The monster comes out when the shot goes up, an affable 22-year-old transformed by the sight of an airborne ball. Timberwolves forward Kevin Love can feel the metamorphosis occurring inside him, the sudden thirst for violence and disregard for well-being. He careens toward the basket, all elbows and forearms and hips, turning the key into the Octagon. Every body part is a weapon, to be wielded for the sake of the almighty rebound. "When that shot goes off, I don't know what happens to me," Love says. "It's like I become Colossus. I'm busting heads, going after guys, throwing my body at the rim."
Rebounding is half blood sport, half science. If a shot rises from the right wing, Love bolts to the left, in search of the low block on the weak side, which he straddles as though he's barricading his front door. His knees are bent, his back straight, his shoulder blades pushing into the chest of whoever is unfortunate enough to be stuck behind him. He turns his head to track the flight of the ball, gauging trajectory like a centerfielder. A low liner will smack straight against the rim. A high archer will bounce around awhile. A three-pointer could carom all the way to the elbow. A floater might not reach the charge circle. He considers the shooter. One teammate, forward Michael Beasley, tends to miss off the back rim, so Love braces for a long rebound. Another, center Darko Milicic, usually misses off the front, so he tries for a tip-in.
"A different sense knocks into me when the ball is in the air," Love says. "I know where it will hit and where it will land. I'm playing percentages, but it's not a guessing game. Most of the time I'm right." His navigational powers position him for the rebound, but he still has to snare it. He uses one hand to clear space, the other to palm the ball, sometimes not bothering to jump. When he brings the ball down, he slaps it with his off-hand, hard enough to hear through the television. What is also being heard with increasing frequency around the NBA is the chatter of opposing players, peppering one another with the question, "Can anybody box him out?"
Love is listed at 6'10", but no one believes he is that tall. His leaping ability is average at best. His hands are not exceptionally big. His backside is hardly Barkleyian. At the end of last season he was not starting for Minnesota—and it was the second-worst team in the league. When he went to his exit meeting before the final game, coach Kurt Rambis told him he needed to work harder. Love was used to having his athletic ability questioned but never his commitment. "That was the angriest I've ever been in my life," Love says. "I wanted to come out this season and be a monster."
He is a creature from a bygone era, putting up the first 30-point, 30-rebound game since Moses Malone 28 years ago, racking up four 20-20s in November, outrebounding the entire Knicks roster in the second half on Nov. 12 and then doing the same to the Warriors in the first half 15 days later. At week's end Love led the NBA with 15.6 rebounds per game, but that number should be higher, since Rambis was playing him fewer than 30 minutes a night for seven games, until he became impossible to sit. The more accurate representation of Love's prowess is his rebounding rate, the percentage of rebounds he snags when on the floor. Love's was 24.6% through Sunday, the highest since Dennis Rodman's 25.6% in 1996--97.
Love's approach, as described by Timberwolves assistant Dave Wohl, would make even Rodman squeamish: "We've got two two-by-fours, now let's go beat each other to death and see who comes away with the rebound." For current players the contact can be disconcerting, but it makes old-timers rejoice. "Kevin has what all the great ones did," says Swen Nater, whose career rebounding rate of 21.4% is second to Rodman's 23.4%. "An obsession for the ball and a mentality to do whatever is necessary to get it."
Love does not fit the typical profile of the street fighter. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers. His Uncle Mike is the lead singer of the Beach Boys. Stan and Mike's cousins were most of the rest of the band, apostles of good vibrations. Coming out of UCLA two years ago, Kevin was known mainly for a skill he rarely got to use, flicking outlet passes from one baseline to the other.
He grew up in Lake Oswego, Ore., an affluent Portland suburb, where he enjoyed all the perks of being an NBA player's son. He served as ball boy for former UCLA coach Jim Harrick when the Bruins came to Oregon and had to be shooed off McArthur Court for launching threes during timeouts. His big man coach at Lake Oswego High was Chris Dudley (10th best rebounding rate alltime). Nater, the former UCLA center, worked him out at Pauley Pavilion. Maurice Lucas stopped him in Portland restaurants, offering to "swing by the house and teach you some mean." That's when Stan would interject and say, "He's mean enough. We don't want the cops coming over."
Stan was not a natural rebounder—6'9", wiry, in love with his outside shot—but Harrick coached him at Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., and said he had "the sharpest elbows I've ever seen." As a star at Oregon, Stan once came across an opponent lying on the court and stepped on his chest. In the NBA his elbow broke Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere's nose. Stan was not going to raise a soft son of the suburbs.
In addition to 1½ seasons in L.A., Stan played two for the Washington Bullets, and he gave Kevin the middle name Wesley in honor of rebounder extraordinaire Wes Unseld. Kevin did his best to live up to the name, doing fingertip push-ups like the ones Unseld did to grow his forearms bigger than other boys' biceps. Kevin watched NBA Superstars videos over breakfast, and when he had devoured them all, he called family friend Bill Feinberg, a sports p.r. executive, for footage of Philadelphia Warriors Hall of Famer Paul Arizin because he liked Arizin's rebounding technique. Kevin was eight. Several years later he sent Feinberg an instant message: "I want to be a rebounder like Dennis Rodman. I want to get every rebound and f--- everybody up on the boards."