“For us, at this point, it’s bigger than basketball,” Devin Booker says, with D’Angelo Russell sitting to his right and Karl-Anthony Towns sitting to his left. “We know each other’s families. This is way bigger than the game.”
Three of the NBA’s youngest, brightest stars are friends for real. Not the hi-bye type of stuff. The “What-are-you-doing-after-this-photoshoot?” type of energy, like Booker asked Towns after they spent an entire afternoon together at a studio in midtown Manhattan. The all-day, all-night texting kind of friendship. The laugh at and fight about memories flow. The know-each-other-so-well-that-they-can-make-each-other-get-emotional level of camaraderie.
Booker, Towns and Russell are the League’s newest, coolest family. And they know it.
“We gotta do this again, when we’re all on the same team,” Russell jokes toward the end of the day. “Nah, don’t cut it,” he says to our rolling cameras. “Y’all got it on footage. When we’re all on the same team—I ain’t gonna tell you which team because I don’t know—we’re gonna do this again.”
This isn’t the first time that SLAM has linked up with these three. We shot Towns right after he won the 2016 Rookie of the Year, out in L.A., for a pair of covers. One of those featured him in a Kevin Garnett jersey. A trip to Phoenix followed in 2017, with a clean cover that chronicled Booker. And then Russell’s cover, an instant classic, in March of this year. DLoading, with BKLYN across his chest, a snarl and a crown, paying homage to The Notorious B.I.G.
This trio, they’re all connected to each other, ever since back in the day. They’re on a journey together, even when they’re not together. Because they’re always together. They’re basketball’s modern goodfellas.
“You know, we always called each other goodfellas,” the famous line from the movie goes. “Like, you said to somebody, ‘You’re gonna like this guy. He’s alright. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.’ You understand? We were goodfellas.”
We’re in the middle of Koreatown, in the beginning of September, on the fourth floor of a building that’s sandwiched between karaoke bars, delis and tourist shops. Thousands of people frantically shuffle around the blocks just outside, not knowing that three NBA players are up here getting fits off. (What’s good, @leaguefits???)
Things are pretty relaxed, even with the three all-world hoopers up here. Russell and Booker get shape-ups in the corner. Towns has taken control of the music. He’s decided to run through a bunch of Mac Miller songs. He dribbles around a little bit, until Jess Holtz, who’s worked with all three since they were drafted in 2015, tries to guard up. Towns catches her with a nasty behind-the-back combo and she reaches for it.
Loss of body control.
Laughter fills the space, with Towns running to show Booker the clip of it. It’s a moment that happens with kids all across the country—something hilarious or embarrassing goes down and they jet over to their friends to laugh about it until it hurts. It’s just that the kid who did this particular move has an NBA ROY trophy to his name and the kid who’s being shown this particular video scored 70 points against the Celtics as a 20-year-old.
Towns (23 years old), Booker (22, though he’ll turn 23 on Oct. 30) and Russell (23) are stacking the accomplishments in the League.
The Timberwolves big man has that ROY, two All-Star appearances, an All-NBA nod in 2018 and is coming off a season in which he averaged 26 points and 13 boards.
Booker hit that 70 a few years ago, made the All-Rookie First Team in 2016, has upped his scoring and assists numbers every season and has transitioned to becoming a hybrid point guard/shooting guard combo, fully capable of dropping 30 points whenever he wants or dishing out 10 dimes at will.
Russell’s made it through a few storms in his career to become an All-Star. He led the Brooklyn Nets to the playoffs last season, singlehandedly reviving the franchise as a highly skilled and efficient point guard who was never afraid in the clutch.
They recognize and acknowledge that their time in the League has been different and that is what has made it special.
“It’s cool how we all went our separate ways and had that ambition to make it to the top,” Russell says.
These are relationships that have been formed over years of life on the road, when nobody else would be able to truly understand what they were going through. The only people they could relate to were each other.
“I remember this dude, Devin,” Russell says. “We were at Elite camp. Everybody’s coming from all different types of places and everybody has their own gear. I remember I had some knee pads. And they were his colors back home. So my dude, he was like, I need those, I need those. And they were all rugged. They were worn out. And he was like, I need those. He done cut it and flipped it up and they looked ready to go. That’s my first memory.”
“I’ve been watching D’Angelo play since, like, sixth or seventh grade,” Booker remembers. “Before we knew each other, I was watching him play. I was on a low-level team. We’d play in one of the sorry brackets and I’d be sitting on the side of the court, watching the top players play.”
That’s been Booker’s story. He didn’t get minutes as a rookie with the Suns until late in the season. He only averaged 10 points per game while at Kentucky. And it took him a minute to work his way up into the national spotlight as a prospect. But he eventually did it.
“I met Book for the first time at NBPA 100 Camp in Virginia,” Towns says. “I remember just seeing a really, really pale white kid. Turned out he wasn’t white but that’s what I thought. They said he could shoot the ball better than anybody. I came late to the camp and I talked to him about Kentucky. I had heard his name before, too. I knew he was interested in Kentucky. Just feeling his vibe out that day. Obviously in college is where we really blossomed a special relationship.”
“My first memory of Karl, I was at NBPA Top 100 Camp and we always heard about him,” Booker confirms. “I had never seen him play. I still didn’t see him play there. He showed up to the camp, he took all the gear, he went home. He didn’t play not one game.”
They go on to argue about what really happened. Towns calmly says he showed up for the last day and played in two games. Booker promises, with tons of laughter, that’s not the truth.
No matter what actually happened that day, both Booker and Russell are adamant in saying that Towns has been dominating since they met him. They talk about his skill level and his poise and they predict that one day he’ll be the president of the NBPA. They’re right, too. Towns, older than both Booker and Russell, is extremely articulate, whether he’s talking hoops, sneakers or his brotherhood. And he has plans for the future. He wants to leave a legacy on and off the court, “to change the game as a big man.”
“He knows what to say and at the same time when he gets on the court, it’s domination,” Booker says. “It’s kinda hard to have both of those in players. And he has that.”
“I’m like, This dude’s the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Russell says about Towns. “Not when I first met him but when I first worked out with him. Like, this dude’s the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
Russell’s intuition would go on to be correct. Towns went first in 2015 and Russell was right behind him, getting selected with the second pick by the Lakers.
“I met D-Russ for the first time, we were playing against each other in New Jersey,” Towns says. “It was Montverde vs St. Joe’s. Here comes this number-one-wearing guy, lefty, that they talked a lot about.”
Montverde won the matchup. “We kicked your ass,” Russell says under his breath.
“Me and him, the relationship hit off earlier in high school because we were the young kids getting invited to older camps,” Booker says of Russell. “We’d have roommates and we’d ask our roommates could they switch so we could be in the room together. I remember us sitting and talking about what college we wanted to go to, things like that.”
“I would say we talk about basketball, maybe, about 25 percent of our conversations,” Towns says. “And it’s not really, like, basketball-deep. It’s just generic things around the basketball world.”
The rest of that time, including living together during the draft process, is dedicated to stuff that Towns doesn’t want to share.
“I got a lot of stories but I can’t say,” he grins. “Just know the Banana Boat V2 has been doing very well since day one.”
There’s a moment when they’re taking photos together that Booker, without being asked to, grabs onto Towns and Russell. He brings them in close and smiles real, real big. They smile, too. Genuine, I-actually-mess-with-you-guys, smiles.
They’ve been raising each other up throughout our time at the studio, complimenting each other’s fits, offering advice, asking for a certain song to be played, talking about something, giggling about nothing.
“This is crazy,” Russell says. “They my dogs right there. They my dogs.”
Towns, speaking poetically about Russell, almost made the lefty cry. It was time for reflection, time to think about the past, present and the future, everything that has already been done and everything that is still to come.
Minnesota’s big man can see them all being champions in 10 years.
“We all got the drive,” Towns says. “All we know is how to win.”
“Right now, especially the stars, they know who the next generation is and it’s our job in the next 10 years to make that come to fruition,” Booker continues. “I think we’re all on the same page with that. We’re gonna have to win.”
And in speaking about the past, that’s when three of the League’s tuffest killas have the most to share.
“We’re on covers,” Russell beams. “Can we go back to that? Like, we really did this, man. A lot of people take this for granted.”
“We all had different paths in the League, too,” Booker says. “For me not playing at first, to D’Angelo being with the Lakers, in and out of the lineup. Karl, dominating from day one. It’s just all different paths. We’ve all been through a lot but to finally be here, all in one room with our own covers and now all on one cover together, this is gonna be all over my house.”
Booker and Towns stand up and start to get ready for a few more photos that are set to follow. But Russell stays seated.
“Ayyy, I love y’all, man,” he says to Towns and Booker. “We did this. I’m about to cry over here. I’m emotional, man. This isn’t normal. I’m gonna let this marinate for a second, this little aura we created. I’m gonna sit in this little bubble for a little longer.”
Together, no matter what, no matter where.
Portraits by Atiba Jefferson.
Styling by Browne Andrews.
Art by Tyrrell Winston.