By LARRY VAUGHT
If St. Joseph (N.J.) High School athletics director Jerry Smith is right, Karl Towns Jr. is going to be right at home playing basketball at Kentucky. “You are going to do more interviews with this kid than anybody. Fans are going to love. He’s perfect for Kentucky,” said Smith.
The 6-11 Towns, the nation’s top-ranked sophomore, will make his college choice Dec. 4 at 10 a.m. on regional cable network MSG Varsity. The announcement will be streamed live on www.MSGVarsity.com. He’s narrowed his list to UK, Florida, Duke and Michigan State.
Smith knows the passion of Kentucky basketball fans because he played baseball at Bellarmine College in Louisville from 1964-68. He remembers being around Louisville basketball stars Wes Unseld and Butch Beard and his coach was former UK basketball All-American Alex Groza. He played baseball against UK basketball stars Cotton Nash and Louie Dampier.
“I know what Kentucky is like. My son ended up playing Division III in Massachusetts, but we rode to Kentucky so I could show him Rupp Arena and the horse farms,” Smith said. “I was upset when Rick Pitino left Kentucky because I used to write him and he would send me drills to use with my team when I was coaching. So I know plenty about Kentucky.”
He also knows plenty about Towns, who Smith seems certain will pick UK since he noted earlier that Duke was Towns’ second choice. He had several anecdotes to offer insights into Towns’ personality.
— Smith recalls Towns coming to St. Joseph as a relatively unknown freshmen who knew few people.
“He went to attend a flag football game and two boys ran into each other,” Smith said. “One boy dislodged his nose toward the eye socket and they had to take him to the hospital. Both parents were in New York City and could not get to the hospital. Karl called his dad and asked him to come get him. His dad asked him what the sense of urgency was and if he was hurt. Karl told him, ‘No, I want to sit with the boy who got hurt because his parents are in New York and he has no one to sit with him.’ I do not know many ninth graders who would do something like that.”
— Smith’s next story involves the annual eighth-grade reception the high school hosts for incoming students. Three panels — teachers, alumni and students — are used and Towns was on the student panel since he was voted freshman class president.
“He is representing our school on stage and the mother of an incoming student had a question for him about how he ended up at St. Joe. He told her he was waiting for someone to ask that,” Smith said. “He said, ‘I bet you think I play basketball since I am so tall but I came to St. Joe’s because you have to do something with your life other than basketball. This place will prepare me for that. He said the first week of school he knew this was the right place because he knew sooner or later in life you need the education and he wanted the best education he could get. I told our administration to hire this kid that day.”
— Before Smith had a chance to watch Towns play, he asked him how the team would be.
“He said we could win the county title and win the state title, which we had never done,” Smith said. “I am only going to try and help the team win because I am just a freshman.’ He said he would give the ball to the seniors, let them score and he would alter shots. His statistics were not bad (11.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 5.1 blocks per game) and we won the state championship. He used to eat lunch in my office and he always said, ‘My time will come. This is all about my senior class.’ How many freshman stars would say that?”
This year Towns is team captain and has told Smith his priority is to make sure everyone adheres to a “team-first philosophy” and not worry about statistics.
“That’s not easy because in today’s age it is all about statistics for most kids. It’s very rare to have a kid this good who always thinks team play first,” Smith said. “If you ask him how he will do, he will always use team references, not me references.
“In gym class he is the type of kid who picks the kid to be on his team that nobody else wants and then makes him feel special,” Smith said. “You should hear the student body cheering for him during games. We have seniors that don’t get half the response he does. He is just special. He is unbelievable. He speaks like a 25-year-old man. After games little kids are always around him and he takes pictures, hugs them or whatever. Kentucky is going to love him.”