from the rule. He first caught the attention of the Dominican Republic's junior program as an eighth grader in early 2011 when family friend Erin Simon posted a two minute and 19 seconds video of Towns working out on her website (Box of M.E.S.S.) and on YouTube. Rafael Salazar, an assistant coach on the country's under-17 national team, found out Towns' mother had Dominican roots after watching the clip. He reached out to Simon, a New Jersey resident and close friend of Towns.
Simon, who was then a freshman soccer player at Rutgers, helped Salazar get in touch with the Towns family. After seeing Towns play in person and meeting his parents, Salazar offered him a spot on the junior national squad for the summer of 2011. That July, as Towns was competing for the Dominicans, Simon decided to transfer from Rutgers to Kentucky, where she played soccer in 2012.
Last summer, Towns became one of the youngest players to ever make a men's national team, although he only appeared in four of the Dominican Republic's 11 games in the Centrobasket and World Olympic qualifying tournaments. He scored two points and grabbed five rebounds in 17 minutes.
Calipari and Harris are no longer coaching the Dominican team. They have handed over the responsibilities to Antigua, who will be the head coach in the FIBA Americas championship in Venezuela beginning in late August. Towns, who has become close with Antigua, will be part of that squad. He is looking forward to hopefully playing more and testing himself against veterans and pros.
"The blessing of our lives was me marrying my Dominican wife," his father said. "Being Dominican has opened up so many other doors that Karl got through where he would have to wait with me being from the United States."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.