On a spring day in 1995, the most powerful men in professional basketball gathered in a Chicago gymnasium to see the future of the NBA.
They had come to see a prospect, a teenager who stood nearly seven feet, with the wingspan of a prehistoric bird, who ran like a cheetah and leaped like a gazelle. He looked like a center, but moved like a point guard. Gangly, yet graceful. He could pass and run and shoot. He could guard all five positions.
Until that day, no one had ever seen anything quite like him. Before them stood a basketball player for a new age: Kevin Garnett, The First of His Kind.
Here was a big man who could rise to defend the rim, grab the rebound, lead the fast break and dunk at the other end.
Here was a high school student daring to turn pro, at a time when the draft was strictly populated by collegians.
Here was an audacious, uniquely skilled young man who would, quite literally, change the NBA forever.
The preps-to-pros trend? Garnett started it. The age limit? Garnett indirectly triggered it. The max contract? The five-year rookie scale? The 1998-99 lockout? All were influenced by Garnett’s then-infamous $126 million contract.
The perpetual search for lanky, long-limbed, uber-athletes who can swing from the paint to the perimeter—Darius Miles, Stromile Swift, Anthony Randolph—effectively began with Garnett, 20 years ago.
As Garnett’s brilliant career quietly winds down back where it all began, in Minnesota—after stops in Boston and Brooklyn—it seems like the right time to reflect on one of the most unique figures ever to grace the NBA.
B/R spoke to more than 40 people who played or worked with Garnett over the course of his basketball life for a two-part oral history of a unique NBA career.
Click to Other Sections
• Workout wonder
• Preps-to-pros pioneer
• Intensity is a constant state of mind
• What could have been
• Money makes the NBA go ’round
• Getting under everyone’s skin
• Trouble with the Timberwolves
• Bound for Boston
• At long last, a ring
• Quirks, habits and virtues
• A joyous homecoming
It’s easy to forget now—in an era dominated by versatile, physical freaks like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, in an era of positionless basketball, where 7-footers shoot threes and freely roam the court—but basketball was, not long ago, seen through a much narrower prism.
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Power forwards were bruisers like Charles Oakley. Seven-footers like Hakeem Olajuwon lived in the paint. The long-range shooting and ball-handling were left to the little guys. The NBA in 1995 was ruled by muscular inside scorers—Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley.
Then along came this spindly, fiery 19-year-old with the height of O’Neal and the grace of Scottie Pippen.
“I think back then, you started to think about how big, how tall these guys were with those skills, and is that going to be the norm?” Gregg Popovich says, recalling Garnett’s arrival. “Are we going to have more guys like this come along that can do that? That’s what I thought of when I first saw him. It was incredible.”
Others would soon stretch our imaginations and definitions—Dirk Nowitzki, Rasheed Wallace and eventually James—but none who were quite like Garnett.
“He was that new-generation, transcendent player at the time,” says Paul Pierce, who played against and later with Garnett. “Because nobody saw nothing like that, the combination of speed, athletic ability, versatility at the time. He was the first.”
Today, no one blinks when Chris Bosh steps out to shoot a three-pointer, orDeMarcus Cousins pushes the ball in transition. We marvel at Durant and Davis, but Garnett was the prototype, their historical forebear.
“He was kind of the first freak athlete like that, that could move and run and do all those things,” says Toronto coach Dwane Casey.
“He revolutionized the sport,” Bosh, the Miami Heat star, says of Garnett, without hyperbole. “He was a young fella, being an All-Star, taking the rebound and pushing it down court and finishing with a dunk. I had never seen that before. So I was like, ‘If I want to be in the NBA, I’ve got to do that.’ “
Garnett turns 39 Tuesday, and though his ferocity has not faded, his skills most surely have. He may play another season or two, but he has likely played his last truly meaningful game.
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In a pre-YouTube era, Kevin Garnett was largely a mystery, a high school legend known only to scouting services and AAU coaches. Few had seen him play. NBA executives got their first, and only, up-close look at the Chicago workout.
John Hammond—then an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons—ran the one-on-none workout, at the request of Garnett’s agent, Eric Fleisher.
The top prospects in the 1995 draft were all college studs—Maryland’s Joe Smith, Alabama’s Antonio McDyess and North Carolina teammates Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, all sophomores with rich resumes. There was little doubt they would be the first names called on draft night.
Like everyone else, Timberwolves officials—vice president Kevin McHale and general manager Flip Saunders—were hoping to land one of the proven college stars. But Minnesota had the fifth pick, behind Golden State (No. 1), the Los Angeles Clippers (2), the Philadelphia 76ers (3) and the Washington Bullets (4).
John Nash, Bullets general manager, 1990-96: I’m not sure how I felt at that point about a high school kid. But I wanted to do my due diligence. I probably went in a tad negative about taking a high school kid.
Jerry Zgoda, reporter, Minneapolis Star-Tribune: The story Flip tells is, him and McHale go in there saying, “OK, whatever happens, we’re going to praise the hell out of Garnett, and say he’s great,” because they wanted either Joe Smith, Stackhouse, McDyess or Rasheed to fall to them.
John Hammond, Bucks general manager: The thing that I remember vividly was how nervous Kevin was. He got to the point early in the workout where basically he almost started hyperventilating. I thought he was going to pass out. … So he and I just walked to the other end of the court, with no one on that end. Now we have our backs to everyone. I just had him start shooting some free throws and tried to get him to relax and pull himself back together.
John Nash: The one-on-none workouts can be very misleading. You prefer to have someone out there going against him. … John worked him hard.
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John Hammond: Near the very end of the workout, I put him at half court, on the right side of the court. I said, “Kevin, OK, put the ball on the floor as creatively as you can, and then finish to the basket as strong as you can.” He started putting the ball on the floor, and going behind his back, between his legs, and the speed and the agility that he was doing it with, and then the way he finished at the basket. … I had vision of everybody watching him. And I’m telling you, eyes were wide open and some jaws were dropping.
Flip Saunders, Timberwolves coach, 1995-2005, 2014-present: His intensity, his energy, his skill set, everything he did was off the charts. If you would have just brought in 10 guys, the top 10 guys, and you just would have let them play and go through things, you would have said, “OK, we’re taking him No. 1.”
John Nash: I came away from the workout going, “Wow, this guy’s going to be a great player,” and came back to Washington and huddled with our owner (Abe Pollin). I explained to him that we liked a lot of players at the top of that draft—Joe Smith and McDyess, and Stackhouse and Rasheed. I said, “You know, Mr. Pollin, there’s this high school kid. I want to tell you, he might be special.” He said, “John, that’s OK, I would prefer it if we didn’t draft somebody right out of high school.” I said, “Mr. Pollin, you’re making my job easier, because I would have wrestled with the decision.”
Flip Saunders: That was probably the best workout I’ve ever seen one individual ever have. … Kevin [McHale] and I both thought that there was no risk. We were just hoping that he was going to be there.
Jerry Zgoda: [On] draft day, somebody called me up at, like, 11 in the morning. I don’t know if it was another team, or if it was an agent, but some guy called and said, “I got a scoop for you”—he wouldn’t identify who he was—that Garnett won’t play in Minnesota, he’s told the Wolves he won’t play there. I remember calling Flip that morning, asking, “Has Garnett told you he’s not going to play there?” He goes, “Ahhh that’s bulls–t.” I don’t know who it was. … I never knew.
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In declaring for the 1995 draft, Garnett became the first teenager in two decades to make the preps-to-pros leap, since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975. But once Garnett made the transition, the floodgates swung open. In 1996, preps stars Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal and Taj McDavid followed Garnett’s lead. The trend reached its peak in 2001, with three of the top four draft picks coming straight from high school, including Kwame Brown, the first preps star to be taken No. 1. Two more preps stars would eventually go No. 1: LeBron James in 2003 and Dwight Howard in 2004.
While Garnett, Bryant and Tracy McGrady became superstars, many others washed out, driving league officials to seek a policy change. In 2005, the NBA—with the consent of the players association—adopted a rule requiring all draft entrants to be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school. All told, 38 players made the preps-to-pros leap in the 10 years following Garnett’s entry.
Russ Granik, NBA deputy commissioner 1990-2006: Back when Kevin did it, I think it was looked at as just an anomaly. … I don’t think people thought that one player doing this was going to change anything. We hadn’t seen a player do it for [20 years]. So he might have been the only one to come in the next 15 years.
John Nash: I think [Garnett and Bryant] coming back to back, and having the success that they had, probably convinced everybody that if they were good enough, they could do it.
Sonny Vaccaro, former sneaker company executive: He may or may not admit to this, but he was going to go to Michigan. The Fab Five guys, that whole era, Juwan Howard being from Chicago—I would’ve bet a million dollars that’s what he was going to do. [But then] I started hearing rumors that he would be drafted high, but [teams] didn’t specifically say they would take him.
I said, “Kevin, if you can’t play, if you screw up, you’re still going to get $15 million. God forbid if something happened to you in college, you’re not getting anything.” He said, “Mr. Vaccaro, do you think I’ll get drafted?”
I told him I didn’t know for sure, but, and I’m paraphrasing—”Kevin, you will not go below 10th in the draft.”
Paul Pierce, Washington Wizards forward (formerly with the Nets and Celtics): He opened the floodgates. There are a lot of guys who are in the league because of that. Who knows if we have Lakers Kobe or LeBron James, these guys out of high school, if it wasn’t for Kevin Garnett.
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LeBron James, No. 1 pick in 2003: For myself, KG and Kobe, they set the tone on guys coming straight to the league at that era, in the ’90s where it was not the thing to do. In KG’s fashion, for him being an 18-year-old kid…to do the things that he did, it was a positive reinforcement when I got to my decision time, that I could do it.
Russ Granik: It got to point where if a high school player didn’t come out directly to the NBA, it was almost like he was acknowledging he wasn’t a top-tier player. And that really became part of the problem.
Jonathan Abrams, author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep to Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, due out in 2016: I think Kevin Garnett made it almost look a little too easy. He had his growing pains at the beginning, but he really flourished in his second season, so it put it into the heads of a lot of these other guys, that “Hey, Kevin Garnett did this; maybe I can, too.” But I don’t think they really saw the behind-the-scenes work that a young Kevin Garnett really put into his game, and also the veteran leadership that he had on that team, with a guy like Sam Mitchell.
Paul Pierce: After that draft, you noticed that everybody wanted the next Kevin Garnett. They were looking for the tall, skinny kid, who was fast, athletic and trying to bill him as a Kevin Garnett. Guys like Darius Miles, Stromile Swift, Brandan Wright, Keon Clark. … We got these tall, skinny, athletic guys, who are fast, get up and down the court, maybe we can turn them into the next Kevin Garnett. So that’s when the draft changed from being full-grown and proven, to OK, this guy has potential, he can be the next Garnett.
Jonathan Abrams: [NBA officials] thought that a couple failures would kind of correct the system, and kids wouldn’t jump out of high school. So they weren’t that concerned when Garnett originally came out about an influx of high-schoolers applying for the draft in subsequent seasons.
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Russ Granik: The problem was when it became much, much more widespread, it became awful hard to evaluate talent. I think that really pushed the league to fight so hard for at least one year out of high school, as the draft eligibility. That one, I really do attribute to [Garnett].
Ron Klempner, NBA Players Association general counsel: [Garnett] was one of the first, and certainly one of the highest profile. I would say that it added to the discussion [of an age limit]. But considering the removal of time, I’m not sure how big of a part it was.
Ask for lasting impressions of Kevin Garnett, and you will quickly find yourself drowning in sports cliches. Focus. Dedication. Loyalty. Team guy. Lots of heart. Also, intense. Really, really intense. Oozing intensity. Did we mention the intensity?
Nearly everyone who has played, coached or competed against Garnett does, frequently.
“He had that right from the beginning—he was always extremely intense,” says Saunders, Garnett’s coach for his first 10 seasons.
“Every day,” says former teammate Sam Mitchell. “Practice or game, you could not tell the difference.”
The gritted teeth, the searing gaze, the growling and yapping and exulting, the game-day rituals he followed religiously, the Rain Man-like head-banging on the basket stanchion, the attention to detail, the insistence on every teammate doing his part—this is what players and coaches will remember most.
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Every first encounter with Garnett is a little different. But no one walks away without a lasting impression.
Paul Pierce: Me and KG played together; I think it was the summer going into my junior year. … It was a local AAU team in California. … I knew he was one of the top players, but I wasn’t sure what kind of player he was at the time. I just knew he was, like, seven feet, 6’11”.
Our first practice was at my high school…and I’m watching him run up and down the court, block everybody’s shot, yelling, shooting threes, coming down, pushing the ball full court. I was like, man, I ain’t never seen nothing like this before. And then all of a sudden, the gym was all filled up and everybody was in there watching him. … Every time he blocked a shot, he screamed to the top of his lungs, or dunked and he’s yelling as loud as he could. I was just looking like, “Man, this dude is intense.” If you didn’t match his intensity, then he didn’t want you out there.
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Joe Abunassar, Garnett’s personal trainer: We had been working out and we went to Memorial Park (in L.A.), and he had forgotten his socks. It was him, [Chauncey] Billups, [Al] Harrington, Ty Lue, Michael Ruffin and a few others. He played every game. He was dunking on guys and blocking shots—all with no socks on. Hours he was playing. When it was over, there was blood seeping through the front of his shoes. Part of his feet and toes were just bleeding. It was unbelievable.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks forward, 1998-present: My rookie year, he always kind of went at me a little bit. He was talking some crap out there. But that was fun for me, that was my first time really experiencing that. In Germany, nobody ever really talked to me like that. I think that actually helped me in a way, to kind of grow up in this league.
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Chris Webber, NBA forward, 1993-2008: He and I agreed never to be cool on the court. … He wasn’t a fake rah-rah guy. An actor, a liar, can’t do that much. To cuss yourself out that much isn’t possible.
Christian Laettner, Timberwolves teammate, 1995-96: The thing I recognized immediately, more than anything, besides his freakishly long body, was how much heart he had, and how tough he was for being a young, skinny kid. And I immediately fell in love with him because the kid was so tough. The biggest guy on the team could back him down in the lane, and Kevin was still there ready to fight and bump and to play defense.
Sam Mitchell, Timberwolves teammate, 1995-2002: We were running sprints after practice. He outran every guard, outran every small forward and every big guy. He wanted to win at everything that he did. Every drill, he wanted to win. And it was the first day. … The first thing I thought about was, “Hell, how am I gonna score against this guy every day in practice?”
Terry Porter, Timberwolves guard, 1995-98: He always had questions: “What was it like back in the day? What was it like going to the Finals? What was this guy like to play against?” He wanted to know so much about the history of the game and wanted to be great. He always asked, “What can I do to improve my game?”
Glen Taylor, Timberwolves owner: He said, “I want to spend time with you,” because, he added, “There’s a whole world that I don’t know about.” And I said, “For what?” “Well, how do you know when people ask you for money that it’s a good charity?” So that’s how we spent our first meetings together. He came down to my home sometimes and we sat there and we talked about no basketball. … We just talked about the other parts of life and kind of expanding his life. I’m thinking, “He’s 18 years old, and he’s already thinking about this.”
Flip Saunders: Great memory—remembers everything. There have been times where he’s remembered scouting reports from six years ago. We always had a fine system for [not returning] scouting reports. In his first few years, he used to just pay all the fines up front, because he would keep the scouting reports to study them in the offseason.
Kevin McHale, Timberwolves GM 1995-2008: He was prone to frustration at times, but there were also glimpses of spectacular play. There were times he [would] block shots, run down the floor, get offensive rebounds, come back down, switch on the guard, keep him in front of him, go back in and help and weak-side block another shot. He had absolute flashes of just brilliance.
Sam Mitchell: First day. Doug West, myself, we knew first day. I remember walking off the court, we looked at each other and said, “One day, we’re going to tell people we played with Kevin Garnett.”
Fans, reporters and opponents soon noticed something else, too: Garnett could not be classified under any conventional NBA rubric, especially on defense. On any given night, he might guard a center, a power forward or a point guard, using his length and quickness to disrupt the shorter players, and his strength and height to bother the bigger guys.
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Flip Saunders: He’s guarded Michael [Jordan] at times. He’s guarded Karl Malone. He’s guarded Shaquille [O’Neal]. He’s guarded point guards, Kevin Johnson, [Steve] Nash, [Stephon] Marbury. You just pick the All-Stars, at some point he was going to be matched up on all those guys and guard them all. There have been times when he’s guarded all five positions in the same game.
Sam Cassell, former Garnett teammate, 2003-2005: Who else could do that? He studied the game. He prepared himself for games better than anybody I saw.
Sam Mitchell: When we played zone he was at the top. His responsibility was to guard the top, front the post and get back to the top. And he did it.
Kevin Johnson, three-time All-Star point guard: I had been guarded by much taller players before, like Magic Johnson, but trying to get around Kevin Garnett seemed impossible. His arms almost stretched from sideline to sideline, he was as quick as a cat, and when you tried to take it to the rim he was able to swat everything. On top of that, he had unlimited energy and effort, and he never stopped talking. Luckily, I didn’t have to face him too often, because by the time he hit his prime, my time in the league was winding down.
Jose Calderon, 10-year veteran point guard: People think, “Oh you’re switched to a big guy, just try to play against him, you’ll be faster or whatever.” But he was fast at the same time. He was long as well. So even if you passed by him, it was tough to finish, because he was coming from behind to block that shot either way. … He could contest your shot or just go for the block. He was really faster than any other big.
Paul Pierce: I think I was on pace for about 60 points one game. He was guarding Antoine Walker at the time. It was like, “All right, forget it, Paul’s killing us.” So he switched off and guarded me. And I promise you, for a good two-minute stretch, he did not let me catch the ball. I didn’t know what to do. … I just stood at half court. I was like, “All right, as long as he’s out of the paint.”
New Age Stockton-Malone
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One year after drafting Garnett, the Timberwolves made another bold move, executing a draft-day trade for Stephon Marbury, a surly young point guard from Coney Island who had the strength, speed and skills to become a star. The Timberwolves sent Ray Allen, the fifth pick in the 1996 draft, to Milwaukee, for the rights to Marbury, who was taken fourth. The potency of a Marbury-Garnett pairing had Timberwolves officials giddy, and had pundits everywhere gushing about a new-age “Stockton-Malone”—alluding to the Utah Jazz’s legendary point guard-power forward duo. With a 20-year-old Garnett and a 19-year-old Marbury, along with talented young forward Tom Gugliotta, the Timberwolves appeared to be set for years to come, a Western Conference power in the making.
Sam Mitchell: Oh, they were good, man. You put those two in the pick-and-roll, it was over. Because Steph could flat-out score, and he was strong and he could get to the basket. And Steph had an assh–e streak in him that you’ve gotta have. Oh, he had it in him. The great ones gotta have that in them.
Flip Saunders: KG, to this day, is probably one of the best screen-setters. KG can pick and pop and score, he can score at the rim. Steph was like a blur coming off screens. He had the ability to shoot from behind. They became, at times, pretty much unguardable.
Sam Mitchell: Maybe even better [than Stockton-Malone], because Steph was so much more of a scorer than John Stockton was. And Steph could facilitate, just like Stockton, but Steph was just so much more a dominant scorer than Stockton.
Steve Aschburner, Timberwolves beat writer for Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 1994-2007: From the outside, they seemed to be best buds. They did commercials together and appearances locally together.
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Jim LaBumbard, Timberwolves media relations executive, 1993-2000: [Marbury] was so excited to be coming to Minnesota, and for us in Minnesota that was a breath of fresh air, too. No one was excited to come to Minnesota at that point, right? So we thought that was pretty cool.
With Garnett averaging 17 points, Marbury 15.8 points and Gugliotta 20.6 points, the Timberwolves won 40 games in 1996-97 and made the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s eight-year history. They were swept in the first round, 3-0, by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The following year, Garnett and Marbury helped set a then-franchise mark with 45 wins, but fell in the first round to the Seattle SuperSonics, 3-2. It would be their last playoff run as Timberwolves teammates.
Marbury forced a trade in 1999 to the New Jersey Nets—a move that was said to be motivated in part by Marbury’s jealousy over Garnett’s $126 million, six-year contract extension. Under the NBA’s new labor deal, which capped individual salaries, the most Marbury could earn was $71 million over six years.
Flip Saunders: We got double-whammied. KG’s contract forced the lockout. And by that contract, the lockout forced the [max] contract. And so we lost Marbury, because basically Marbury thought he couldn’t play with KG when he was making $20 million, and Steph was making $9 million, and Steph was taking shots at the end of the game. That was his quote.
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Steve Aschburner: Garnett, his favorite player was Magic Johnson. He would have been happy facilitating Marbury’s game. That wasn’t going to be an issue, in terms of sharing the ball or anything. Ultimately, I think it was money that got in Stephon’s head, and the notion that he’d have to go make it bigger somewhere else.
Terry Porter: He felt he was, if not 1a, [then] 1b, and he should at least be in that ballpark (financially). He didn’t feel at that point that they valued what he brought to the table.
Sam Mitchell: We all wanted Steph here. But sometimes these guys when they’re young, man, they have outside influences that we just can’t compete with. … They all want the same thing: They all want to get paid, they all want to be an All-Star and they all want to be “the man.”
Flip Saunders: I knew we were in trouble, the year we [acquired] Marbury. I said something to Stephon about, “You guys can be like Stockton and Malone.” And he said, “Well I don’t want to be John Stockton.” We were trying to convince him that it’s the two guys together, the greatness that they could have. He didn’t want that.
The Contract, The Lockout
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Garnett was just 21 years old, and two years into his NBA career, when he signed what was then the richest contract in pro sports history: $126 million over six years. The deal, signed in October 1997, triggered fierce skepticism and derision, even among other NBA players.
“He is on the hit list,” an unnamed player told the Miami Herald at the time. Although Garnett made the All-Star team in his second season, he was not yet a superstar and had not won a playoff game. Yet the value of his contract was more than double what Michael Jordan had earned in his career to that point. The price tag for Garnett was nearly $40 million more than what Glen Taylor paid to purchase the team just two years earlier.
Other stars had recently signed groundbreaking deals: Shaquille O’Neal, $120 million; Alonzo Mourning, $101 million; Juwan Howard, $105 million. But it was Garnett’s deal that owners cited as proof of a broken system. The following summer, the NBA locked out its players, beginning the longest work stoppage in NBA history, a six-month standoff that lasted until January 20, 1999. The NBA played a 50-game season that year but canceled the All-Star Game.
Although there were other factors, Garnett’s contract is often cited as having triggered the lockout.
Glen Taylor: I think it did.
Russ Granik: I certainly wouldn’t blame the lockout that occurred in ’98-99 on Mr. Garnett. We always had the view that a player was entitled to get whatever he was able to get under the system. But I think the extent of his contract led a lot of people in the league to feel that it proved that the current salary cap wasn’t working that well anymore, and that some changes had to take place. If it wasn’t his contract, it would have been the next contract that was signed.
Ron Klempner, NBPA general counsel: Coming out of the 1995 [collective bargaining agreement negotiations], the owners clearly did not get what they wanted, and they were looking for the first available opportunity to be able to go back in and get it. Garnett’s contract provided them with all of the ammunition that they needed.
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Andy Miller, Garnett’s agent since 1995: It was sort of an unfair target. … With lot of the small-market teams at the time, and the old-school owners, the Glen Taylors of the world, I think they used that as a little bit of a weapon to gain an advantage.
Ron Klempner: The concept of young players, just two years removed from high school, being able to sign for guaranteed amounts of that magnitude, was certainly a factor that permeated the negotiations.
Glen Taylor: I thought some of the big markets would be after [Garnett]. … And my thoughts were, the franchise had been down, down, down. This is the first time the fans in Minnesota could see some hope. So I went out there and made an investment that probably, money-wise, business-wise, was not a good one. But it had to do more with, that I lived here, I was a Minnesotan, and I wanted this for our team.
The collective bargaining agreement reached in 1999 clearly reflected the concerns over Garnett’s contract. The new CBA included, for the first time, a maximum player salary, as well as a five-year rookie scale (up from three years)—two features that would have prevented any team from handing a $126 million deal to a second-year player.
Ron Klempner: It soon became clear that the owners wanted a longer period by which they could control the incoming players. It’s safe to say that both of those rule changes can be traced back in one way or another to the Garnett contract.
Russ Granik: I don’t think those things were all related just to his contract. … There were a number of players who had begun a trend of starting to demand renegotiations and possible trades very early in a player’s career. So I don’t think that was attributable particularly to Kevin. It certainly was an example of the concern.
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Trash talking was well-ingrained in the game when Kevin Garnett arrived, but he’s taken the art of provocation to new places—and occasionally over the lines of common decency, according to some of his targets over the years.
It’s not just the creative taunts that set Garnett apart. He barks and chirps almost incessantly, in games and practice. He bellows, he chest thumps, he points, he claps, he glares. The verbal imbroglios are both legendary and infamous.
Such as the time Garnett (then with Boston) switched onto point guard Jose Calderon (then with Toronto) and spent two straight possessions yammering at him. Or the time Garnett roughed up the Phoenix Suns’ Channing Frye, causing then-Suns coach Alvin Gentry to remark, “I lost a little respect for him.” Or the time Garnett allegedly called Charlie Villanueva—who suffers from alopecia universalis, a disease that causes a loss of body hair—“a cancer patient” (an incident confirmed by Villanueva). Or the time he reportedly made an untoward remark about Carmelo Anthony’s wife (an allegation that’s never been confirmed). Or the time he threateningly grabbed the neck of the Knicks’ Bill (now Henry) Walker—a former Celtics teammate—after the final buzzer.
Occasionally—very occasionally—Garnett drops the ferocity long enough to laugh at himself.
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Sam Mitchell: Most of that stuff he’s saying is to himself. It’s funny, people think he’s talking trash, but he’s on himself about mistakes. If you listen to him, he’s always talking about “Kevin this,” “Kevin that,” “Kevin, what the ‘F’ you doing?”
Flip Saunders: It’s his shtick. Have there been times we’ve talked to him and tried to have him calm down? Yeah. But that’s just kind of who he is. If you’re on the other team, you are the enemy.
Phil Jackson, Lakers head coach, 1999-2004; 2005-2011: He carried himself with a tremendous amount of, what would you call it, bravado. High bravado. I had had some of my players tell me, “It’s all show; it’s not go,” that bravado. “Don’t worry about him, he’s not gonna do anything. He’s just gonna talk big.” … He’s talked a lot of crap over his career.
Flip Saunders: Kevin’s not a fighter. He’s a lover. You always worry about it a little bit. He’s got a very unique ability to be able to know when he’s gone too far, when to cut things off.
Henry Walker, former Celtic and Knick: That thing [between us] happened, we were coming out of the tunnel. I was with my mother and my sister and my daughter. I walked up to him, and I asked, “Hey, what’s going on?” because “You know, you’re like [one of] my guys I looked up to.” He just apologized. It was no big deal, man.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Sam Cassell: He’s got a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing. Off the court, he’s a great person. Great conversation. But on the court, he becomes a maniac. If you don’t have that [same] colored jersey he has on, you’re against him.
Steve Aschburner: In the preseason (in Garnett’s rookie year), they played against Milwaukee, they also played against the Lakers. I know that he took guff from Cedric Ceballos and from Glenn Robinson. One of them said something like, “He’s not ready,” as he sort of shoved Garnett out of bounds. And the other one was also trash-talking Garnett. He didn’t curl up in the fetal position. He sort of gave [it] back verbally, but mostly he just went on playing. That stuck with me, that this guy, he’s got some spine to him. He’s not gonna get rattled here.
Dwane Casey: The same trash talk he did during the game, he did during practice. … You couldn’t print most of it. It was never malicious. It was just something to get in the other guy’s head.
Noah Graham/Getty Images
Alvin Gentry, Suns head coach, 2009-13: He’s always been an edgy guy, that’s what made him great. … I wouldn’t judge him by that [one incident with Frye]. At the time, as a coach, it’s something you’re obviously going to react to. … There’s Michael Jordan, there’s Kobe and then, from a competitive standpoint, he’d have to be at that next tier.
Zach Randolph, NBA forward, 2001-present: We’re always trash talking. I fouled him when I played for Portland—he was playing for Minnesota—he fell, but then did five push-ups in a row before he got up.
Chris Bosh, NBA forward, 2003-present: Usually I don’t talk back, but if he said something to me, I said something back. I had just a terrible game for me (against the Celtics in the 2011 playoffs). He got me all off my game. He scored, like, four times in a row on me in the crunch. And I was so embarrassed and so upset, and he got in my head. Ever since that day, I never said anything else.
Jose Calderon: Everything started because I switched (onto Garnett on defense) once, and I contested one of his shots. And he made it. So he was kind of happy about it. So we went at each other. … The next possession he comes back and he’s like, “OK, let’s do it again.” … I think after that, he looked at me differently, like, I stood up to him or whatever. After that, we have [had] a great relationship.
Danny Ainge, Celtics GM: He’s so competitive that he wanted to win that scrimmage in practice, and he wanted his players to be able to talk through the trash. It was real. It wasn’t just some sort of contrived test on his players. He genuinely wanted to compete and he wanted to win in practice, and he was not afraid of challenging his players and talking trash to them and getting them fired up.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Tony Allen, Celtics teammate, 2007-10: (In practice), I’d make a shot, he’d be like, some explicit version of “Do it again! Bring that (bleep) in here again!” Or they’ll score, they’ll make a run and he’ll scream, out something like, “I’m not good, I’m great!” His motor just never stops.
Paul Pierce: One time, he asked [Joakim] Noah if he could rub through his hair, like a female or something. … And I know that kind of made [Noah] hot. And this was when Noah was a rookie, too. I remember Noah looked up to KG. He was like, “Man, KG, I had your poster on my wall, I looked up to you, man.” And then [Garnett] just said something like that, and was like “F— you, Noah.” I was like, “Whoa.” This kid fresh out of college, looks up to KG, just said he had his poster on the wall, and he tells him that! It crushed him. It crushed Noah.
Kendrick Perkins, Celtics teammates 2007-11: He definitely has the best punch lines in the NBA, as far as talking goes. You don’t really want to wrassle with Ticket. He got the best vocab, for sure.
Paul Pierce: (Recalling a light moment between himself, then with Boston, and Garnett, then with Minnesota) We were both on losing teams at this point. This is probably around the last week of the season. We’re talking (trash) at the free-throw line. I’m like, “Man, everybody needs to shut up, because we all going to the Bahamas next week.” And as intense as he was, he had to look up and just start laughing. … I said, “I’m going to Cancun. Where are you going, Ticket?” He said, “I’m going to St. Lucia.”
Few athletes have left as deep an imprint on their sport as Kevin Garnett has on the NBA. As KG celebrates his 39th birthday, a collection of players, coaches and executives recount what made him such a unique and transformational figure over the last 20 seasons.
This is Part 2 of B/R’s oral history of Garnett’s NBA career. Part 1 is here and accessible through the links below.
Click to Other Sections
• Workout wonder
• Preps-to-pros pioneer
• Intensity is a constant state of mind
• What could have been
• Money makes the NBA go ’round
• Getting under everyone’s skin
• Trouble with the Timberwolves
• Bound for Boston
• At long last, a ring
• Quirks, habits and virtues
• A joyous homecoming
Though Garnett quickly evolved into a dazzling, dominant player in Minnesota, he grew frustrated with the Timberwolves’ postseason failures, opening the door for a career-changing trade to Boston, where he found ultimate success while honing a reputation as one of the league’s most interesting characters.
For most of his Minnesota career, Garnett was a superstar surrounded by bit players, a solo act in search of a worthy co-star.
The Timberwolves granted Stephon Marbury’s wish on March 11, 1999, sending him to the Nets in a three-team trade that brought point guard Terrell Brandon, a two-time All-Star, to Minnesota. Though talented, Brandon was undersized (5’11”), and his career was cut short by injuries.
The next co-star to audition was Wally Szczerbiak, a sweet-shooting forward drafted with the sixth pick in 1999. But the chemistry was poor from the start and their relationship bottomed out when Garnett and Szczerbiak scuffled in the trainer’s room in November 2000.
Chauncey Billups spent two years on the roster, from 2000-02, but he did not reach stardom until years later, in Detroit. Tom Gugliotta had his best seasons alongside Garnett, in 1996-97 and 1997-98, but the Timberwolves let him go after the 1998 lockout to save salary-cap room, presumably for Marbury.
Meanwhile, Garnett’s behemoth contract, which was grandfathered in after the lockout, made it extraordinarily difficult for Timberwolves officials to acquire elite talent. And the Timberwolves sabotaged themselves along the way, agreeing to an illegal deal with Joe Smith that cost the franchise multiple first-round picks as part of the NBA’s punishment.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Despite his immense talents, Garnett became a playoff footnote, losing in the first round seven straight years from 1997 to 2003, never winning more than 51 games in a season.
Flip Saunders, Timberwolves coach, 1995-2005; 2014-present: It was difficult. We traded Steph, we got Terrell, who was pretty good. We also got Wally Szczerbiak in the deal, who became an All-Star. What you have to have is not just a star, but you have to have two dynamic stars. To get a guy that maybe can be an All-Star—that might not be good enough back then.
Steve Aschburner, Timberwolves beat writer for Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 1994-2007: I think [Garnett] felt like Wally was overrated, I think he resented that this guy that was sort of becoming his sidekick without any real chemistry and not enough chops. … There was no chemistry there between them, at all.
Sam Mitchell, Timberwolves teammate, 1995-2002: A lot of that stuff is overblown. Kevin respected Wally, because Wally could play. Wally loved to play. Now, Wally wasn’t the greatest defender, but when it came to scoring the basketball, Wally can score.
Kevin McHale, Timberwolves general manager 1995-2008: They were different people. They never seemed to have great chemistry, [but ] I don’t think it was as bad as everybody said it was. They had their moments. Wally made an All-Star team with Kevin. He wasn’t a great passer, wasn’t a great creator. [But] he played well with Kevin. In my time there, nobody played better with Kevin than Gugliotta. You can look at some of the stuff they did together. Very, very impressive.
Flip Saunders: KG’s the most unassuming superstar, in that he had more gratification passing the ball than scoring. So he didn’t care about shooting, where Wally, that’s all he cared about. So he got Wally a lot of shots.
Fernando Medina/Getty Images
Steve Aschburner: When Wally got his extension, [the media] broke the news to KG before shootaround. The look on Garnett’s face—he was working his molars over the fact that this guy’s going to be here long-term now, and being paid a whole bunch of money and that’s going to get in the way of certain kinds of improvement they could make in that team.
Andy Miller, Garnett’s agent since 1995: I think that that was the thing that probably caused the most turmoil. … Kevin always wants to be successful, always wants to win, wants the team to have success, wants everyone to shine. When you have constant frustration, always trying to plug a hole, and every year you end up with the same results, it’s extraordinarily frustrating.
Terry Porter, Timberwolves guard, 1995-98: We just didn’t have enough weapons. … You know, [Garnett] wasn’t the type of guy that was going take over a team and carry a team back then. And they were in the Western Conference, so it became more of a challenge early on. I remember us playing Houston in the first round. He had a great series; we just didn’t have enough.
Steve Aschburner: Glen Taylor pissed off his peers by signing Garnett to that contract, but nobody’s team suffered worse than Glen Taylor’s.
Finally, in 2003, the Timberwolves made two dramatic trades, acquiring point guard Sam Cassell from Milwaukee and swingman Latrell Sprewell from New York, providing Garnett the best supporting cast of his Minnesota career. The Timberwolves won 58 games, a franchise record, and Garnett won the Most Valuable Player award after averaging 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals.
NIKKI BOERTMAN/Associated Press
That spring, Garnett won the first two playoff series of his career, leading the top-seeded Timberwolves into the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, who had added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the Shaquille O’Neal–Kobe Bryant core. But Cassell entered the series with a badly injured hip, sustained in the second round, and his play suffered. He sat down for good after Game 4 of the series, with the Wolves trailing 3-1. The Lakers prevailed in six games, and Garnett lost his best chance to bring a title to the Twin Cities.
Despite a 44-win season, the Timberwolves missed the playoffs the next year, then parted ways with Sprewell and Cassell. They have not made the postseason since.
Flip Saunders: We would have won that year. … We were the No. 1 seed. I still believe, if Sam wouldn’t have got hurt, that we would have beat the Lakers and I think we probably would have beaten Detroit (in the Finals) that year.
Glen Taylor, Timberwolves owner: We went out and [acquired] those guys, [and spent] more money than we could afford. … I think everything went the way we planned it, except the injuries. And that’s been our misfortune ever since, the god-darn injuries.
Dwane Casey, Timberwolves head coach, 2005-07: In conversation, [Kevin] would let it be known that that was something that he was frustrated with, that they broke up the team that had gone to the Western Conference Finals.
Steve Aschburner: He was really fed up. He wasn’t the one raising his hand or making demands in the media to exit, because he is a very loyal person. But I think he felt kind of betrayed by the inability of McHale and the organization to come through for him.
Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images
Terry Porter: [Garnett] knew at the end of the day, he was going to be judged by his playoff appearances.… He cares about how he’s looked upon and what his legacy looks like.
Kevin McHale: He thought, “I have to do more. I have to do more.” Really, there was nothing more he could do.
Steve Aschburner: I remember after the Boston-Cleveland [playoff series in 2010], when LeBron got eliminated by the Celtics. And Garnett told us from the podium, about how he told LeBron about how fast things go. To me, that was Garnett basically saying, “I wish I hadn’t signed that last extension, because look how long it took me to get somewhere where I really could win.” That was pretty telling.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
By 2007, Garnett and the Timberwolves had reached a crossroads.
The Sam Cassell-Latrell Sprewell era had been short-lived, with each star alienating the front office over contract demands. At age 31, Garnett’s window to chase a championship was diminishing. And the Timberwolves, stymied by their own missteps, and handcuffed by Garnett’s massive salary—and with another contract extension on the horizon—decided it was time to set a new course.
What was once inconceivable became essential: The franchise would have to trade the greatest player to ever have graced the uniform.
Glen Taylor: I said to Kevin, “It’s gonna take us a while again.” … And I think he kind of says, “I’d like to win.” I say, “I’m not sure I’m gonna get you that here as fast as you want.” So I would say that he kind of was unsure.
Kevin McHale: It was hard on everybody. That really came down to just our owner having—and I think Glen was more than fair with everybody—a number he wanted to sign everybody with, and he tried to get the cap more cap-friendly. Kevin, just said he wanted X amount. It came down to a financial decision. It was hard.
Glen Taylor: I think now he says, “Glen you traded me. I didn’t want to be traded.” But I’m not sure it was quite that clear. I think he sent me some messages that “I want to get on a [contending] team.”
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Danny Ainge, Celtics GM: Because Kevin and I were such close friends, we had numerous conversations over the years [about Garnett]. We realized that Paul [Pierce] and KG would be a great combination. We thought that they really complemented each other well. So we discussed the possibility of Paul going to Minnesota or KG coming to Boston, like which way is the best way to do it.
Phil Jackson, Lakers head coach, 1999-2004; 2005-2011: When I realized that [Garnett] was available and wanted to leave Minnesota, I put a big push on (to acquire him).
Andy Miller: Cleveland was involved. They were a distant third in the whole thing.
Glen Taylor: L.A. really wanted him. Well, I didn’t know if I wanted him in the West. I thought I was getting better players. I thought L.A could not give me the players that Boston did.
The Lakers offered a package built around multi-skilled forward Lamar Odom and 19-year-old center Andrew Bynum, a promising second-year player who would eventually become an All-Star. Odom had a history of flaky behavior, however, and Bynum was unproven.
The Celtics’ package was built around another talented, but still-developing young center, Al Jefferson, along with several other young players and draft picks.
Phil Jackson: Dr. [Jerry] Buss came to me and said, “I have a handshake agreement with Taylor, that he’s going to come to L.A. But McHale hasn’t concurred yet.” So I said, “Well that’s a good excuse.” You always, as an owner, say, “I’ll do this, but …” So I kept that hope out there, that he was gonna be a part of the Laker organization.
Taylor: Odom, I was a little afraid of. I thought Bynum was gonna be a star.
Miller: I think that what McHale was looking for, on top of picks, was a core young piece, and he was infatuated with Al Jefferson at the time.
David Sherman/Getty Images
Glen Taylor: It became the Lakers, and it became Boston. And they both said, what does [Garnett] want to get paid? And I told them what he wants to get paid. I told them the kind of contract. And those two teams said they would do it.
On July 31, 2007, the Timberwolves sent Garnett to Boston, in exchange for Al Jefferson, four other players and two first-round picks. Many experts considered the Lakers’ offer of Odom and Bynum to be the stronger package. The deal between Ainge and McHale, close friends and former Celtics teammates, stoked suspicion that McHale was acting more in the interests of his former franchise.
Phil Jackson: I’ve always kind of hinted that, in fun. … Of course, it’s easier to make a deal with someone you know. But the (main) thing was, get him out of the conference, get him to the East Coast, get him away from us, so we don’t have to deal with him four times a year. So that makes sense. So that’s understandable.
Glen Taylor: We went to Boston, and I got a deal with Boston and took it to Kevin, and he says, “No, I don’t want to be traded.” … Then they went out and got [Ray] Allen. I went back to Kevin and said to him, later on, “Well, they’re still here, they want you.” I thought he said, “OK” to me. I really did. … I don’t know if he remembers it that way quite or not. Because he has said at different times, “I wished I could have stayed there.” But I thought I asked him. I thought he agreed. In thinking back, my guess is Kevin wasn’t sure which way he wanted to do it, and I made the decision for him, rather than he probably felt that I should have asked him again.
Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Ultimately, the chance to join two other future Hall of Famers, Paul Pierceand Ray Allen, persuaded Kevin Garnett to accept a trade to the Celtics, and to say goodbye to Minnesota, the only NBA home he had known.
In Boston, Garnett’s impact was immediate and profound. The three stars were branded as co-equals, each dependent on the others to fulfill their championship dreams. But Garnett was the linchpin to the partnership, instantly becoming the Celtics’ defensive conscience, their strongest voice and their emotional pulse.
The story of the Celtics’ 2007-08 championship run is one of individual sacrifice. Garnett set the tone from Day 1, demanding a total commitment from everyone, then setting the example himself, by surrendering shots and individual glory.
The veterans all respected Garnett, and the Celtics’ youngest starters, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo, were instantly drawn to his unique magnetism. They followed his lead in everything, and reflected his steely on-court persona.
Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics head coach, 2004-13: It was before our first practice—our first meeting with Paul, Ray and Kevin. The first thing he talked about is, “Hey, we all say we’re going to win a title, but what are you going to give up?” He challenged us right away. He was not f—–g around, and I love that about him.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Sam Mitchell: I remember when I was coaching in Toronto (in 2007), and we played the Boston Celtics in an exhibition in Rome. And Doc Rivers and Ray Allen pulled me to the side. They was like, “Man we need you to talk to KG.” I was like, “What’s wrong?” They said, “Man, he’s just so intense. He don’t need to do all that.” So they thought he was trying to impress them. I said, “Doc, Ray, he’s like this every day. Every day.”
Danny Ainge: He changed everybody, from coaches to trainers to massage therapists, to the entire organization. I think that it was just his energy and enthusiasm. But also, it was the fact that he believed. He had this strong faith in what the team could be.
Paul Pierce: It wasn’t about no bulls–t now. … The attitude around there was very boot camp-like. We’re gonna go in here and do our work every day, and the laughing and the joking, that’s out the window until maybe after practice or on the bus.
Brian Scalabrine, Celtics forward, 2005-10: Over the course of 82 games, or 110-some games like we played, a lot of guys can get real loose. He never allowed that. One day Leon Powe and I were cracking up on Eddie House’s tattoo. … [Garnett] was like, “C’mon, Scal, it’s time to rock! What the ‘F’ are you doing?” And I was like, “You know what? You’re right. It is time to rock.” We’re about to play the Dallas Mavericks and we’re over here messing around. It was 55 (minutes) on the clock or something like that. He was locked in and focused. That’s how it is with him. If you want to be on the team, that’s how it is going to be.
Paul Pierce: It probably made some guys uncomfortable, maybe [some felt he] need[ed] to tone it down. But I’m like, “No, that’s Kevin. Y’all tell him to tone it down like it’s a weakness, but that’s his strength. He’s gotta be like this. He’s getting ready.”
Steve Babineau/Getty Images
Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Celtics forward, 2007-11: I think he goes down as one of the best leaders of all time, somebody that led by example, but also policed his teams and said what was right all the time, in spite of what other people think. You talk about a guy who made a sacrifice coming to Boston—his role changed, he was more of a defender. He was a guy that kind of facilitated and kept us all together.
Danny Ainge: Doc would harp on him every day, like, “You gotta score more, you gotta shoot more. You gotta quit passing and you gotta shoot.” KG, it just wasn’t in his nature. He was such a team guy, and he cared so much about his teammates, and he cared about the camaraderie and the unity of our team, and was greatly affected by people that went off the reservation.
Doc Rivers: He’s the best superstar role player I’ve ever seen. He’s a superstar that can do everything, yet he gave himself to the team and played a role for the team to win, no matter what that took away from his individual stuff. I don’t know if there’s any superstar I’ve ever been around that is that unselfish.
Danny Ainge: Kendrick (Perkins) was a very important piece to a championship puzzle. Kevin knew that. He sort of took Perk under his wing and he loved Perk for how hard Perk played. Paul was always a great player. But Paul, all of a sudden, didn’t have to carry the load (as the sole leader). … KG’s presence just took a burden off of Paul, and freed him up to be what he was, which was a great scorer.
Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Doc Rivers: He was prepared, you better be. If you messed up in shootaround, he knew it. So he kept me on the edge because you knew he was as prepared as the coaches, and it’s rare you see that.
At the time the Celtics created their New Big Three, there were legitimate concerns about fit and chemistry, and legitimate questions about how long it might take for three towering talents to mesh. The answers came quicker than anyone could have predicted. The Celtics started the season 8-0, then ripped off two nine-game winning streaks, pushing their record to 29-3 on Jan. 5.
The Celtics finished with 66 wins, their best mark sine 1986. After a strenuous run through the Eastern Conference playoffs—it took seven games to beat Atlanta and Cleveland, six to beat Detroit—the Celtics landed in the Finals against their oldest rival (and the loser in the Garnett stakes), the Los Angeles Lakers.
Boston dominated, claiming the championship in six games and unleashing a raucous celebration at the new Boston Garden. Garnett averaged 18.2 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, 1.7 steals and one block per game in the series, while harassing the Lakers’ Pau Gasol and piloting a Celtics defense that had the Lakers flummoxed.
As the green confetti fluttered, Garnett took the microphone and unleashed a primal scream for the ages, an instantly iconic moment in Finals history: “Anything is possssibllllle!”
Tyronn Lue, longtime friend of Garnett’s, Cavaliers assistant coach: The proudest moment for me was when he won that championship, and I got a chance to see his emotions and how he reacted. It was the best thing for me.
Paul Pierce: Oh, man, he started crying. He broke down. When you saw that, it was just like, man, you felt him. You felt him. … And then he went to the ground. That’s when you knew. When a guy breaks down, a guy with the personality of KG, [who] is so strong, and [he] breaks down, then it means something. It means something to you.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Chris Webber: I talked to him before he went to Boston. I knew what that was about. Think about it, that was his only chance. … That goes down as one of my favorite sporting moments, seeing him win the championship, because I knew what he was saying.
The era of the New Big Three would last another four seasons, but Garnett, Pierce and Allen would never reach that pinnacle again. Their title defense was undermined by a knee injury that forced Garnett to miss the entire 2009 postseason. The Celtics returned to the Finals in 2010 to face the Lakers again, but they lost Perkins to an injury in Game 6 and lost an epic Game 7 that went down to the final minute.
Age and injuries eventually took their toll and the Celtics’ preeminence soon faded as the power shifted to a new Big Three rising in South Beach.
Paul Pierce: I had no doubt in my mind—we probably would have won 70 games that year (2008-09) if KG was healthy. And the rings. So it’s all a lot of what-ifs, but you have that through history, with a lot of teams who didn’t stay healthy after they won.
Quirks, Habits and Virtues
Winslow Townson/Associated Press
What do you see when you look at Kevin Garnett? Over the years, he’s alternately been viewed as a warrior and a bully, a fierce defender and a dirty player, a kind spirit and a mean person, an intimidator and a mentor.He is a tough opponent—playing on the edge and sometimes over it—but a fiercely loyal teammate. His intensity sometimes seems to border on insanity. His game-day rituals are legendary and quirky.
Before introductions every night, Garnett will sit in solitude on the bench. Before tipoff, he will skip around the court, bellowing to the crowd. And he will bang his head into the basket stanchion several times, while muttering to himself and tying his shorts.
“He’s still a little nuts,” said former Nets teammate Mason Plumlee. “Even on the court, he’s different, but in a good way, man.”
Good, bad or otherwise, Garnett’s personality is as unique as his game.
Sam Mitchell: He’s gonna do the same routine. He stretches the same, he sits down on the floor in front of his locker at the same time. He has his hot packs for his knees at the same time. He puts his shoes on a particular way.
Kendrick Perkins, Celtics teammate, 2007-11: Before the jump ball, he goes to the sections of the fans and is like [pounding his chest several times], “Motherf—–s!” He’ll say a whole lot of [stuff]. And the fans just go crazy. And then he started getting cheers and, and you feed off that, right?
Jim LaBumbard, former Timberwolves PR director, now with Toronto: Even when he comes into town with visiting teams, I would never go say hi to him pregame, because I knew he was just locked in in just that way. It would just be like talking to a wall.
Sam Mitchell: He’s game mode, all day. You keep waiting to say, is he gonna burn out doing it? But he doesn’t, man.
Paul Pierce: He’s gonna eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Every game. We didn’t even have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until he got to Boston. So then he made our ballboys make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everybody. When KG was eating them, everybody started eating them.
Mary Schwalm/Associated Press
Doc Rivers: Before Game 6 in the (2008) Finals when we beat the Lakers, I walked in the locker room, and Kevin gets [hyped] up to where sometimes he goes over the line. You could see it. I had him come in my office and sit. He’s sitting there five, 10, 15 minutes. I don’t say a word. I just go back to work. He’s moving around and finally he says, “I’m in a timeout. I’m in timeout.” I didn’t even respond. You could hear him: “Phew” (exhaling). But you think about a guy who has been in the league that long and is still that jacked up for a game that you literally have to calm him down. That’s my favorite story.
Kendrick Perkins: It was in a playoff game. So we were down 10 or something in the third, double figures, coming back in the fourth. I remember him coming back on the defensive end. And you know how you get into (a defensive stance), you want to get low, like before the man crosses halfcourt. He literally about crawled on the ground and got up off his knees, like “Let me see it!” that type of [thing]. It was like, damn.
Tyronn Lue: A lot of people do all their howling on the court and they’re faking just for attention, but what he does is genuine. So one day we were at his house and we were watching Puff Daddy’s showMaking the Band, and in one of the scenes, some new guys came in and were trying to sing and were trying to compete against the guys who had been there. And KG just got so hyped, “Motherf—-r, you’ve got to stand up for yours! You’ve got to fight! Motherf—-r, you’ve got to come together!” He’s going crazy, he’s sweaty. And he just head butts the wall and put a hole in the wall of his house.
Paul Pierce: Most guys, you get warmed up but you’re gonna have a slight sweat. Well, he’d have a full sweat, like he already played four quarters of a game. That’s just him getting his mind right, getting his body right, ready to go. Everybody’s got their routine. That’s his routine.
Flip Saunders: He hates change. If he had a chance, he’d keep 20 guys on the roster, and he’d pay those last five guys we had to cut. … He’d become attached to somebody in one week and didn’t want them to leave. So you’d always have to talk to him and kind of reason with him why you might be trading someone. And it’s funny, because many times the lower-end guys are the guys he has more of a soft spot, to try to help those guys out even more.
Sometimes, even opponents are graced by that softer side. For a youngDwyane Wade, it was when Garnett went out of his way to encourage him early in Wade’s rookie season, in 2003. Garnett followed up the next summer, too, seeking out Wade in Miami to offer his guidance and support. Countless young players have been mentored by Garnett over the last 20 years.
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Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat guard, 2003-present: I was a young kid. This is Kevin Garnett, MVP of the league. But he believed in me at that time. He wasn’t my teammate. I didn’t even know him that much. …But he pulled me aside, he talked to me for that weekend, and he let me know that I can be a star in this league. So that confidence from a guy like that, man, just went a long way.
Mason Plumlee, Garnett teammate with the Nets, 2013-15: The first time I met him, he just told me, “Look, I’ve done it all. I’ve been an All-Star, I’ve been MVP, I’ve won a championship.” So he’s like, “Everything that I tell you is for you. It’s coming from a place of success, a place of—you know I want you to do well, because I’ve done it all.” He’s like, “I want to play and still be good, but I don’t have to prove myself anymore.” It’s funny, he says that and then he plays as if to prove himself each night. I always remember that. That just gave me trust in everything he told me, that it wasn’t for anything but my betterment.
Doc Rivers: He tries to teach the young guys professionalism first—not basketball. … He bought them suits. He’d bring them in and get them all wired up and buy two or three suits for them, so they’re dressed right. He told them, “If you’re coming to work, you’re coming in a suit and tie. You come to go to work.” I never had to tell our young guys about being on time with him. You had him doing it.
The ultimate Kevin Garnett quirk? He refuses to accept the fact that makes him so unique: that he’s a 7-footer with the skills of a guard. Since his first day in the NBA, Garnett has insisted—to every coach, trainer and public-relations official—that he be listed as 6′,11″.
Sam Mitchell: Oh, he’d get mad. He never wanted to be 7-foot. I think he always felt like if you list him at 7-feet, you’d put him at center. He never really wanted to play center.
Flip Saunders: He doesn’t like labels. He didn’t want to be labeled a center. So I used to call him 6-foot-13, because he’s really 7’1″.
Jim LaBumbard: He was adamant, from Day 1. … I think we just kept him at 6’11”. We just rolled with it. We’ve had other people come to us with requests on weight and things like that. To me it wasn’t that big a deal. I just kind of laughed at it.
Jim Mone/Associated Press
Though notoriously change-averse, Kevin Garnett has waived his no-trade clause three times. He went to Boston in 2007 to chase championships. When that window closed in 2013, he moved to Brooklyn, to join another team with title hopes. And when that pursuit fizzled, Garnett consented to one last move: back to the place he calls ‘Sota.
On Feb. 19, with the trade deadline approaching, the Nets shipped Garnett to the Timberwolves in a swap for 26-year-old forward Thaddeus Young. For the Nets, it was strictly a basketball move, a chance to get younger and more athletic. For the Timberwolves, it was strictly about Kevin Garnett—his past and his future.
There was sentimentality in the deal, sure, and perhaps some marketing strategy at work, too. Amid another losing season, the Timberwolves needed a move to reenergize the fan base. But Garnett’s value now transcends stats, ticket sales or winning percentages.
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The Timberwolves wanted Garnett for his influence, for his ferocity and for his self-discipline, for the impression he will make on their promising young players—Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio.
Flip Saunders: I said, “You know, Kevin, you won a championship in Boston, but when people think about you, they’re always going to think about you as a Timberwolf. That’s when you were MVP, All-NBA, All-Defensive (team).” I thought that maybe there was a chance that he might want to come back and finish, because he never really did want to leave here.
Paul Pierce: I thought he made a good decision. I told him, “The people of Minnesota are really going to appreciate you more than they do in Brooklyn.” And I think he felt that.
Jerry Zgoda: Basketball-wise, it made no sense, giving up a guy 26, Thad Young, for this guy. But here, it was a little bit of a fairy tale, him coming back. I was actually surprised how (positively) people reacted to it. I don’t know if that was so much that they were hoping that it was the same guy they traded away in 2007, or just the fact of it’s just a good story.
Glen Taylor: I’m happy. And I told him.
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Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves rookie: The first couple games we had, there were a lot of fans here at the beginning of the year. Then it started fading away a little bit. Then when KG came back, it was a packed house. A lot of fans came out, a lot of new faces, and you could just feel a different energy in the gym.
Jerry Zgoda: The night he came back was magic. You don’t see that that much, especially in that arena. It was special.
Paul Pierce (who, as a member of the Wizards, played against Garnett in his first game back): Oh man, it was unbelievable. I haven’t seen Minnesota like that since he left. It used to be one of the loudest buildings in the league when he was there. Then he left, it was like a ghost town.
Flip Saunders: The first road trip we came back on…the young guys were all in the back, three seats on each side. It was Lorenzo [Brown] and Zach and Wig. … So KG started talking about stories and different things, concepts and games. And these three guys were sitting there, like this [Saunders rests his chin on his crossed arms, staring intently]—their eyes, it was like they just saw Santa Claus. If I had a picture—they were riveted to their seats.
Anthony Bennett, Timberwolves forward: He’s always a hard worker, always intense, always talkative. Everything about his vibe changed the locker room. … Someone missed a shot, he’ll go to them, bring them back up. Just the little things, but it goes a long way for other players.
Flip Saunders: We’re trying to get guys that are 20 to start playing like they’re 23 or 24. … No one says it like he does. Even the players we have that are the veteran guys, like Gary Neal, say, “I never imagined that KG was this type of leader.”
Jim Mone/Associated Press
Paul Pierce: He’s going to give them an attitude. … He might not be that dominant KG, the MVP, the one dominating games. But his voice is louder than ever, in that locker room moreso I think than in Brooklyn.
Jerry Zgoda: He was having a dialogue with Zach LaVine quite a bit of time before (a game in Utah), giving him grief as much as anything. … Zach goes out and hits two big shots. I heard Garnett was going crazy in the dressing room watching it, saying, “That’s my guy.”
Flip Saunders: What KG brings, the other things, how he might help these other guys analytically be better, is more important than a low first-round pick or whatever it is.
Those who know Garnett best believe he will play another season or two, as a role player and mentor. After that, many believe Garnett will be given a share of the franchise, or perhaps seek to purchase the club himself, with an investment group. However the next chapter unfolds, it appears Garnett is back in Minneapolis to stay.
Paul Pierce: Let me tell you something, I heard KG say he was going to retire four years ago. In Boston. After like 2010 or ’11, he was like this is it, this is it. He’s still here.
Jerry Zgoda: I think he’s going to be the next owner. He won’t put the big money behind it, but he’ll be the face of it, like Magic Johnson is with the Dodgers. I think that’s why he agreed to do this.
Jim Mone/Associated Press
Sam Mitchell: He came home. You think about it, he’s the only Timberwolf, period, in history that really means anything. … He’s everything. He is everything.
Jerry Zgoda: There’s not much to be proud of if you’re a Wolves fan for the last 20 years, but he’s the guy that defines all that is.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
Howard Beck interviewed Danny Ainge, Paul Pierce, Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell, Glen Taylor, Dwane Casey, Terry Porter, Christian Laettner, Jim LaBumbard, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, John Hammond, John Nash, Jerry Zgoda, Steve Aschburner, Jonathan Abrams, Russ Granik, Ron Klempner, Kevin Johnson, Jose Calderon, Andy Miller, Mason Plumlee, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.
Ethan Skolnick interviewed Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber, Kendrick Perkins, Henry Walker and Tony Allen.
Ric Bucher interviewed Sonny Vaccaro, Brian Scalabrine and Alvin Gentry.
Kevin Ding interviewed Sam Cassell and Doc Rivers.
Jonathan Feigen interviewed Kevin McHale.