Sunday December 3, 2023

Kevin Love on Cavs’ Comeback, Mental Health, and Being a Dog Dad

  • The five-time All-Star won a championship with the Cavaliers in 2016 and stayed loyal through the rebuild.
  • Love introduced a birthday cake flavored biscuit in partnership with Milk-Bone.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
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Kevin Love made an immediate impact in the NBA with the Timberwolves in 2008, establishing himself as a lethal stretch big, elite rebounder, and one of the best power forwards in the game before winning a title in Cleveland with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. 

The 33-year-old has stayed with the Cavaliers since, remaining loyal during a rebuild which has evolved much quicker than many expected. After a 22-win campaign in 2020-21, the Cavs are the 7-seed with 43 wins despite missing three starters. 

But perhaps Love’s biggest legacy will be his off-court efforts to remove the stigma of discussing mental health, which started with a 2018 story he wrote for The Players Tribune. He continues to advocate for mental health — and credits his dog Vestry as a source of empathy and support for him and his family. He recently teamed up with Milk-Bone to promote its latest treat for his (and man’s) best friend: birthday-cake flavored biscuits.

Scoreboard sat down with Love to discuss the Cavaliers’ improbable turnaround, mental health and the empathy that comes with it, and life as a dog dad. 

—Anthony Puccio 

You were part of a championship Cavs team that suddenly swerved into a rebuild. Did you ever expect things to turn around this quickly?

I knew that we were going to be good, between our roster makeup and our approach going into the season. We had, what, 22 wins last year? People thought we’d be right below 30-ish and outside the playoff hunt, but we’ve made major steps. 

First off, our front office put guys in the right place to succeed: drafting Evan Mobley, trading for Jarrett Allen, and Darius Garland taking that next step. It’s all been huge for us, and we’ve established something special here. Having 20 more wins than last year is a significant bump, so we’re really excited, but we don’t want to stop there. We want to continue to build and win as many games as we can, hopefully get past the play-in game, and if not, it’ll be great for us to get playoff experience.

A quick turnaround is nearly impossible when a player like LeBron leaves. What can you say about President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman, the front office, coaching staff, and the culture they’ve implemented? 

The front office has done an amazing job. Koby has gone against the grain. After we drafted Collin Sexton, he said, “We absolutely can draft Darius Garland and have those two guys play together.” Obviously, it was a major hit losing Collin and what he can do out there, but Darius stepped into a leadership role. I think he’s going to be a star in this league for a very long time. 

Then, [Koby] traded for Jarrett Allen, and that was a huge, huge win for us. I love the way he operates and approaches the game, someone who’s been so solid for us. And then after that, he drafted Evan Mobley, who’s the Rookie of the Year and puts great players around that Big Three. I think they’re going to continue to grow, and we’re set up to win and be good for a very long time.

Add [coach] J.B. [Bickerstaff] — that’s somebody I’ve trusted since I came into the league. He was with me for my first three seasons in Minnesota. So overall, I’m just extremely happy that we have our front office, coaching staff, and J.B. locked in for a long time so that we can all grow together. That’s a beautiful thing.

Most of your career you’ve been a focal point, but you’ve played well as a sixth-man. What’s that adjustment been like?

The first six weeks were definitely an adjustment — feeling out the minutes, when I’m going to come into the game, who I’m going to be playing with,  rotations. Besides my first two seasons, I didn’t come off the bench, so [I was] getting used to that. 

Once Dec. 1 hit, I was good to go. I understood it, I knew what was going to be asked from me, I knew when I was going to be coming in and out of games, who I was going to be subbing in and out for,  what teams and lineups I was going to be playing with. J.B. really gave me the green light to play my game and be myself, which was huge for me. 

That trust from the front office and coaching staff, all the way down into the group of guys within — we all trust each other, we all celebrate each other, and that’s what makes it fun and easy to play with this group. I was able to have success, but more so after Dec. 1 all the way to now. I feel a lot more comfortable and solidified in that role.

You’ve led the charge to remove the stigma around discussing mental health, specifically in sports. How do you keep the conversation going?

I think that’s it right there — us talking, continuing to move the conversation by talking to people like you, the willingness to talk to others like it’s OK to share, it’s OK to not live in the shadows and expose yourself on a different level. 

I always say you can’t heal what you don’t reveal. So when you say these things, people can’t use it against you — like, yeah I have faults, I’m not a perfect human being, but you can’t use me against me. This is just who I am. 

I think it’s personally allowed me to be a better listener, more empathetic, and even a better problem-solver. Relationship-wise, it definitely made me a better fiance, a better dog dad, a better teammate, friend, brother, son — whatever it may be — because my communication and willingness to open up has really helped me and others.

Even you, talking with me, talking with other people — that’s paying it forward. You continue to have the conversation, and that helps everyone. Do I think that we’ll ever fully get rid of the stigma? I don’t believe so. But can we eliminate some of it and lessen it? Absolutely. 

So I think we continue to have conversations like this. You think about the pandemic and all the stuff that came with it after the fact — it should bring this [conversation] to the forefront, which can actually be a good thing.

When you look over at the situation with Ben Simmons — people are saying he’s “faking it.” What would you say to those people? 

It’s hard to argue feelings, first and foremost. I think a lot of people like to throw shade at a safe distance. I learned from the late, great Flip Saunders that everybody has a part to play, everybody gets to contribute a verse. I understand a scorned fan. I understand Philly fans — they’re a blue-collar type of place. You go there, it doesn’t matter who you are — even if you’re on their team and you don’t play well, they’re gonna let you know.

There’s a lot to unpack there with Ben, but knowing him and being a friend, I think, yeah,  mentally and with his back physically, he’s getting better, and it’s a work in progress every single day. Look at it in terms of that — time has the ability to heal all. 

When I went back to Minnesota my first year, I got booed pretty well. They still gave me a nice video. People there are just Minnesota nice, they’re great, but as time went on I’ve kept so many of those relationships. Even seeing the fans this year, being back there, you realize it’s all love. So a lot of those people that felt scorned have said, “Let’s celebrate the team we have with Karl Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards.”

I really hope Ben returns to play and plays well. I know the first several times he goes back to play against Philly, he’ll feel some sort of way, but in his heart, in his head, he’s a really good person. He just got caught in a tough situation that wasn’t the easiest on all sides of it, whether it be Doc, Joel, the organization — I’m hoping everybody had a good landing spot at the end of it.

How crucial is empathy, especially during such difficult times?

Huge. Having these conversations, the ability to listen. When you reveal things at a certain level, everybody has their own process, their own timeline, and how they want to expose certain things that they’ve gone through. Empathy is probably No. 1 right now. We shouldn’t hold back compassion and empathy during a time like this. There are a number of people around the world in many different settings and many different places that need to feel hope and need to feel love.

Speaking of love and empathy: Your dog Vestry is clearly an important part of your life. What about Milk-Bone and this campaign made you want to work with them? 

Milk-Bone does a great job celebrating dogs. My fiancee Kate and I do the same with all dogs — and especially ours, Vestry. She’s become a part of the family. The birthday cake biscuit they’re launching was an easy fit — it has the vitamins and nutrients she needs. She lets us know what she likes, she’s vocal about it, and when she asks for a treat, she knows what she wants.

It made an easy partnership between the two, and for Vestry we just want to take care of our dog any way that we can.”

Does Vestry travel, watch the games?

You know, I never thought I’d be that guy that has the softer posts and is always taking photos of his dog, bringing his dog everywhere, but having a Vistly — the breed we have — has turned me into the dog dad that I never thought I’d be, but I’m so happy that I am. Vestry really changed my life in so many ways. Obviously, it’s going to be different when I have kids and everything, but having Vestry is really amazing and such a big part of our family.

The guys, whether they come over here, or we’re watching games, or I bring her to the [practice] facility, they all love it.

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