Stairway to Kevin
The Wine & Gold's Leading Man Continues His Evolution
When Cavs.com publishes its regular feature, Rookie Tales, one simple but standard question is: ’Which veteran took you under his wing during that first year?’
The current Cavaliers have an outstanding group of veterans – leaders on and off the floor – who can show the young guns how it’s done.
Larry Nance Jr. can explain how he fought – (fights) – through Crohn’s Disease and overcame the pressure of living up to a famous father. Tristan Thompson can emphasize the importance of durability, persistence and embracing your role. Matthew Dellavedova is a walking example of overcoming the NBA odds – going from undrafted free agent to local legend to World Champion.
When Kevin Love – currently the dean of the Cavaliers roster; its only player born in the ‘80s – was asked that question about his first year in Minnesota, his answer was Big Al Jefferson.
"He was the one who really helped me bring me along,” recalled Love. “He was 'my vet' -- the guy that I would work with every day and that was before he had his ACL – so he was a monster back then. There's nothing you could do to stop him on that block. So that was my vet, and to this day I pay him a lot of respect for having taught me so much early on.”
Looking back at Kevin Love during his days as a young Timberwolf – on just a physical level – is like looking at another person. Still some baby fat and a scruffy chinstrap. A thumper. Definitely a far cry from the suave and svelte version who recently completed his 12th NBA season – albeit an abruptly abridged one.
Love has transformed himself over those dozen seasons – and his physical appearance was just small part of that transformation.
The former UCLA star began posting big numbers almost immediately with Minnesota and during his six-year stint put together a double-double streak of 53 straight games and became the first player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 900 rebounds and 100 three-pointers in a single season.
Despite putting up dizzying numbers in the Twin Cities, none of those six seasons ended with a Playoff appearance.
Love exorcised that postseason demon following his first regular campaign in Cleveland, following an offseason deal that sent back-to-back No. 1 overalls – Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins – to the Timberwolves.
After having his first Playoff run cut short by a shoulder injury suffered against Boston in the First Round, Love returned the next season on a mission. And that mission ended with him making the biggest singled defensive stop in franchise history – snuffing Stephen Curry’s efforts late in Game 7 to preserve the city’s first title in over half-a-century.
The Cavaliers reached the Finals twice more following that amazing run in 2016, but couldn’t close the deal against a stacked Warriors squad in either season. And Love’s past two seasons in Cleveland have seen the Wine & Gold working its way through a youth movement.
Which brings us to today’s version of Kevin Love.
The winner of the prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award at this year’s ESPYs, Love – who continues to produce at a high level, pilling up 23 double-doubles this past season – has transformed his role both on and off the hardwood.
On the floor, he’s still the Cavs second-leading scorer (17.6ppg) – behind only Collin Sexton – and its (now)-third-leading rebounder (9.8rpg) – behind Tristan Thompson and the recently-acquired Andre Drummond, Love’s close friend.
But along with Tristan Thompson and Delly – the only Cavaliers remaining from the 2016 Championship squad – the five-time All-Star has also been more of a mentor to the squad’s younger players.
And of course, off the floor Love has turned his attention to mental health – attempting to destigmatize issues that have been swept under the rug for far too long. Like Larry Nance Jr.’s work with fellow Crohn’s sufferers, part of Love’s simple message is that ‘you’re not alone’ – that mental struggles can affect anyone, especially in today’s troubled times.
”I've really learned that giving myself up for people has actually been a great way to offset those feelings of anxiety or depression,” said Love. “Continuing to read and support other people and you know just lend an ear – I think that that transcends any of this, whether it be COVID-19 or mental illness or racial injustice. It's just part of, I guess, my evolution and my growth, and it's something that I actually enjoy doing.
”I think the community surrounding (mental health awareness) and just understanding that it's so much bigger than it’s been has allowed me to be more comfortable in my own skin but allowed me to take a deep breath and understand that it's gonna be a lot, but it's gonna be worth it.”
After a dozen years in the NBA, Love has experienced almost all the highs and lows a career can offer. He’s been to the Association’s summit and he’s been banished to its basement. He’s battled through physical and mental pain. He’s transformed himself – physically, mentally, emotionally.
When it’s all said and done, Love will likely be standing at a podium one day in Springfield, Massachusetts – looking back on his days with the Wine and Gold – both on the struggles and the day he basked in the blistering Cleveland heat at the Championship parade, heavyweight belt draped over his shoulder.
Of course, that’s a long time away. He’s got more winning to do, more numbers to post, more young players to teach, more hurting people to help heal. In fact, one gets the feeling that Kevin Love’s journey is just beginning.
So one day down the road, when one of Cleveland’s current youngsters – Darius Garland or Kevin Porter Jr. or Dylan Windler or Dean Wade – is asked what veteran took them under his wing, which one taught them how the game is played and how the NBA life works for a young man, they’ll have done well if their answer is: Kevin Love.