"¡Dice si a RD!"
"Karl Towns va para el Mundial"
Headlines like these -- "Says yes to DR!" and "Karl Towns goes to the world" -- splashed across newspapers in the Dominican Republic in July, reacting to Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns' announcement that he would play for his national team in the 2023 FIBA World Cup (Aug. 25-Sept. 10).
"There's a lot of passion and pride in the Dominican for our national teams," Towns told ESPN last week prior to taking off for Spain, where he would be meeting the team for exhibition games before traveling to Manila, the Philippines, for the World Cup.
"You see it in the World Baseball Classic. I've definitely felt it this summer."
It is common for star NBA players to mull over the decision to play for their countries in major international events. And the stakes seem higher for fans at home as they weigh their choice. But the 27-year-old Towns' commitment to the Dominicans this year falls into a special category.
Towns hadn't played for the Dominican Republic national team in 10 years, dating to when he was 16 and his future college coach at Kentucky, John Calipari, was in charge of the team. This summer, dozens of the world's top players elected to skip the tournament to recover from injuries, rest or simply opt for next summer's Olympics in Paris instead. This made Towns' inclusion significant news.
"There was a lot that went into the decision," Towns said.
"The timing is right. I didn't put as much stress on my body this last season because of the injury. I'm feeling great now, I'm 100% and feeling like myself again. It's a perfect time to work on some things in my game. And with my mom's passing, I felt an urgency to do it."
Towns' mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, is where he gets his Dominican heritage. Her family taught Towns about it, particularly through cooking, as he was growing up in New Jersey. Jacqueline died in April 2020 because of complications from the coronavirus, and her passing strengthened Towns' pull toward his history and wearing the Dominican jersey again.
So in February, Towns paid close attention when the Dominicans won a stunning game in Argentina on the last day of qualifying to steal the final World Cup berth. Argentina, the 2019 world silver medalist, led by 17 points late in the third quarter on its home floor before a remarkable Dominican comeback knocked the team out.
There was a bittersweet undercurrent to the loss. Argentina's coach is Pablo Prigioni, a former NBA guard who is an assistant with the Timberwolves. Prigioni was granted a leave of absence to coach the team and returned to Minnesota still wearing the defeat from a game that had been so meaningful to Towns.
At the time, Towns was dealing with a calf injury that derailed his 2022-23 season, which had carried significant expectations after the Wolves acquired three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. But Towns missed 51 consecutive games and had a major setback midway through his rehab.
He returned for eight games at the end of the regular season, and in the Wolves' two play-in games he averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds. His play in the first-round playoff series against the eventual champion Denver Nuggets -- he averaged 18 and 10 rebounds and shot 25% on 3-pointers -- left much to be desired.
"I wasn't at 100% when I came back," Towns said. "I wish our team was at full strength, so we could compete at the highest level and give them a better fight. They won it fair and square, but we weren't whole."
The Wolves (42-40) had an absurd end to their regular season. In the finale, Gobert was suspended for the Wolves' first play-in game against the Los Angeles Lakers, which Minnesota lost in overtime, for punching teammate Kyle Anderson during a bench disagreement. The same night, defensive ace Jaden McDaniels broke his hand punching a wall in frustration, ending his season.
In the playoff series against Denver, Anderson suffered an eye injury that would later require surgery when he was accidentally elbowed by teammate Anthony Edwards. The Wolves were already without key backup Naz Reid, who broke his left wrist in late March.
Cleansing that disastrous end of the season might be part of the reason the Wolves encouraged their players to be active this summer. Five Wolves are scheduled to play in the World Cup -- Towns (Dominican Republic), Edwards (USA), Gobert (France), Anderson (China) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Canada) -- and Reid was part of the select team at Team USA training camp.
"The [Wolves were] very supportive when I came to them to talk about playing," Towns said. "There's a lot of commitment to get better this season, and for all of us this will be a head start."
The Dominican Republic is in a pool with Italy, Angola and the host Philippines. The two other current Dominican NBA players, Al Horford and Chris Duarte, aren't playing, but Towns' inclusion makes the Dominicans, who are underdogs, a reasonable contender to advance out of pool play. At the last World Cup, in 2019 in China, they upset Germany and advanced to the second round.
Seven teams from the Americas region are in the tournament and the top two -- Team USA and Canada are favored -- will clinch Olympic berths for Paris.
"That he is with us is a great contribution," Dominican Republic coach Nestor Garcia told reporters at the team's training camp earlier this month. "He is a player with a different caliber."
Towns has a relationship with two of the team's starters, Eloy Vargas and Angel Delgado, from when he played a decade ago. Towns was well aware when he made the choice to suit up for the DR in the AmeriCup in 2013 that he was removing the possibility of playing for Team USA forever. Once a player with multiple passports selects a country to play for, he cannot switch without a FIBA waiver (and approved waivers are rare).
Towns is ideally suited for FIBA-style play because of his size and shooting ability, and stretching the floor is so valuable against the waves of bulky European big men who always populate the events.
The three-time NBA All-Star says he hasn't had any regrets about playing for his national team and is backing that up with his commitment this summer. He hopes this summer's experience can help the Dominicans and carry over to the Timberwolves.
"One thing I've learned playing and watching FIBA games over the years is that anything is possible in these games. It's a different atmosphere and you see crazy things," he said. "I just want to have some pride and give our team a chance."