While pro hoopers tend to reach the peak of their abilities in the NBA, we take pride in the fact that we begin covering the world’s best players before they’re the world’s best players: when they’re in high school, still unknown to the majority of the basketball world. This week and next we’ll be looking back at the PUNKS features that introduced a variety of current NBAers to our faithful readers. Up next: the Kevin Love piece below, originally printed in SLAM 101 (September ’06).—Ed.


words Ryan Jones / portraits Sean Gilligan

Kevin Love is not your usual Player of the Year candidate. Not now, anyway, not in the wake of Kobe and T-Mac and LeBron, ultra-athletic phenoms who seemed to promise a basketball future where everyone goes 6-7 with a 40-inch vert and can play four positions straight out of high school. Love is part-throwback, part-anomaly, a 6-9, 250-something pounder whose most raved-about skill is his pinpoint-accurate outlet passing. Yet he goes into his senior year with a chance at the No. 1 spot in a class that includes, among others, OJ Mayo.

“Of course I’d love to be number one—I’m a competitive guy—but OJ is a pretty respectable number one,” Love says. “OJ can do so many things, and he has so much poise. But we’re very different players. If I’m the number one big man in the class, I’m pretty happy.”

With respect to Mike Beasley, Anthony Randolph and a handful of others, there’s not much question about that. Whatever Love lacks in freakish athleticism, the Lake Oswego (OR) High star owns pretty much every other quality imaginable in an All-America candidate: Imposing size, deceptive range, a nose for the basketball and—most important by far—an inherited competitive streak that leaves most of his opponents in shreds. For the last of those, you can blame his dad.

“He was a dirty player back in the day,” Kevin says with pride. He’s referring to his father, Stan Love, a former University of Oregon standout who played five seasons in the NBA and ABA. “He had all the tricks. I played against my dad growing up, and I could never beat him. I finally beat him around eighth grade. But he was still dunking at 45, which is pretty impressive.”

Always big for his size, and tested early by playing with and against his pops and older brother, Kevin ensures he was “always very, very serious about the game. A lot of it is just passion—you’ve just got to love the game.” Between that passion and the nasty streak he carries in his DNA, Kevin was immediately very good at basketball and very bad at losing.

“I used to throw fits when I lost—video games, anything, but especially basketball. And I’ve always had that competitiveness and hard-nosed approach. I’m more mature now, but I’m still definitely very mad if I lose.”

Knowing that, Kevin has apparently decided to avoid losing whenever possible. He’s done a pretty good job of it, too. His loaded SoCal All-Stars AAU squad was 36-0 through late June, and his on-court demeanor—our friends at PrepStars.com write of how he “approaches competitors with disdain”—all but ensures that most of his fellow 17-year-olds simply can’t hang. He’s too big and too strong, and plays with the ruthlessness of a UFC champion. Opponents can hardly be blamed for tapping out.

All that said, Love isn’t some brawny, unskilled meathead. He’s a great rebounder not only because of his size and immovability (dude’s legs are thicker than 50’s bankroll), but because he brings student-of-the-game positioning into the paint. He boasts shooting range out to 20 feet and beyond. And then there’s his outlet passing, almost invariably the first thing drooling scouts mention when his name comes up. “I get like 10 or 12 outlet passes a game,” Kevin says of those fast-break-igniting kickouts. “Wes Unseld used to be known for that, and my dad actually named me after him because of what a great guy Wes is. They played together in Baltimore, and my middle name is Wesley. And now everybody says I throw outlet passes like Wes Unseld.”

Welcoming comparisons to a Hall of Famer comes easy for Love, whose confidence is as relentless as his game. “I’ve always been taught to be confident in whatever I do,” he says, acknowledging Elton Brand as the current pro whose game he most tries to emulate. “My dad always said, ‘You can’t just act like you’re confident, you have to be confident.’”

This doesn’t seem to be a problem. Citing an intense summer workout plan aimed at getting stronger and quicker while trimming any remnants of baby fat from his frame, Kevin is blunt. “If my body keeps improving,” he says, “the sky’s the limit for what I can do.”

Previously:
Vince Carter: Carter Country