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The future lay sparkling ahead and we thought we would know each other forever.

— Sleepers

CLEVELAND — The three young princes of the Timberwolves had it all planned out. Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins had the neighborhood picked out where they would set down roots, houses close enough so they could walk to each other’s door as they plotted how to put Minnesota basketball back on the map. Together.

This is where they would grow into kings, fulfilling Flip’s prophecy, sharing the wealth and the spoils, raising families and reveling in the friendship that had formed so quickly and earnestly in the earliest days of their NBA careers. They were brought together to revive a franchise. Once they got to know each other, they believed they could do so much more. They were all so young, and no amount of loss or struggle or outside doubt was strong enough to dull the brightness in their eyes or quell the certainty in their hearts.

“I remember us all talking about getting houses in the same cul-de-sac so we could be locked in every single day with each other and make that camaraderie and unity that we needed to win a championship,” Towns told The Athletic.

By the spring of 2017, Towns and Wiggins had their homes selected, KAT said. LaVine was eyeing his as well while he started to rehab a torn ACL. Just a few months later, former lead executive and coach Tom Thibodeau shipped him to Chicago in a blockbuster trade that brought Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, breaking apart a young core as part of a strategy to add more veterans and push all the chips in to compete in the Western Conference much faster than anyone had initially planned.

The cold business of the NBA set into motion a period of listlessness for the three friends that took years to shake. LaVine joined the Bulls in the infant stages of a rebuild, piling up points and losses and being cast as the kind of player who puts up good stats on bad teams. Towns heard the same criticism in the wake of Butler’s fiery exit from Minnesota and also endured personal tragedy with the loss of his mother to COVID-19. Wiggins floated through three more seasons with the Wolves, in some ways becoming the avatar for the team’s inability to break through, then was moved to Golden State for D’Angelo Russell.

All of that struggle and change made Sunday’s All-Star game all the more sentimental for them. As they all enter their mid 20s, the baby-faced Wolves are fully grown now and have gone their separate ways. Towns is a pillar in Minnesota, LaVine is a star in Chicago and Wiggins has become an essential wing man in Golden State. They all took unique paths to Cleveland, finding the roles that suit them best as vital cogs to teams in playoff pursuits. Finally, they were together again, on Team Durant, happy to have found success in their own ways, all the while thinking about what might have been.

“It was just really cool to see us all on that stage and where we came from, being together on the same team and us all leaving and figuring out our own way,” LaVine said. “Everything happens for a reason.”

The three of them never were able to hit the floor together in Team Durant’s 163-160 loss to Team LeBron on Sunday night. But they threw down a few dunks, shared a few laughs and created some memories that will last a lifetime. Just like old times.

“It was great. It was bigger than basketball,” said Wiggins, who scored 10 points in his All-Star debut. “That’s a brotherhood right there. We had a lot of people that helped bring us together when we were young. We’re all fortunate.”

The reunion presented an opportunity to reminisce about the wild days of three teenagers together with a franchise placed on their bony shoulders, to ruminate on what might have happened if the Timberwolves had stayed the course and to mourn those who are no longer here to see their potential realized.

“I know my dad would be so proud,” said Ryan Saunders, Flip’s son and an assistant on the Wolves when all three of them were together. “That was part of the vision that he had.”

It all started in the summer of 2014, the brainchild of the late Flip Saunders, who had returned to the Timberwolves organization as president of basketball operations and set into motion a plan to rebuild the franchise from the rubble created under David Kahn. With coach Rick Adelman leaving to tend to his wife’s health concerns, Saunders installed himself as head coach and went about remaking a team that never could wedge itself into the Western Conference playoff field.

He started by drafting a skinny kid from UCLA with the 13th pick in the first round. Zach LaVine wasn’t a household name at the time. He wasn’t even a starter for the Bruins. But Saunders and Milt Newton, now an assistant GM with the Milwaukee Bucks, were enamored with his raw athleticism and his love for the game and envisioned him one day becoming a dynamic scorer and playmaker.

Step two was turning disgruntled All-Star Kevin Love into more young talent. Wiggins was chosen No. 1 overall by the Cavaliers on the same night as LaVine, but his stay in Cleveland was short-lived. When LeBron James announced he was returning home to Cleveland from Miami not long after the draft, the Cavs shifted into win-now mode. Saunders swooped in and swung a deal to send Love to Cleveland and bring Wiggins to Minnesota with another former No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett.

Wiggins and LaVine were both represented by BDA Sports at the time and had worked out together with renowned trainer Drew Hanlen during the predraft process. They were dubbed the Bounce Brothers and went about setting a new identity for a team that needed a jolt.

“I was just so happy because I already had a relationship with him and understood the type of person he is,” LaVine said. “He was quiet in front of everybody else, but one-on-one and person-to-person, you couldn’t get him to stop talking.”

Wiggins was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year Award and LaVine was thrown into the deep end of the pool at point guard to see what he was made of, and the two springy kids were entertaining, even as the losses piled up. Add to it the return of Kevin Garnett at the trade deadline, and Saunders believed he had the foundation starting to form for the next perennial playoff team in Minnesota.

After shootarounds in road arenas, Garnett would kick basketballs high up into the stands and force all the rookies to go get them. Wiggins and LaVine devised a system to deal with it. Because Wiggins was the No. 1 pick, he remained on the court and collected all the basketballs that were thrown back down, putting them back onto the ball racks. Because LaVine was also a lottery pick, he would venture into the first few rows to grab the balls there. The balls that went higher were for second-round picks and rookie free agents.

“All you know is basketball. So going there, it was just basketball nonstop, nonstop,” LaVine said. “You really got to grow up and learn about the NBA, the business, maturing in the game our first two years. We were kids. Doing it together was really fun.”

Saunders was known as a players’ coach, but there were times he had to let the kids have it as well. The most famous in Wolves lore came during a film session when Saunders was not happy with the effort level from his young team, particularly Wiggins. He called told them they needed to change the Timberwolves logo to an ice cream cone with the players’ faces on it.

“I’ve never heard somebody get cussed out so gently before,” LaVine said with a laugh. “You guys are soft-serve ice cream. Dairy Queen.” 

All of the losing and hazing did little to derail their enthusiasm. LaVine and Wiggins loved Minnesota and were having a blast being challenged to go toe-to-toe with veteran teams and tested players. They threw down hellacious dunks, missed shots and turned the ball over at high rates and chased wizened vets around screens for 30-plus minutes a night. There was no safety net for them, and they didn’t want one.

“I hope I’m here forever,” Wiggins told me after being named Rookie of the Year. “I hope. It would be nice.”

For all of the hope that surrounded those youngsters and Garnett’s return, that team still finished 16-66, which put them in position for step three. The ping pong balls won the 2015 draft lottery, the first time the franchise finished on top in its lottery-filled history, and selected Towns, a versatile big man from Kentucky to complete the trifecta. Flip also traded up in the same draft to take Minnesota native Tyus Jones, infusing the fan base with an uncommon optimism for a team coming off of such a poor season.

Saunders surrounded his youngsters with seasoned veterans — Garnett to mentor Towns and Gorgui Dieng in the frontcourt, Tayshaun Prince to guide Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad on the wing and Andre Miller for LaVine and Jones in the backcourt — and set about assembling the team that they believed would end the Wolves’ decade-long struggle to return to relevance.

The real tragedy of those years was not that those pups weren’t given the chance to grow up together. Any number of things could have happened to get in the way of the vision that Saunders had for them and prompt the organization to change course. The greatest tragedy was that Flip didn’t make it long enough to be here in Cleveland, just a few minutes from where he was raised in Cuyahoga Heights, to see these three play together in an All-Star game played three days before what would have been his 67th birthday. In the summer of 2015, Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his condition deteriorated quickly. He was hospitalized and died just three days before the season started, never coaching Towns, Wiggins and LaVine together in a game.

“I wish he was able to be here and see this in person,” LaVine said.

Losing Flip devastated the organization, especially the three kids he hand-picked to build around. Saunders was woven into the fabric of the franchise, the one coach who had managed to sustain any success on the sideline and the executive whose unflappable positivity was starting to bring some color back to a team that had been so gray.

In some ways, it brought the three pups closer together. Their champion was gone, leaving behind a franchise for them to carry. It was so, so heavy. They were hardly old enough for facial hair, spent all of their time away from the arena playing video games and insulating themselves from the criticism, that comes with being put in the center of everything. Newton filled in as the interim GM. Veteran coach Sam Mitchell was elevated to run the team. Nothing about it was easy, but Mitchell was the veteran player who mentored an 18-year-old Garnett when he came into the NBA straight out of high school in 1995. Twenty years later, he was doing it again.

On the hardest days, Towns, Wiggins and LaVine would gather after getting an earful from Garnett, challenged by Mitchell or beaten on the court by a playoff-ready opponent, seeking refuge in their shared experience.

“We tried to lean on each other a lot. We were 19, 20 and trying to figure it out, trying to win and see what it’s like in the NBA,” Wiggins said. “It’s hard. It’s definitely not easy, but we had great times together.”

There were long days in a long season in 2015-16, but there was plenty of fun to be had as well. Ryan Saunders recalled a postgame team dinner organized in Salt Lake City by medical guru Arnie Kander, a Flip hire. When Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and Jones all showed up, they were not allowed in because they were under 21 years old.

“They were just teenagers, man,” Ryan Saunders said. “They’ve gone through a lot in different ways to get to the points they’re at in their career.”

The synergy was near immediate. Wiggins has a mortician’s blood pressure, a cat burglar’s disdain for the spotlight and raises his voice about as often as Steph Curry misses a free throw.

“He was quiet in front of everybody else, but one-on-one and person-to-person, you couldn’t get him to stop talking,” LaVine said. “He was cracking jokes and being goofy.”

Towns is the hot-blooded social butterfly, the one who wants to be everybody’s friend and welcomes the responsibility of team spokesman. He hollers at referees, hypes up teammates and speaks at length to the media in good times and bad.

“Everyone knows how Karl is. The most energetic guy, completely from New Jersey,” LaVine said. “Hands-on, touchy, just full of joy. I felt like I was always in the middle and the mediator between the two. It was a lot of fun.”

LaVine is the slam dunk champion, dynamite in his calves and a jester’s infectiousness, the kind of guy who makes you smile even when you don’t want to. Towns and Wiggins were such polar opposite personalities that it wouldn’t seem to make much sense mixed together, but a splash of LaVine made for a cocktail that induced a warm buzz on a cold winter night.

“KAT was definitely the louder one, more outgoing and Zach was in between and I was more the laid-back one,” Wiggins said. “But all three of us jelled really well together.”

The highlight of their time in Minnesota may have come at All-Star weekend in 2015, in Wiggins’ hometown of Toronto. All three played in the Rising Stars game, LaVine defeated Aaron Gordon in a classic dunk contest and Towns won the skills competition. The chemistry was palpable, and the belief coming out of the weekend was that the Timberwolves were going to be a problem, and soon.

“It felt like perfect harmony,” Towns said. “We had a great game plan. I feel like none of us had that ‘we’re the man’ ego. We felt like we were all contributing to the same cause.”

After going 29-53 in their first season together, the Wolves fired Mitchell and brought in the highly sought after Thibodeau to expedite their learning curve. The union of one of the most promising young cores in the league and a defensive-minded coach was intriguing, but it just never clicked.

The Wolves won just two more games in Thibodeau’s first season than they did the previous year, far underperforming expectations. LaVine tore his ACL on Feb. 3, 2017, and Thibodeau embarked on a new plan to bring veterans onto the roster to better suit his strengths as a coach. He traded LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall draft pick to Chicago for Butler and the No. 16 pick, then brought in Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague to go for it.

Few at the time argued with the LaVine trade. As promising as he was as a prospect, the chance to bring in a borderline top-10 player in the league, and one with a proven track record of playing for Thibodeau, was tantalizing. That team did get the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, ending the longest active drought in the league. But it just never felt right. The tension between Butler on one side and Towns and Wiggins on the other completely changed the dynamic of the locker room, Thibs couldn’t hold it together, and the team eventually imploded.

“Things just weren’t the same. Everything was totally different,” Towns said of the feel after LaVine was traded. “Young player, you’re told that all of you guys are going to be the franchise and we were all bought into it. We were all talking about contracts and taking pay cuts and all these things to make all this work in Minnesota and give ourselves the best chance to have the most talent here. Shit didn’t work out.”

Just when he felt the Wolves were poised to take a big leap, LaVine was sent to another team that was in the nascent stages of rebuilding in Chicago. The Bulls won 27, 22 and 22 games in his first three seasons there, and LaVine found himself longing for his friends back in Minnesota. 

“You don’t know any different than where you were before, only being with one team,” he said. “Growing up there from 19 to 21. There’s some questions like damn, what could we have been? We weren’t that far away. I always question what if I didn’t get injured? Did that play a part in it?”

Towns and Wiggins didn’t fare much better than LaVine. They won 36 games in 2018-19, saw Thibodeau get fired midseason and replaced by Ryan Saunders, and then won 19 games in 2019-20, the season in which Rosas broke up the two cornerstones for a new model centered around Towns and Russell. Wiggins landed on a Warriors team that was missing Curry and Klay Thompson, and went 3-10 before the season was shuttered due to COVID-19. 

Towns’ own struggles only magnified from there as well. He battled injuries to his wrist and knee that caused him to miss extensive time for the first time in his career and was sent into a spiral by the loss of his mother, Jackie, to the coronavirus.

But gradually, things started to turn for all three players. The Bulls found a quality coach in Billy Donovan, a savvy GM in Arturas Karnisovas and have added talent around LaVine in DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. The Bulls (38-21) entered the All-Star break on a five-game winning streak and tied with Miami for first in the Eastern Conference. LaVine is elated with how things have progressed in Chicago as he barrels toward the first playoff berth of his career.

“It was always me wanting to get back to that winning culture and being somebody that’s competing for something after the All-Star break,” LaVine said. “It’s a long time coming, but I’m excited.”

Wiggins has settled in beautifully with the Warriors (42-17), who are second in the West and almost back to full health. In Golden State, Wiggins doesn’t have to carry a franchise. He has emerged as a souped-up supporting actor to Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, a lockdown defender who doesn’t score as much as he used to, but is impacting winning more than ever. His steady presence on one of the glamour franchises in the league led to him being voted in by the fans as a starter for Team Durant. 

“Everything happens for a reason. I feel like it worked out best for everybody,” Wiggins said. “I feel like everyone is more successful doing what they’re doing now.” 

Towns is having perhaps the best season of his career, leading the Wolves (31-28) into playoff contention as the seventh seed in the West. Even more importantly, he has recaptured the camaraderie that he had in those early days with Wiggins and LaVine after dealing with the misery of the Butler team and the fallout from that. He has a budding superstar in Anthony Edwards by his side, with Russell, Jaden McDaniels and Jared Vanderbilt all emerging this season as talented players capable of helping him take this franchise where he has always wanted it to go. Little by little, he has rediscovered the joy in the game, which was never more apparent than when he won the 3-point contest on Saturday night.

“We never said it would be easy being here, but they also said it’s going to be worth it,” Towns said. “I know it’s going to be worth it.”

Earlier this month when the All-Star reserves were announced and it became official that all three were going to Cleveland, Ryan Saunders’ phone pinged with a text message. It was from LaVine.

“Your dad was always right about us,” it read.

Ryan sent the text to his mother, Debbie, and his sisters, Kim, Rachel and Mindy. Saunders was fired by the Wolves in the middle of last season, but he remains invested in the success of the players he coached. Towns, LaVine and Wiggins text and talk with Saunders regularly, always letting him know how grateful they were to the family for their support. They were watching on Sunday, and it is not lost on anyone that the three friends are getting their moment in Flip’s hometown.

LaVine is a face of the franchise with the Bulls, leading a renaissance that has been years in the making. Wiggins is a valuable part of the Warriors’ return to prominence, and Towns has come out of the fog of the last two years to reassert himself as a top-flight player in the league. They have been through so much, individually and collectively. On Sunday, they celebrated that survival.

“They all had different ways of dealing with the criticism or the losses or the growing pains. But they all dealt with it in ways that worked for them. I think that’s really special and cool to see because they’ve all gotten through a lot of it,” Ryan said late last week. “I’ll have a huge smile on my face. I know my mom and my sisters will and I know my dad will have a huge smile as well.”

What would Flip have thought, seeing them together on such a big stage? 

“It’s tough. I feel like at the end, we’re all All-Stars. We’re all in great positions,” Wiggins said. “So I think he’d be very proud of us.”

The summer before he passed, Flip was telling everyone who would listen that these three players would be the group that did what many were starting to think was impossible: turn the Timberwolves around. One of his favorite things to do was have a piece of cake and talk basketball, assuring the listener the whole way through that he knew exactly what he was talking about. All three players believe he is still watching over them, and still talking the ears off of anyone who will listen, with that twinkle in his eye and that mischievous grin on his face that said “I told you so” without him having to say it.

“He’d probably be eating a piece of sheet cake telling everyone he was that guy and he knew what the hell he was talking about,” Towns said with a smile.  

 “He probably would’ve said it’s about damn time,” LaVine said. “I expected it sooner.”

For the first time since his rookie season, Towns pulled out the “Flip” bracelets that the team wore in his honor after his death. He wore it all weekend, including when he was winning the 3-point contest and when he scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds on Sunday.

“I thought it was the right time to bring it back out to have people realize that Flip’s vision came true,” Towns said.

The friends commemorated it with a photo, one they plan to send to the Saunders family as well.

“It’s something that we will cherish for a long time,” Towns said. “Just the moment of wearing that same jersey one more time, and wearing it at the highest pinnacle you can get, it meant a lot.”

At one point in the game, LaVine checked in for Wiggins. The two smirked at each other, the gravity of the moment sinking in.

“It’s a little surreal sometimes,” said LaVine, who had 12 points and three assists. “It shows how far we’ve come.”

They were boys when they were first played together, with wonder in their eyes and barely a whisker on their chins. Now Wiggins is a father of two with championship dreams in Golden State, LaVine is engaged to be married and envisioning a deep playoff run in Chicago and Towns is in a serious relationship and leading a revival in Minnesota. As they gathered on the court on Sunday, they hearkened back to that All-Star weekend in Toronto, the future they saw so clearly in that moment, and the one that has unfolded so differently since then.

“Back then we were talking about how much time we got with each other and how much we were going to do in the next five years,” Towns said. “Now we’re all on different teams and different paths, finding success, but just not with each other. It feels like a long time ago.”

Nostalgia can often blind us to the realities and complexities of the world in which we once lived. The warm memories almost always wash out the cold ones, leaving a glow around the old days that can be misleading. Maybe those Wolves would have struggled too much defensively. Maybe they wouldn’t develop the strength to slug it out in the playoffs or would not have gotten the help around them to lift them into contention.

Or maybe they would have fit beautifully. LaVine, the go-to scorer down the stretch. Towns, the revolutionary big who spaces the floor. Wiggins, the defensive specialist who can feast off of the attention paid by defenses to his two buddies.

Unfortunately, we will never know. Then again, this is the NBA. Maybe someday we will.

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(Top photo: Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)