So often regarded primarily as instruments of hype, our sneakers have the potential to be so much more. What gets lost in a never-ending stream of high-stress Sadderdays is that what we choose to put on our feet is a statement about our own individuality, for better or worse. As the saying goes, you can tell a lot about someone by the shoes they’re wearing.
Two days after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in December 2012, St. Joseph Metuchen sophomore Karl-Anthony Towns shrugged off the flu while leading the Falcons to a one-point victory over Teaneck in front of future college coach John Calipari. More than his double-double that night, what resonated were the phrases he had handwritten on his green and white Nikes: “Prayers to Newtown, CT” and “the children are our future.”
I have no idea whether those affected by the tragedy caught wind of Towns’ tribute. Regardless, the display of empathy spoke volumes about a basketball prodigy who intended to make good use of the forum his rising profile would provide him.
“We just passed being kids, and we’re just now becoming teenagers,” Towns told KSTV, “and later on in life we’ll be men. So we’re not so far from these kids. We may just be in high school, but just years ago, we were in the elementary schools too. So it really touched us, because we could have been those kids that were killed.”
By that time, Towns was already extremely skilled for his age, as evidenced by how he held his own against Anthony Davis while playing for the Dominican National Team. Being seven feet tall obviously helped his cause, but he had superb court vision and three-point range honed by a work ethic you just can’t teach.
As I found when I wrote a profile on him, his perspective was just as gifted as his game. I live about a mile from St. Joe’s, and the local consensus was that Towns is a genuinely good person, particularly generous with people less fortunate than he is. That sensitivity, of course, comes from his upbringing.
“My dad worked a lot of jobs when I was younger just so I could have shoes to play basketball, so it just taught me a lot about how to work hard,” Towns told me over slices of buffalo chicken pizza. “Just keep working hard and keep going at it, because there’s always going to be a better day out there.”
While his peers amassed sneaker collections akin to an NBA player — Stanley Johnson’s custom Jordans come to mind — it made sense that Towns maintained a more practical relationship with his footwear throughout high school. Sneakers weren’t a luxury item, rather a utilitarian means to an end.
“I’ve actually never worn a pair of Air Jordans in my entire life,” he told me at that spring’s Jordan Brand Classic, which he attended as a spectator. “Growing up, I never had the money to buy them. I haven’t even tried on a pair of Jordans at Foot Locker!
“So hopefully I can put my feet in some Jordans sooner or later.”
That came to fruition when Towns was chosen to play in the JBC at the end of his senior year. It was fitting that his first pair of J’s was earned, not given. When he showed up lean and mean at Kentucky and started destroying everyone down low, it was obvious his longtime dream of playing in the NBA wasn’t far from becoming a reality.
(Sidebar: I realize Towns was a monster last year and I credit Kentucky for the role it played in his development. But given that he was arguably the second-best shooter on the team behind Devin Booker, I might have had him take more than eight three-pointers in 39 games. Considering UK’s starting backcourt couldn’t hit the ocean from a boat, that added dimension might have come in handy against, say, Wisconsin. That said, what do I know?)
After the basketball season concluded, Towns tweeted a heartfelt letter of thanks to Kentucky fans for their support, and he toured the Bluegrass State signing autographs for anyone who decided to show up. He then did the same at his old high school back in Jersey. Given his history of magnanimity, it wasn’t surprising to see him taking the time to remember where he came from.
A couple weeks ago, on Draft night, I sat on the couch with my wife who had gone to one of Towns’ high school games with me. When he was taken first overall by Minnesota, we cheered and high-fived in honor of the hometown kid who made good while doing things the right way.
“All I’m worried about is being the best person I can be, the best human I can be,” Towns told me back in 2012, “and just going out there and playing the game I love at a high level.”
That mentality has taken him a long way from when his father would buy him sneakers just so he could play ball. But no matter what he elects to put on his feet nowadays, I trust he’ll never be above walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes.