Sports

The Fathers Talk Trash Courtside. The Sons Battle in the N.B.A.

MINNEAPOLIS — Karl Towns sat in his courtside seat about an hour before Game 3 of the Timberwolves’ first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies tipped off. His friend Tee Morant was pacing a few feet away, wearing reflective sunglasses, a black bucket hat, a white Polo Ralph Lauren shirt, white pants and a black jacket.

Recently, a viral tweet had compared the appearance of the singer Usher to that of Morant.

“Right now we’re trash-talking about how many people are going to know him when he’s in the building,” Towns said. “And I said he can’t go around calling himself Usher because that’s not right!

“He walks up to people and says, ‘You know who I am?’ They don’t know who you are in Minnesota!”

Towns knew that wasn’t true. The two of them had appeared together on NBA TV and on the Timberwolves’ local broadcast during Game 2. But when it comes to Morant, Towns never lets facts impede a good roast.

Their sons are the two of the biggest stars in N.B.A.’s Western Conference playoffs: Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, 22, and Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, 26, who is sometimes referred to as KAT.

Each team has won two games in the best-of-seven series, which continues with Game 5 Tuesday in Memphis. Their fathers have watched proudly and have inadvertently achieved minor celebrity status through television appearances highlighting their friendly rivalry from courtside seats. They’ve made wagers about the games, and rolled their eyes at each other’s boasts.

“It’s not a fight; it’s never a fight,” Tee Morant, center, said. “Because right here, all of this is competition. But once the clock goes zero, you’ve got to go back to your life.”Credit…Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

“Win or lose, we’re family,” Karl said. “That’s never going to change. This is my family right here. It’s just not about basketball — it’s about a family loving each other. We just have a good relationship. What people see is we’re just being genuine, we’re just being ourselves. And you know what, we’re proud of our kids, but we also enjoy our relationship.”

They met three years ago when Ja was a rookie. Karl invited Tee to join a group for N.B.A. fathers, and they connected at an event in Orlando, Fla. Karl was on his way to pick up a meal for his wife, Jackie. Tee joined him and began “shadowing him,” as Tee put it. Their friendship blossomed from there.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I like this dude,’” Tee said. “He’s funny.” Unable to let a compliment lie, he added: “He’s not funnier than me.”

Karl rolled his eyes.

“I’m funny five days,” Karl said. “He’s got to take the weekend off.”

Trash talk is a major part of their friendship, one that’s based mostly on their sons’ basketball careers. But there is a more meaningful element to it. Through basketball, they’ve gotten to know each other’s families. They aren’t vacationing together or visiting each other’s homes, but they still feel strongly about their bond.

“I got genuine love for him because he takes time out of his day to think about me,” Tee said. “That’s the type of relationship we’ve built, as far as knowing that he got love for me, I got love for him. I got love for big KAT.”

“I got love for Ja,” Karl said.

They’ve been friends through some difficult times. When Jackie Cruz-Towns, Karl’s wife and Karl-Anthony’s mother, died of Covid-19 in April 2020, Tee called a few days later to tell Karl he was praying for the family, conscious of not wanting to burden him further.

“I understood enough to give him space,” Tee said.

Karl sends Tee passages from the Bible regularly, and Tee appreciates the gesture, though he doesn’t always read every word.

“I want him to know that God is always on our side,” Karl said. “It’s a blessing to be on this Earth to see our kids do this.”

They resist the idea that they’ve become celebrities, saying their sons are the real ones. They say they are just two fathers who are endlessly proud of their children.

“I just stayed there long enough for my son to conquer his dream,” Tee said. “Just like he did.”

“Just like I did,” Karl said.

On Thursday morning, Ja was asked if he’d seen the interviews with his and Karl-Anthony’s fathers. He wore a serious expression.

“Were they arguing?” Ja asked.

He was told they were.

“Like serious arguing?” Ja asked.

He was told they weren’t, and his posture relaxed. In truth, their back-and-forth ribbing never gets too serious.

Karl-Anthony Towns, left, and Ja Morant, right, have led their teams to a 2-2 series tie in the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs.Credit…Justin Ford/Getty Images

“It’s not a fight; it’s never a fight,” Tee said. “Because right here, all of this is competition. But once the clock goes zero, you’ve got to go back to your life. Real life, this is my guy. Just because KAT had 30-something the first game and they beat us, and then Ja almost had a triple-double Game 2 and we beat them.

“And then once we beat them by 20-something, he’s still going to love me. He’s going to cry a little bit.”

Karl rolled his eyes again.

“He slid that in real smooth, right?” Karl said. “But you know what? It’s OK. Because once we beat them, they don’t got to go far because the hotel is hooked to the place. You just walk across right to the hotel right through the tunnel.”

They have said they placed a friendly wager on the series and whoever loses will have to wear the jersey of the other’s son. There are also smaller wagers.

“After we beat them the first time he was supposed to take me to dinner,” Karl said. “You know what I saw? The back of his car leaving me.”

Tee burst out laughing.

He laughed again when Karl said the Timberwolves would win the series in six games.

“No disrespect, but there’s no way you could win a game and play Prince,” Tee said, treading into dangerous territory by invoking the name of the musician, who died in 2016, one of Minnesota’s most beloved figures.

“You hear this?” Karl asked. “Prince is a legend. He’s out of control right now. He’s out of control, you hear that? I’m about to revoke his ticket.”

Karl began to ask every person who walked by if they wanted to trade seats with Tee.

“I don’t even want to sit by him,” Karl said.

One woman gave up the joke, reminding Karl he’d asked to have Tee be seated next to him.

Karl-Anthony Towns, right, greets his father, Karl, left, and Tee Morant after Game 4.Credit…Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja took the court for warm-ups about 45 minutes before Game 3 began. He smiled and looked over at his father in between shooting 3-pointers, teasing him about how stylish he looked.

“Do you know who my son is?” Tee hollered toward Ja. “I’ve got to put this on.”

Tee spent much of the game’s wild swings standing up out of either excitement or frustration. He yelled at the referees when things were going poorly for the Grizzlies. He joked with Grizzlies players when things were going well for Memphis.

After the bizarre and thrilling Grizzlies victory, in which Memphis recovered from multiple 25-point deficits, Tee turned to Karl and shook Karl’s jacket affectionately. He told Karl they wouldn’t be back in Minnesota after Games 3 and 4, implying that the Grizzlies would win the series in five games.

Ja — like Tee might do to Karl — poked fun at Karl-Anthony on Twitter after Memphis won Game 3.

But Tee was wrong: The Grizzlies will need at least six games to win the series, because the Timberwolves won Game 4 on Saturday. Afterward Karl-Anthony found his father on the sideline to hug him. Then he approached Tee, smiling.

“He wasn’t getting the ball the game before, he said,” Tee recalled. “He took control and got to show what he’s capable of.”

The fathers laugh together after every game, no matter who wins.

Karl told Tee he’d see him in Memphis for Game 5, and reminded Tee to get him seats. They’ll be sitting courtside, right next to each other.

When this series ends, will they both still be rooting for whichever team wins?

“Afterward, I’m pretty sure he’s going to root for Ja,” Tee said.

Said Karl: “I sure hope he still calls me as we advance in the playoffs.”

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