Seth Towns is playing the best basketball of his lengthy college career

At age 26, Seth Towns is pursuing a PhD at Howard while playing the best basketball of what has been an eight-season-long college career. Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

SETH TOWNS WAS sitting with his Howard teammates and discussing television shows they watched when they were younger, cartoons when they were kids.

"SpongeBob SquarePants" was a staple for the entire team.

Towns brought up "Courage the Cowardly Dog."

A lot of his teammates hadn't heard of the animated series. As Towns began explaining the premise, he noticed one of his teammates staring with his mouth open.

"Dog, you old," he said to Towns.

After a pause, Towns responded. "Damn, I am old."

You see, "Courage the Cowardly Dog" ran on Cartoon Network from 1999 to 2002. Some of Towns' teammates weren't even born until 2003 or 2004.

"Unc," as Towns is known around campus, is almost 7 years older than the team's freshmen and one of the oldest players in college basketball. His first collegiate game was Nov. 11, 2016. For reference, Barack Obama was still in office, "Doctor Strange" was the No. 1 movie at the box office and the song "Closer" by The Chainsmokers was at the top of the charts that week.

He's currently in his eighth season of college basketball -- and could have another year of eligibility. His journey has been a full one, with three schools, multiple injuries and a year away from the sport. Now 26 years old, Towns is playing his best basketball since 2018.

Six years ago, where did he think he would be in 2024?

"It definitely wasn't Howard," he told ESPN, laughing.

Seth Towns announces he is transferring to Ohio State

Harvard forward Seth Towns joins SportsCenter and reveals he is transferring to Ohio State.

LESS THAN TWO weeks after the world shut down in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Towns was one of the biggest stories in college basketball. He was considered the best graduate transfer in the portal after graduating from Harvard -- despite having missed his final two seasons after undergoing two surgeries to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. After being pursued by the likes of Ohio State, Duke, Kansas, Virginia, Syracuse, Michigan and Maryland, the 2018 Ivy League Player of the Year ultimately chose the Buckeyes, making his announcement live on SportsCenter.

"We felt it was worth the gamble," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann told ESPN recently. "But hey, if he could get back to a version of his sophomore year. ... If he could get back to 70%, I felt like he could help us."

For Towns, it was about coming home -- he attended Northland High School, less than 10 miles from the Ohio State campus -- and a chance to get to the next level. The last time he was healthy, he intrigued scouts as a 6-foot-7 forward who shot nearly 44% from 3-point range.

"The NBA was where my eyes were," Towns said. "Draft boards and all that good stuff, it kind of seemed it was headed that way."

Towns averaged 3.8 points in 2020-21 as Ohio State earned a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, with his role increasing in the postseason due to Kyle Young's injury.

"He really helped us the one year that he was fully healthy," Holtmann said. "Gave us great pop off the bench with his maturity, offense and shot-making. He was a great team guy."

Towns missed the 2021-22 season with a back injury. Then in September 2022, after playing just 25 games for the Buckeyes, he announced he was stepping away from basketball.

"I hadn't quite mastered the balance of how much work to put in versus how much to take care of my body," he said. "That whole first year was just a struggle to maintain whatever health I could muster. I always want to do a little more than I should. ... Every offseason was a surgery or trying to rush back into playing."

In three years, he'd seen eight different doctors and undergone three different surgeries for the same issue. When he went on Ohio State's preseason trip to the Bahamas in August 2022, he realized his knee wasn't healthy enough for him to play.

"I knew that it was possible that it was over for good. I also knew it was possible it wasn't," Towns said. "It was a step away from Ohio State and maybe a step away from basketball. I wasn't sure.

"It was definitely really tough having to meet that kind of reality."

LAST SPRING, HOWARD coach Kenny Blakeney received a call from Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. That's not unusual. Blakeney played at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski when Amaker was an assistant for the Blue Devils. Blakeney considers Amaker one of his mentors.

"Seth Towns wants to come to Howard," Blakeney recalled Amaker saying.

A few days later, Towns called Blakeney and delivered the same message.

When he committed in May, Towns still didn't know if he could play basketball -- and Blakeney didn't have any expectations for someone who played just 25 games over the previous five seasons.

But Towns had his reasons for attending Howard. The Crimson had played at Howard during Towns' junior year, when he was sitting out. It was around the time Towns started diving heavily into literature -- particularly Zora Neale Hurston, who attended Howard, and Sonia Sanchez, who taught at Howard. Pursuing a Ph.D. or MFA in Howard's renowned English department was a path that interested Towns.

"The mecca for black intellectual space that it was ... I was just setting myself up for the best possible scenario," Towns said. "I could study exactly what I want to study, while giving myself a chance to hoop again."

One of the things Blakeney admired about Towns when they spoke was his involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement; Towns was briefly detained by police during a peaceful protest following George Floyd's death in 2020.

He was not arrested and was released a few hours later. At the time, his actions garnered support from Amaker, Holtmann and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

Towns' future teammates were familiar with his story, too.

"He's unwavering in what he believes in terms of social justice," Howard guard Joshua Strong said. "That's something that resonates with me. He's put it out on the line. He was in the streets when it was time to advocate, he really did that. That's a risk that not a lot of student-athletes are willing to take."

Towns' activism was a key reason why Blakeney wanted him at Howard.

"He fit with what we stood for as a basketball program," Blakeney said.

During his year off, returning to the sport was always a thought for Towns, but he rarely picked up a basketball. It wasn't until he attended alumni weekend at Harvard a few weeks after commiting to Howard that he began to take the idea of returning seriously.

"I played for the first time in ages and a lot of the guys said, you don't need to be done playing," Towns said.

So before arriving in Washington in the summer, and still not totally convinced he could return to playing at a Division I basketball level, Towns went back up to Boston to work with a trainer he knew from Harvard: Bryan Doo, who used to be the strength and conditioning coach for the Boston Celtics. He needed to see how strong his knee could get. Conversations and workouts with Doo, Jack Baldwin (one of Doo's colleagues) and Bobby Esbrandt (Howard's physical therapist) convinced Towns he was ready.

But he also needed a mental reset. Last spring, he told The Columbus Dispatch he'd "restructured" his relationship with basketball.

"It's more so the dominance that it has over my value system," Towns told ESPN. "What it means to not just be a basketball player, but the precedence that it held in my life was so much. Injuries humble you, for better and for worse."

With the improved health of his knee and clarity in his approach to the game, Towns hit the ground running at Howard.

"He steps on the court and within five seconds, you know he's a bad motherf---er," Blakeney said. "It was a matter of, how can this knee hold up? Can he make it through the rigors of how we work as a program?"

Strong recalled one of Towns' first full-speed workouts in the fall.

"It was an offensive drill, 3-on-3 actions, 4-on-4 actions," Strong said. "And he scored 11 straight points by himself. Nothing forced, just him making shots."

After sitting out the first three games while awaiting NCAA clearance, Towns came off the bench for three games, and has been in the starting lineup since. He's averaging 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds, shooting 37.4% from 3-point range. He has scored in double figures in 16 of 19 games, including 26 points against Mount St. Mary's and 27 against Cincinnati.

"I'm playing the best since my sophomore year," Towns said. "Now I'm 26. It's a huge difference in how I'm playing the game."

Seth Towns gets the hoop and the harm

Seth Towns gets the hoop and the harm

THE TEAM GATHERED at Towns' apartment early in the season and decided to search for everyone's high school highlights on YouTube. Eventually, it was Towns' turn.

"The cover slide was like, Seth Towns, 2013," Strong said. "2013! That's so long ago. But he was getting buckets. He's been getting buckets for a minute. But 2013! It's wild to think about."

When watching Towns now, there's not much to indicate he has only played sparingly in the past six years. He can still shoot it, he's a good passer and rebounder, and he still has a knack for getting timely baskets late in games.

Blakeney has been most impressed by Towns' work ethic. He recalls a specific instance against La Salle, when he subbed out Towns for a breather; moments later, Blakeney looked up to see Towns walking past him to sub himself back in the game.

"I was like, you just MJ'd me right now," Blakeney said.

Seth Towns fights off defender for and-1

Seth Towns fights off defender for and-1

"If all things are equal and he doesn't have injuries, he's in his fourth or fifth year in the NBA. And yet he's fighting and scratching and clawing his ass off everyday for us at Howard," he added. "He doesn't want to take plays off. He understands there's a sense of urgency with his basketball clock right now."

Of course, the explosiveness and athleticism isn't quite where it used to be. Blakeney points out Towns is 0-for-3 on dunk attempts this season.

One of them, against Rutgers, was blocked off the backboard. The other two -- well, Towns called them "embarrassing as hell."

"It's not that I can't jump anymore," he said. "Some days my legs want to cooperate, and some days they don't."

While there's still a chance Towns has a year of eligibility left -- despite having played only three total seasons at Harvard and Ohio State, one of which was the COVID-impacted 2020-21 season the NCAA doesn't count toward eligibility, he would have to apply for a waiver again -- he's unlikely to take advantage of it.

There's a clock ticking on his knee's ability to withstand high-level basketball, and he knows it.

"I'll probably try to play basketball professionally for as long as my body will permit," he said, with the most likely path being overseas. "All my faculty has told me to take a break [from my Ph.D. work]. I can always come back to this."

From one of the most prestigious universities in the country to one of the biggest athletic programs in college sports to "The Mecca" for young Black intellectuals, Towns has checked a lot of boxes during his time in college.

He hasn't had a chance to reflect on everything yet; he's in the middle of basketball season, after all. But he's looking forward to it. For now, he's just soaking it all in.

And maybe taking mental notes.

"The book will sell," he said with a laugh.