FOUR YEARS AFTER leaving Minnesota, Kevin Love is once again the face of an NBA franchise.
Within the span of those four years, Love has lived several basketball lifetimes. He is no longer the 270-pound bull who rampaged through defenses en route to 20-and-10 seasons and All-NBA honors with Minnesota. Nor is he the beleaguered third option playing in the shadow of LeBron James, for whom nothing was ever good enough.
“In Minnesota he was carrying that franchise,” says Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. “We know he can do that. When he came here, he sacrificed to win a championship and he did that. Now he’s back in his role. He’s excited about it and I’m excited about it as well.”
Minnesota Love had the numbers, but not the respect. He was a stat chaser, playing the role of the franchise leader without the gravitas of leadership. Cleveland Love was caught in between being a star and a role player. His weaknesses as a pick-and-roll defender were magnified and his contributions were rarely highlighted. Even when he thoroughly outplayed Al Horford in the 2017 Eastern Conference finals, the accolades went to LeBron and Kyrie Irving.
This season, though, the Cavs are finally going to let Love be Love. With that comes more pressure to perform, but without the withering burden of championship expectations that come from playing with LeBron. And after Love’s public reckoning with anxiety this offseason, this is his chance to truly be himself. Both player and person had been hiding in plain sight, and a reintroduction seems in order.
Love has changed physically from his Minnesota days. He’s lighter and fitter, adhering to a strict diet and comprehensive strength and conditioning program. The league has also evolved, and Love has adapted to meet its free-flowing evolution. After 10 years, five All-Star appearances, and an NBA championship, Love has become a perimeter player with great touch and feel.
“If you’re playing with two other All-Stars, some games you can get away with having a 12-and-9 game,” says longtime teammate Channing Frye. “You can’t really get away with that anymore. We need 20-and-15, 30-and-14; those kind of games consistently. Now, he doesn’t have to do it all 82 [games], but he has to play at a super high level and he has to make other people better in his way.”
IT WAS ONLY a preseason game but it wasn’t hard to tell that Kevin Love was the best player on the court. The 30-year-old forward moved effortlessly through actions in an offense that will lean heavily on his playmaking and shooting. Love took advantage of mismatches and rained open jumpers when given space. He passed and moved when the play wasn’t there, knowing he would get the ball back in time.
This created a fluid dynamic to a Cavs’ attack that used to rely almost exclusively — and understandably — on LeBron James’ ability to pass his teammates into open space. As the lone All-Star left on the Cleveland Cavaliers, the offense that was once designed for LeBron will now feature Love. The Cavs’ fortunes will rise or fall based on his performance.
After recording an efficient 17 points in 17 minutes, Love was all smiles in the Cleveland locker room. Gone is the heaviness that shadowed the Cavs everywhere they went. In its place is a welcoming, lighter vibe. With that in mind, I approached Love and shared my story with depression, which he encouraged with wide open eyes.
In a piece published by the Players Tribune last spring, Love revealed his history of anxiety, a condition that brought on a disorienting panic attack in the middle of a game. The response was overwhelmingly positive and spurred Love into further action. He began the Kevin Love Fund and made appearances on the “Daily Show” and “Good Morning America,” where he talked openly about his experiences.
“I never thought that when I wrote that article that it would be what it is now,” Love tells me. “I’m just trying to take the right steps to really help people. I meant what I said, everybody is dealing with something. To me that’s created a lot of empathy and opened my eyes to the entire community. Even you coming up and talking to me, I never would have known that.”
I never would have told you.
“Right,” he said. “I never would have either. I remember talking to my agent, he’s like, are you sure you sure you want to do this? Yeah, because I want to tell my own story and I think it will help people. It’s wild that it’s taken on a life of its own in such a positive way. It’s not only athletes, it’s everybody.”
Did you feel freer?
“Yes,” Love answered. “It’s liberating.”
For a brief moment, the two of us were engaged in the most human of conversations amid the inhuman conditions of a postgame NBA locker room. Beyond wins and losses, this is what this season is all about for Love. These are the conversations he wants to have and these are connections he wants to make.
“That sense of community has been universally positive,” Love says. “I see myself in different areas and in different ways being able to really help. I feel like I found my life’s work. This is going to extend way past basketball.”
With LeBron in Los Angeles, Love is no longer the star operating in the shadows. His voice is that one that will resonate with the Cavs and Love is healthier in mind and spirit. Basketball isn’t just his vocation. Love’s position has created a platform and that, he believes, has become his calling.
“It’s a great responsibility, but it’s teaching me that every day I have to bring it,” Love says. “I’m learning a lot, not only on the court about leadership, but off the floor as well. One thing I always say is I don’t know all the answers, but I’m in an amazing spot being able to help people.”
Having an All-Star player such as Love be open and out front about his issues is an invitation for others to come forward and engage in a healthier dialogue.
“I think we’re on the cusp of really changing this conversation,” says Dr. William Parham, who serves as the director of the NBPA’s mental health and wellness program. “Not talking about mental illness as a concept, but as a lived reality of the human experience. That’s going to begin to change the narrative.”
There’s great pressure for Love to live up to his responsibilities, both on the court and in the public sphere. There’s also great opportunity.
“If Kevin has a banner season, you’re going to see a whole flood of other people, athletes and non-athletes coming forward,” Parham says. “They’re going to correlate, ‘Gosh he unloaded all that.’ If Kevin and others have played in the way they have, carrying around the loads they have, if they have a place and space to dump some of that, there’s no telling what we’ll see.”
TRUTH BE TOLD, expectations for the Cavaliers and Love are at an ideal moment. With a mix of veterans and unproven youth, most projections have them around 35-37 wins. If all goes well this season, the Cavs will hang around the Eastern Conference postseason race.
If not, well, this is clearly a transition year between the LeBron era and whatever comes next. After signing a four-year, $120-million extension in the offseason, Love figures to play a prominent role in the team’s evolution, regardless.
For a playoff chase to happen, Love will need to play at an All-NBA level again. The Cavs know he can get his points through his work on the perimeter and by bullying opponents caught in mismatches on the post. They also think he’ll thrive as a playmaker and ball handler, where he’ll have direct influence over keeping everyone — from rookie point guard Collin Sexton to veterans like J.R. Smith — happy and involved.
“He’s going to be the number one option, but with the number one option comes responsibility to make your teammates better, and he has the capability of doing that,” Lue says. “If they see him doing it every single night, that will help our team out tremendously. Being a leader, being a scorer we can go to every single night, but also being a great passer and making guys better.”
The hope is that his teammates can learn from his example, both on and off the court, although everyone acknowledges this will be a learning experience. You can not unravel Love the player from Love the person, as Frye well knows. He also came forward with his own issues of mental illness, and part of the reason he’s back in Cleveland is to provide a sounding board and trusted confidante.
“We have allowed him to be comfortable in saying, ‘I’m not comfortable,’” Frye says. “That’s really the motto of 2017-18, changing the tune of things. For Kevin to be the main voice is empowering. It’s going to help him and help people who say, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”
This is the platform Love has embraced. The wins and losses, along with the ups and downs of the regular season will only serve as benchmarks for his journey. While the challenge may be daunting, the opportunity has never been more inviting. The stage is set for the unveiling of the new Kevin Love, who is finally free to just be himself.