(EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t already, read Alex Prewitt’s profile of former Maryland center Alex Len. It’s well worth your time, and puts this post in much better context.)
It began with a picture. A picture and a promise.
No sooner had Essence Townsend stepped off the train two summers ago when she was whisked away to College Park, straight to an ice cream social for University of Maryland athletes. The Terrapins women’s basketball players typically mingle with the men, and this afternoon was no exception. Townsend and her teammates sidled up to their friends, when among the crowd she noticed a new head peering across the fray.
Townsend, the women’s team’s tallest player at 6 feet 7, first introduced herself to Alex Len. She spoke slow and loud, emphasizing her syllables so the 7-1 freshman could understand her, even though he barely knew any English and had just arrived in the United States, fresh off a plane from his native Ukraine. As Townsend chatted away, one of her teammates snapped a picture. Townsend grew furious.
“Why’d you do that?” she said. “You better delete that right now.”
Her teammates were laughing. Tianna Hawkins, a Maryland forward and the rogue photographer, was more predictive.
“That’s going to be your future man,” she said.
Townsend will sit beside Len on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., watching as NBA Commissioner David Stern steps to the lectern and reads her boyfriend’s name. Len’s selection is likely to come early in the night, maybe even first to the Cleveland Cavaliers, though perhaps Len won’t hobble onto the stage until later in the lottery. But what matters is that she’s there. She’s always been there and always will be, no matter what comes next.
She sees herself in Len. The independence, fortified throughout childhood. The sacrifices, made for family. The dreams, achieved through struggle. Townsend was raised on welfare by her great aunt in New Jersey, the oldest sibling within the family. She grew up fast, working summer camps to contribute to the family, but never labored during the school year. Basketball was her ticket away, so not even a job would jeopardize that.
Until she was 17 years old, Townsend never even considered playing Division I basketball. Maybe a local community college. Never outside of Jersey. Things changed once her great aunt passed away. Townsend withdrew, heartbroken by the death of the woman who raised her since she was 3. She needed to get away. Except at Maryland, Townsend was even more alone. Freshman year, she trusted no one. Why would she? They didn’t know her. She got kicked out of practice, allowing a bad attitude to infiltrate her game. But after a talk with Coach Brenda Frese, Townsend diagnosed the problem. She was 19 years old and needed people to look after her.
“I’m 23 and I’m happy with the things I’ve done in my past,” Townsend said. “I had to grow up fast. That’s what makes me who I am today. I wasn’t raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. I know how it feels to work for the things I want. And now that I understand that, I appreciate it so much more.”
She was a junior when Len first arrived, wide-eyed and nervous over assimilating into the American college life. They passed each other in the Comcast Center hallways, and he always said hello. Sometimes, when the women’s team exited practice and the men were stretching in the hallway, Len offered a high-five. Soon, as 21st-century relationships tend to do, they began talking on Facebook. Eventually, Len asked her to hang out. They kept pushing back the dates, but when it finally happened, they talked for eight hours straight. “From there, every single day, we hung out,” she said.
She tried to avoid complicated phrases, but communicating was still a struggle at the beginning. He still confuses words sometimes, but Townsend always offers a helpful, “Do you mean this?” They developed a routine, walking to Chipotle, eating at their usual spot on the campus’s grassy mall then watching a movie in one of their rooms. Len’s teammates always told Townsend that he was into her, but she never believed it until that first time they hung out.
“He said, ‘I like you,’ ” Townsend said. “I said: ‘I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to say I hate you, but I don’t really know you like that.’
“He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to get to know each other.’ ”
They live together now, in a modern three-bedroom Hyattsville apartment, furnished yet otherwise empty, given that Len will soon move out. Beside the flat-screen television are boxes of games, Jenga and Monopoly. On the table is a 1,750-piece puzzle of Times Square that Townsend and Len will finish later that night.
That routine they’ve developed? It now includes tri-weekly trips to the movies. They have different tastes, but always concede for the other. Len persuaded her to see “The Great Gatbsy.” She wound up enjoying it. After more than a year together – their official anniversary is March 5 – Townsend trusts that he knows her tastes.
Townsend gets a rare glimpse into an otherwise enigmatic figure, one who was closed off to reporters for the entirety of his freshman season. But the walls crash down when they’re together. For her birthday, they went to the circus on a whim. He Facetimes or Skypes her from the road, and she does the same. They love trying new local restaurants, but when in doubt fall back onto fast food. Who needs five-star spots when Five Guys suffices just fine?
“I think it’s helping him a lot,” said Len’s former roommate and teammate, John Auslander. “Help keep him grounded. You spend so much time with basketball, working to get better, it’s good to get your mind off it. She can help do that, help him with little things, just help him relax and get away from the game. They’re awesome. As close as can be. They love each other. She was pretty much living with him this past year too. I know they’re close. Obviously, when they walk down the street, everybody will look at them.”
Of course, that’s what separates Len and Townsend from the typical couple. Their relationship grew on the court, through late-night workouts after a particularly souring loss or games of one-on-one. Len’s mother, Juliya, loves Townsend’s serious approach to everyday life. She says, in Russian, that she sees the way they look at each other. That’s the most important thing.
One of Townsend’s favorite movie is “Love & Basketball,” the 2000 romantic drama that’s become a cliché for every hoops-related romance since. The film is separated into four quarters, mimicking a basketball game, each section representing a different challenge for the on-screen couple. First, it’s meeting. Next comes high school. Then college. Finally, the professional level.
It’s this final transition that now looms ahead like an ominous cloud for Len and Townsend. Except these two are storm chasers. They’ll drive straight into the eye together.
Townsend will stay at Maryland. A torn ACL during a preseason scrimmage last season gave her one final season. Friends sometimes wonder why she wouldn’t just follow Len into the NBA, especially now that she earned her bachelor’s degree in family sciences.
“Some people say I’m so stupid,” she said. “No, I’m going to finish what I started here and let him get started there and we’ll see where we’re at. I think that would be too big of a step. I want him to get adjusted to his new life, just like he had to get adjusted here.”
Len’s mother will move in with him for several months, wherever he winds up, and he promises he will pony up for Townsend’s visits. Townsend has always been that even-keel influence for Len, available to work out on a moment’s notice and always sending encouraging texts, even during the middle of games. Between Juliya Len, a former runner who risked everything by sending her son away at age 13, and Townsend, it’s easy to see how Len remains so grounded, capable of shrugging away incomprehensible riches and saying he’ll probably just give his paychecks to his mom.
The future remains uncertain for the couple, but they’ve already discussed the immediate next step. Kind of. ESPN’s cameras will surely have a field day with Townsend and Len at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, championing the couple who caused Bill Simmons to quip, “I’m drafting their kids.” Two years ago, when Len was still deciding his future in America, a Czech forward named Jan Vesely heard himself picked sixth overall by the Washington Wizards, stood up from his round table, buttoned his suit and gave two deep kisses to his girlfriend.
ESPN’s Bill Simmons brought this moment up to Len in a recent interview he did for the Grantland Network. On camera, when Jalen Rose asked if Len would do the same, he replied, “Yeah probably.” After the interview was released, Townsend texted him.
“I’ll be waiting for my kiss,” she wrote. After all, it sounded like a promise.