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After devastating year for Karl-Anthony Towns' family, his dad lends support from afar

The NBA star and Piscataway native lost his mom to COVID-19 in April. 'We’re trying to get people to understand that this is for real,' his dad said.

Jerry Carino
Asbury Park Press

Karl Towns would love to be in Minneapolis Wednesday, rooting like crazy from his seat in the Target Center when Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves open the season against Detroit.

“Big Karl,” as he’s affectionately known, has been alongside his now-taller son every step of the way, from their empty-gym workouts at Piscataway Vo-Tech to the high school games at St. Joseph-Metuchen to frenzied Rupp Arena in Kentucky to five seasons of NBA stardom.

This year, it will be different.

In a season without fans, Big Karl will be watching from home in Piscataway.

“We’ll talk before every game and we’ll talk right after the games,” he said. “I’ll have to be supportive from a distance.”

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Karl-Anthony Towns with his dad Karl Towns on Thursday at Kean University.

He understands the reason all too well. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 300,000 Americans, including his wife and Karl-Anthony’s mother, Jacqueline Cruz Towns.  

Both Jackie and Big Karl caught the virus in March, and both were hospitalized. Jackie fought it for a month before succumbing April 13. She was 59 and had been an ebullient, supportive, beloved cornerstone for the family.

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“It’s hard, but we’re handling it as best we can,” the elder Karl Towns said. “It’s not about us, though; it’s about all the families who are dealing with COVID. We were just one of the ones who had it. Every time someone passes away, it brings memories of my wife. We’re all in the same boat until this stops.”

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The elder Karl, who starred at Monmouth University and later coached at Piscataway Vo-Tech for 15 years, said he's thankful for the support of the New Jersey basketball community during this trying time. 

“We’re always going to have that memory of what COVID has done," he said. "I’m sympathetic to all the families who have lost someone in this pandemic.”

Karl Towns' parents Jacqueline Cruz Towns and Karl Towns Sr. watch as their son is awarded the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2014.

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Speaking with the media during the Timberwolves’ preseason, Karl-Anthony said seven of his family members have died as a result of the virus.

"I feel like I've been hardened a little bit by life and humbled,” the 25-year-old told reporters. “I've seen a lot of coffins in the last seven months, eight months." 

The elder Karl speaks with his son every day via phone.

“He’s being as strong as he can be,” Big Karl said. “It’s going to be tough. He has good days and bad days, like we all do. (His mother) was his best friend.”

As an eighth-grader in 2011, Karl-Anthony Towns talks with his mother Jacqueline Cruz-Towns and father Karl Towns Sr.

Big Karl, who was hospitalized for two days due to COVID, said he’s feeling no physical after-effects. He’s working out regularly. But his main mission right now, one amplified by Karl-Anthony, is spreading awareness about the virus.

“We’re trying to get people to understand that this is for real,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t think they could get it. You know how people are: They let their guard down. You only have to let your guard down for one minute.”

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In 2012, Karl-Anthony Towns and his dad, Karl Towns Sr., celebrate his commitment to the University of Kentucky.

Karl-Anthony has been trumpeting that message in public and in private since March.

“He’s definitely trying to warn people,” his father said. “I’m so proud of him for the way he wants to save as many people as he can.”

Karl Towns Sr. was pumped up pre-game to see his son Karl-Anthony face the Knicks at Madison Square Garden

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.