It was March 11, Selection Sunday 2018, and Harvard and Penn were playing for the Ivy League tournament championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Towns was a 6-foot-7 sophomore who had been voted the Ivy League player of the year earlier that week. The game had swung back and forth all afternoon, and Penn had taken a 55-47 lead with just less than 8:30 left.
“I remember inbounding the ball and thinking, ‘This is the time when I have to start making plays,’ ” Towns said, his voice barely audible over the pregame music. “There comes a point in every game if you’re the primary scorer when you have to kind of say, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ ”
Towns ran down court, caught a pass on the wing, drove to the basket and missed.
“I went up, got the rebound and went back up,” he said. “When I came down, I felt pain shoot through my knee. I tried to run back down court, you know, just run it off. I got to midcourt and went down. There was pain shooting through my knee.”
He had to be helped off the court. His first thought was “get this fixed, so I can get back in the game.” He went to the locker room with trainer Craig Fafara, who tried to stretch the knee.
“Every time he did that, the pain shot through me,” Towns said. “We finally went under the stands and I tried to run it off. I couldn’t. There was a guy with a TV camera following me every step. I couldn’t believe it. When I realized I couldn’t go back in the game, I just started to cry.”
Harvard rallied to take the lead that day before ultimately losing, 68-65. When the Crimson traveled to Marquette for a first-round NIT game, Towns made the trip thinking he might play. Little did he know that he had played his last game for Harvard.
“The frustrating thing was the doctors kept telling me I was getting better,” he said. “You don’t want to say to doctors, ‘Look, I know more than you,’ but all I knew was the pain was still there and they insisted it wasn’t. It wasn’t getting better.”
An initial MRI exam showed a bone bruise. Two months later, a second MRI showed a small cartilage tear. Towns had surgery.
“They told me I’d be back in September,” he said. “Then it was November, December. It never felt better.
“It was beyond gut-wrenching. It’s one thing to rehab and feel like you’re getting better and progressing towards playing again. It’s another thing when the pain is exactly the same. I can’t even explain the frustration.”
He missed all of last season. Harvard doesn’t redshirt players, so he had one year left. By December, it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to play this season, either. He finally went to see Riley Williams, the Brooklyn Nets team surgeon — the fourth doctor he had seen.
“I described my symptoms and, even before he looked at the pictures, he said, ‘We’re going to have to fix the tear in your cartilage again. It hasn’t healed.’ ”
The second surgery was four weeks ago. As he sat Friday watching warm-ups, Towns stretched his left leg and smiled. “No pain,” he said. “I couldn’t do that without pain before the surgery. Now, I’m finally feeling better. The doctors say I should be able to go full-bore by June.”
He will graduate from Harvard this spring with a degree in sociology. If all goes well, he will play basketball someplace next year. Once he knew he couldn’t play again this season, he put his name in the NCAA transfer portal. He said he’s heard from “about 70” schools, most high majors.
“He’ll have plenty of time to figure that out once the season is over,” Coach Tommy Amaker said. “Once we knew he had to have the surgery, I told him, ‘You have three things to focus on now: One, make sure you don’t screw up academically — which he won’t — so you get your degree. Two, working on your rehab. And three, you’re still the captain of this team.’ ”
That’s why Towns was on this trip — first to Penn, then to Princeton on Saturday.
“It took me a while to adapt, but I do have a role with this team,” he said. “I try to help the guys in any way I can.”
He smiled. “It isn’t exactly what I signed up for, but it’s what I’ve got right now.”
Towns could have played at a big-time school coming out of high school in Columbus, Ohio, but chose Harvard in large part because he sees basketball as a means to an end, not the other way around. That hasn’t changed.
“My mom is relentlessly upbeat, she’s a silver-lining person,” he said with a laugh. “She reminded me how lucky I was that I had a chance to be a Harvard student even though I was missing basketball. She was right. I’ve enjoyed having more time to be a regular student, to get involved in other activities.”
He also got advice he took to heart from Harry Edwards, the civil rights activist who, through Amaker, has become a mentor to Towns.
“Consider yourself lucky,” Edwards told him. “Your life isn’t just about basketball. Be grateful for that.”
All that being true, nights like Friday are tough for Towns. He sat and watched helplessly after his team rallied from an early 24-5 deficit to get the game into overtime, before losing, 75-72, at Penn to end an eight-game winning streak.
Unlike most graduate transfers, Towns isn’t just looking for a basketball team to play in next year. He’d like to find a school with a creative-writing program in which he can work toward a master's degree.
He likes to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson (Harvard, Class of 1821) and there is one Emerson quote that he comes back to often: “Do not go where the path leads you; go where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Towns first did that when he chose Harvard over the big-time basketball schools that were courting him.
“I really believe as an African American with a Harvard degree, I’ll have a chance to make an impact somewhere,” he said. “I love basketball, but I hope there’s a lot more to my life than that.”
Amaker, who will never coach Towns in a game again, cherishes the two years he did coach him and the time he’s spent with him since the injury.
“All I can say is, he’s a beautiful kid,” Amaker said. “I wish he didn’t have to go through what he’s gone through the last two years, but he’ll be fine — better than fine.” He smiled. “He’ll create a path and leave a trail.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.