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Farewell, Kevin Love: Dave 'Dino' DeNatale bids adieu to beloved member of Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA championship team

Love and the Cavaliers are reportedly finalizing a buyout to end his nine-year run in Cleveland. Dave 'Dino' DeNatale reflects on the end of an era.

CLEVELAND — It was inevitable that at some point we were going to have to say farewell to Kevin Love, the final member of the Cavaliers' 2016 NBA championship team still on the squad. 

Yet, when the news came down last night that Love and the Cavs were finalizing a buyout agreement, it still stung. 

Saying goodbye to Kevin Love is like saying goodbye to a buddy you've grown up with in your neighborhood. You may see him again somewhere down the line, but it'll never quite be the same. Yet, you'll always have fond memories of your time together. 

In Love's case, I'll always look at him fondly for both his exploits on the court, and his courage off of it. 

Kevin Love, the player

Let's get this out of the way: I wholeheartedly believe that Kevin Love will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame one day. Now, before you scoff at that statement, keep in mind that the hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, is not just for excellence in the NBA, but for all levels of the game. 

In high school, we was an Oregon state champion and Gatorade's Male Athlete of the Year.

At UCLA, Love was an All-American, Pac-10 Player of the Year, and teamed with Russell Westbrook to drive the Bruins to the Final Four. 

As a member of Team USA, Love has won gold medals at the 2010 FIBA World Championship and the 2012 London Olympics. 

During his 15 NBA seasons (nine with the Cavs), Love has been named to five All-Star teams, earned a second-team All-NBA selection, won the Most Improved Player Award, captured a rebounding title, and has averaged a double-double for his career at 17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest. And of course, Love has a championship ring.

In Minnesota, Love was the first option on some really bad Timberwolves teams. Twice, he averaged more than 26 points per game in a season, yet, the T-Wolves never won more than 40 games while he was there. So, when the opportunity came to join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as part of a "Big 3" in Cleveland in 2014, he jumped at the chance. 

Moving from the first option to the third wasn't easy for Love in that first season of 2014-15. He seemed to understand what he was in for in the preseason as the Cavs were heading to Brazil for an exhibition slate of games. "I'm comfortable and just not trying to, I guess, fit in so much," Love said. "I had a talk with the guys on the plane ride over [to Brazil] and also at different practices off the floor and they told me to fit out, just be myself." 

But it was easier said than done. He had to go from having the ball in his hands constantly, to being a spacer to open things up for his two talented teammates.

With Love and the team struggling in February,  LeBron sent a cryptic tweet aimed directly at Love. "Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special! Just my thoughts."

The message got through to Love. He figured out how to "FIT-IN."

It took time, but by the time the Cavs opened the first round of the playoffs against Boston, they seemed to be working as a well-oiled machine. Love scored 23 points and pulled down nine rebounds in Game 3 as the Wine and Gold were poised for a sweep. Then in Game 4, Love dislocated his shoulder after getting tangled up with Kelly Olynyk. He missed the rest of the postseason.

Had Love and Irving been healthy for the 2015 NBA Finals, I firmly believe the Cavs would have been champions that year as well.

Arguably, Love's signature moment as a Cavalier would come a year later during Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Golden State. He scored nine points and pulled down 14 rebounds in that game, but it was his defense on Steph Curry on a switch in the final moments that helped solidify the championship for Cleveland. Along with LeBron James' iconic chase down block of Andre Iguodala and Kyrie Irving's clutch three-pointer, “The Block," "The Shot," and "The Stop" put the Cavs over the top.

To me, Love's performance last season as the Cavs' sixth man stands out as some of the best work of his career. Bear in mind that in the three seasons since James had departed for the Lakers, Love appeared to be a shell of his former All-Star self. He was often injured and visibly unhappy at times. Most notably, during a low point in Toronto in 2021, Love slapped a ball while inbounding, putting it into play. The Raptors quickly took possession and nailed an easy 3-pointer. 

But Love accepted his role coming off the bench like a professional and averaged a very efficient 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in 22 minutes per contest. He played in 74 games and seemed to thrive in his role as the mentor to youngsters like Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. 

“K-Love is definitely a big brother to me," Garland said. "He's been here since I got drafted here. He’s one of the first [people] I talked to when I got drafted, so the relationship [has] always been there and it’s definitely growing every day. It's always growing since then. It's cool to have a Hall of Famer around the gym. It's cool just to get his input about the basketball game or anything in life, really."

Garland would sometimes refer to his 34-year-old teammate as "Grandpa K-Love" or just "Grandpa Love." Other Cavs called him "Old Man" or "Uncle Kevin." 

Sadly, as this season progressed, it started to become clear that all was not well with Love. He injured his thumb in November and his shooting never quite seemed to recover. As Ricky Rubio and Dean Wade returned from injury, the Cavs shuffled their lineup and shifted Love out of the rotation. He didn't play in Cleveland's last 12 games, including last night in Philadelphia. And now, he's on his way out.

By the way, I would imagine that in addition to being a future Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Love's number will be retired by the Cavaliers once he retires.

In the meantime, Love wants another shot at being a contributing player. The Cavaliers have to do what they think is best as they drive towards the playoffs. It's nobody's fault. It's business. But it still stings. 

Kevin Love, the person

When it comes to Kevin Love as a person, I'm not what you would call an objective journalist. In 2018, Love penned a groundbreaking piece in The Players' Tribune titled "Everyone Is Going Through Something," which chronicled his battle with mental health. It included the story of his anxiety attack during a Cavs-Hawks game earlier that season in Atlanta.

"If you're suffering silently like I was, then you know how it can feel like nobody really gets it. Partly, I want to do it for me, but mostly, I want to do it because people don’t talk about mental health enough. And men and boys are probably the farthest behind," he wrote. "The thing is, because we can't see it, we don't know who's going through what and we don't know when and we don't always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It's part of life."  

At almost exactly the same time, I was preparing to talk about my mental health struggles for the first time on this platform as well as with Russ Mitchell on 3News. My battle with depression had led me to seek hospitalization for treatment two years earlier and I was finally ready to share my story. However, there was concern in our newsroom about what the reaction would be to the piece and how well I would be able to cope as a result. Remember, this was a time when there was a huge stigma when it came talking about depression and anxiety.

Because of Love's courage, I felt confident that I was ready to share what I had gone through. Our management agreed and we put out the story I wrote shortly thereafter.

I'll always be grateful for Love for blazing a trail for myself and many others to come forward about our mental health challenges. He has become one of the leading advocates in the nation on mental health, creating The Kevin Love Fund, which aims to promote emotional and physical well-being, particularly as it relates to mental health. His work has been recognized with many honors, including the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2020 ESPY Awards.

Kevin Love helped to make Cleveland a championship city. More importantly, he shined an important spotlight on mental health, paving the way for so many to get the help we needed. 

I'm a better person because Kevin Love played for the Cavaliers. 

For that, I'll always be grateful. 

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