Timberwolves helping players maintain their mental and emotional fitness, too

Tribune Content Agency

MINNEAPOLIS — A box showed up at Malik Beasley’s door Thursday, sent from Timberwolves President Gersson Rosas and Vice President of Performance and Technology Robby Sikka.

The contents, however, weren’t meant for Beasley. Instead, they were for Beasley’s son, Makai, who was celebrating his first birthday. Inside were Spider-Man toys, a coloring book with some crayons and of course some sports gear. Beasley posted his thanks on Instagram to Rosas and Sikka, who got a big assist assembling the box from Rachel Saunders, the manager of team services.

This is emblematic of the approach the Wolves have tried to take with players as they deal with the coronavirus pandemic — to try and be there for their players and their families as they navigate this crisis.

It’s one that has already hit home in a major way for the organization, with center Karl-Anthony Towns revealing his mother, Jacqueline Cruz, was recently admitted to the hospital and was put in a medically induced coma as she battles COVID-19, the illness this novel strain of coronavirus causes. Towns’ father, Karl Sr. also reportedly tested positive and is recovering.

“All their families are a part of our family, and if they hurt, we hurt,” Rosas said. “With Karl and all our guys, it’s been a checking in, making sure that they’re doing well, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally as best as we can.”

The physical challenge the Wolves have addressed. They have sent players exercise equipment, given them workout routines they can do from home and helped players find living quarters that include basketball courts where they can at least take a ball and shoot. That has been important because Rosas estimated 70-80% of the team is still in Minnesota.

But just as important, if not more so, than the physical aspect, is making sure players are healthy from a mental standpoint. It’s something that hasn’t been easy since the NBA suspended its season March 11.

“These are young people that are in the throes of a really traumatic time,” said Sikka, who told the team this will be their generation’s 9/11, a landmark event they will remember where they were when it began. “Everybody has to absorb information in the ways that they are built … Everybody has different things that motivate them, that cause fear and we can’t communicate with each player the same. We’ve got to make sure that we tailor what we do to the individual and give them the sense that they’re the priority.”

To do that, the Wolves have been leaning on the expertise of Sikka; Gregg Farnam, the team’s longtime head athletic trainer; and Justin Anderson, the team psychologist. Anderson has been doing video check-ins with players to help them cope with the psychological aspect of not playing a sport they love and of the concerns they might have being alone or concerns about their family.

“When people get pulled out of the thing that makes them ‘them,’ they have some shifts in their identity,” Anderson said. “Who am I? Without this sport, who am I? And a lot of these guys haven’t had to answer that because they’ve been in this sport 24-7. So it can really impact you from a psychological perspective.”

Anderson said he has told players he sees the pandemic playing out in four stages from a psychological standpoint.

The first has passed — the uncertainty around the season and what the government response to the virus would be. The second is what everyone is going through now, the “isolation” phase.

“Guys are really bored,” Anderson said. “And that boredom, combined with isolation, it’s a new thing for folks.”

The third phase is “going to be anger, fear and depression.” It’s a phase when the virus hits home or impacts families and friends, like what Towns is going through.

Stage 4 is coming out on the other side and seeing what changes come from going through this situation.

Anderson has said life without basketball can be difficult for players, especially when it was yanked so suddenly from their lives.

“A lot of these guys, sport has been the thing that has kept them sane,” Anderson said. “It’s been their sanctuary. And when you take that away from them, it really can impact them. … When you’re around a team and getting better and competing, there’s just a lot of socialization and a lot of stuff that goes back and forth from that. These tend to be the outlet.”

Added Rosas, “I think all of us feel it.”

Rosas said the Wolves have been forming de facto book clubs and podcast clubs filled with literature and content on leadership and motivational talks to help keep players engaged. Anderson said one book they have recommended is “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey, a book that talks about competition within the mind and is a seminal work in the field of sports psychology.

Rosas said the front office is still preparing for the June draft and going over scenarios related to the likely drop in next season’s salary cap from the lost revenue of postponing the season.

Sikka said the Wolves have had some unsung heroes in this crisis, such as head equipment manager Peter Warden and assistant GM Joe Branch, who have been making sure players have every need addressed.

The business of basketball still goes on for the Wolves, even in this uncharted form.

“This problem and the things that it has raised across this country are going to linger for years and years to come,” Sikka said. “It will change the way we consume sports. It will change the way we live, change the way we treat each other.”

The Wolves are trying to make sure that last part doesn’t change much from what they already were doing.


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