CLEVELAND (AP) — Kevin Love’s arms are lined with finger-nail scratches, discolored bruises and abrasions, hard-earned mementos from months battling under the basket against other NBA big men.
Some of the surface wounds are healing, some are fresh.
Other marks are hidden.
On the eve of his fourth straight NBA Finals with Cleveland, and while recovering from a concussion suffered last week against Boston that could keep him out of Game 1, Love has persisted and prevailed during a season in which he revealed dealing with anxiety and panic attacks for much of his life.
It’s been an emotionally straining — but ultimately rewarding — journey for the 29-year-old All-Star, who laughed when told it feels like he’s been with the Cavaliers much longer than four seasons.
“I’ve been through enough for a guy who has been here for 12 years,” he told the AP following a recent practice. “It’s been well worth it.”
Love, though, has had to pay a price for his new-found peace.
Almost since the moment he arrived in a trade from Minnesota in 2014 to form Cleveland’s “Big 3” alongside stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Love has been targeted — a convenient punching bag.
Despite playing at a consistently high level, he’s been called soft, overrated, injury-prone and worse. Trade rumors have swirled around Love almost without pause.
“I think that it’s almost like the ‘Chris Bosh Syndrome’ like Bron had with them in Miami,” said Cavs guard J.R. Smith, referring to the former All-Star center often under-appreciated on Heat teams with James and Dwyane Wade. “When things are going good, you know, you give the credit to LeBron. And when things are going bad, you’re going to point the finger at the next in line.”
The assaults on Love have been relentless and brutal. While he never displayed his emotions publicly, he was stung by the criticism, which drove him into a shell and made him guarded.
He trusted no one.
“It’s been a learning experience,” he said. “I came in averaging 25 (points) and 10 (rebounds) and was the man and right on the cusp of the playoffs. And then I was supposed to win a championship and I was trying to figure all that out with two ball-dominant guys and it was a process.
“It was tough for me. Not only that, I was trying to learn so much with trying to be able to deal with what’s sometimes called a circus around here, that sort of thing.”
As the Cavs were in the early stages this year of what has turned into one of the most turbulent seasons in memory, Love was thrust into an uncomfortable, and as it turned out, life-changing situation.
During a heated team meeting on Jan. 22, he was questioned by some teammates for leaving a Jan. 20 game against Oklahoma City and missing practice the next day. Love explained that he suffers from panic attacks and was getting help. He then wrote an essay for the Player’s Tribune, detailing his struggles and describing a previous episode in a November game.
Love’s revelation came while he was recovering from a broken left hand that sidelined him for nearly two months. It was a sensitive subject, and he initially worried about reaction or backlash.
And that’s the warming part of his journey.
Love received thousands of emails from people thanking him for coming forward. Not a day passed that he wasn’t approached by someone who wanted to talk, to tell him they were proud.
“That was the coolest thing about it,” he said. “So many people came up to me and felt like they could share their stories. I wouldn’t say I was like this 10 years ago, but I’ve become a lot more of an empathetic person and that has helped me in my relationship with my family, my best friends and just anybody that has come up to me and just shared their stories. I like that it has established a community, not only in Cleveland but everywhere.”
It has also changed his daily professional interactions. Love, who has received counseling, said it’s understandable if others see him in a new light.
But he made it clear he’s not looking for sympathy.
“I don’t want them to treat me different in there,” he said, circling his finger above one of the Cavs’ practice courts. “I don’t want them to make any excuse. That wasn’t the point. In the meetings I always say basketball is my safe guard. It’s where I go to escape so all that other stuff goes away. It’s the other times where my mind takes control, where I can be my own worst enemy.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said he urged Love to let things go, not worry and play.
“I told him,” said Lue, who missed time this season with his own health issues, “‘just be yourself, have fun. You’re one of the best players in the league. You make a lot of money. Relax.’”
Love’s had an uneven postseason. He struggled in the first round against Indiana and scored just seven points in the series opener against Toronto before bouncing back with 31 in Game 2.
Last week, he was knocked out of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals following a first-quarter collision with Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum. Love was placed in the NBA’s concussion protocol, and his replacement, Jeff Green, came up big and helped the Cavs win Game 7 in Boston.
Love remained in protocol on Wednesday and his status for the series opener is in doubt.
As his teammates were handed 2018 Finals T-shirts and caps on the floor afterward, Love was nowhere in sight after watching the game from a back room at TD Garden.
It was another twist in this strained season for Love, who has learned to take everything in stride.
The next stop on his odyssey is the Finals, and a chance to finish on a high note.
Love believes he’s already hit one in Cleveland.
“For me, the glass has always been half full whether I’ll play here four years or 14 years, I will have looked back and said it was a great time,” he said. “This has all been worth it. We got to hang a banner and hopefully there will be more to come.”