Posted May 7 2010 11:28AM
BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett's basketball mortality has been getting a lot of attention lately. After all, he's getting older, and he has fewer games in front of him than behind him.
Like we ain't? Like we don't?
Garnett's career arc is of special interest to me because I've been around it, beginning to end, like few others. LeBron James has those 20,562 witnesses at The Q, but I have been lucky to be an eyewitness to so many of Garnett's exploits and accomplishments, his highs and lows. From his arrival as a 19-year-old gamble taken fifth overall in the 1995 Draft by a desperate Minnesota franchise, through all the amazing, freak-of-nature, white-hot, All-Star performances and achievements, to his status now as a proud warrior with a proud Boston team making its last stand. Or at least the Celtics' latest last stand, continuing with Games 3 and 4 this weekend at TD Garden in the Eastern Conference semifinals series against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
If an athlete's career, start to finish, is like a lifetime, I've been around Garnett cradle to ... grave? OK, that's harsh and way premature, especially with two years and $40 million left on his contract through 2011-12. But with all the evidence and chatter about the decline in Garnett's game over the past 15 months, we would have to put him at middle age as an athete, at least.
The fact is, when Garnett turns 34 on May 19, he'll be nearly as old as I was when I started writing about him. There's some sort of symmetry in that ...
I was there in the small college gym in St. Cloud, Minn., for the teenager's first NBA practice in October 1995, a training camp session during which veterans Sam Mitchell and Doug West fouled him hard, shoving him into the wooden bleachers just beyond the baseline. Hazing of a rookie? A little. But also a "welcome to the NBA," toughening a new teammate with a taste of what Garnett could expect for the next decade and a half.
I was there afterward, too, when Garnett emerged from the small college locker room, something he'd skipped entirely as the first high school player in 20 years to head directly to the NBA. He was smiling and singing beneath a clunky pair of headphones plugged into a low-tech CD player.
I was there for his first road trip to Vancouver, when a Timberwolves coach pulled me aside with a worried look. "I just slipped the kid some money," the coach told me. "He sent his per-diem [meal money] back to his mother. I don't think he's going to make it." Later that night, most of the players went to a sports bar/gentlemen's club to watch the last Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fight. Garnett wasn't among them. He wasn't old enough to get in, yeah, but it also was a pattern to be repeated for the next 15 years: The road as business trip.
I was there two months later when Garnett dominated off the bench in the middle of a game against Houston, his work at both ends -- defense, scoring, rebounding, leaping -- zapping an otherwise dull January night as if someone had clamped on a pair of jumper cables. Garnett dubbed himself "Da Kid" that night but the better nickname came later, courtesy of then-local guy Kevin Harlan, referring to the 7-footer's game, allure and paycheck all at once as "The Big Ticket."
I was there for all those first-round playoff eliminations, Garnett trudging to a podium with a heavier load on his shoulders after each one. And there, too, for Minnesota's breakthrough in 2004, highlighted by Garnett's 32 points, 21 rebounds and five blocks (on his 28th birthday) in Game 7 against Sacramento in the Western Conference semis. That was his MVP season when Garnett -- and you could make this case for five or six of his core seasons -- was the most versatile, productive, hardest-working and remarkable player in the league, offensively and defensively.
I was there to see his support of young teammates such as Bobby Jackson and Randy Foye, the split with Stephon Marbury, his sucker-punch of Wally Szczerbiak and his sobbing at Malik Sealy's casket. Sealy -- the player whose No. 21 Garnett embraced after watching Sealy star at St. John's -- was killed in May 2000 by a drunken driver on the night they celebrated Garnett's 24th birthday in Minneapolis.
I was there through all Garnett's vows of "I'm 'Sota, man," his pledges of loyalty to the franchise and playful thought that Target Center might someday be renamed "Garnett Center." I was there at the end in April 2007, when a Wolves team with a still-in-his-prime Garnett but a supporting cast of misfits won just 32 games and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year. That was my last year on the Wolves beat, and Garnett's last year with the franchise.
I was there at The Finals one year later, when it all fell into place so fast for him. Clicking perfectly with Pierce and Allen. Cradling the Larry O'Brien. Hugging Bill Russell.
I wasn't there when he wrenched his right knee on national TV at Utah in February 2009, struggled to return and then had a large bone spur surgically removed from that knee a few months later. I wasn't there but saw the lowlights on TV this season as Garnett dragged that leg around in a difficult comeback, sometimes skipping ever so slightly to keep up. Guys from Rashard Lewis to Kris Humphries to Andray Blatche pounced, sniffing Garnett's loss of lateral quickness. The Celtics' defense, so reliant on Garnett as its middle, suffered along with him.
Now I am here to see Garnett moving better, drawing double-teams again and tapping into muscle memories from past matchups with Antawn Jamison. He used to dominate in that one, Timberwolves vs. Warriors, but this Celtics vs. Cavaliers version has gone pretty well: Garnett 36 points and 20 rebounds through two games to Jamison's 23 and 15.
"We just want to continue to get the ball to Kevin, no doubt," Boston coach Glenn (Doc) Rivers said. "Both of them are different players now in some ways. But Kevin still is absolutely fantastic on the post. We can't get it too him enough, as far as I'm concerned."
Garnett, prior to Game 2, talked to TNT's Reggie Miller about his tough comeback and renewed hope. "From the first with this injury, they told me this was going to take a year," he said. "I got cut on June 5, so if you look at it, I'm just turning the corner to meeting that head on. I'm feeling very strong. I'm not wearing my sleeves, none of the mechanial devices I have on me playing. And this is the time to peak."
The optimism in his voice was as clear as the spring in his step lately. "I think he's moving better now than he has been all year," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told me. "He's more confident in his game than he was back in October or along the way, during the season. That's just a credit to him and his hard work in coming back from the surgery."
Said Rivers: "I think he's back now."
The mood around the Celtics now regarding Garnett is enthusiastic. While the trajectory of Garnett's career arc is down -- there's no denying that, given the minutes he has logged, the miles he has traveled, the heights from which he come -- a blip upwards is a strong possibility for 2010-11. After a summer of intense work, of course, Garnett running that beach of his in Malibu fueled by the desire to face Lewis, Humphries, Blatche and a few others again.
I plan to be there for some of those, too. As well as for the No. 5 getting hoisted into the rafters, maybe before they get around to hoisting No. 21 back in Minny. And for the big day in Springfield five years after he finally, really, is done.
Basketball mortality won't seem so bad once it's followed by immortality.
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