American Idol

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Most of us will never know what it’s like to meet our idols, let alone share their work environment.

We’re not going to play drums in the E. Street Band or stretch a canvas for Jasper Johns or co-star in George Clooney’s next blockbuster.

Life in the NBA is different. Young guns idolize established veterans and, before long, they find themselves being backed down in the post by a guy they grew up watching.

This past Sunday in Boston, and again on Tuesday at The Q, Cleveland’s fresh-faced rookie forward, Tristan Thompson, went up against the NBA’s reigning Mr. Mean – and his childhood hoops idol – Kevin Garnett.

Since Media Day, and several times since, Thompson hasn’t hidden the fact that KG is his favorite player.

“I’ve studied him to a tee,” smiled Thompson. “I’ve been watching him ever since I’ve been playing basketball.”

Thompson is just an NBA pup in comparison to Garnett – a 16-year vet and 14-time All-Star who’s suited up for 1,197 more games than this summer’s No. 4 overall pick. But that doesn’t mean Tristan gave him any preferential treatment on Sunday night in Beantown. After all, he’s watched plenty of tape on him.

“Everything that he did, I kind of expected it,” explained the former Longhorn. “As a defender, get up in him and don’t give him any space. Any time you give a guy space, it makes him comfortable, so I tried to make him uncomfortable and make things tough for him.”

But the big question about the Big Ticket was whether he unleashed his infamous trash-talk, attempting to intimidate Cleveland’s 20-year-old freshman.

Garnett’s answer was succinct (and somewhat surly). “I haven’t said two words to that kid or anybody else on that team,” said the future Hall of Famer, who stopped just short of admitting that he talks trash at all.

“When I touch the floor, I’m not trying to be anybody’s friend. At the same time, intimidation is not something that I look to be a strong point for me. I like to understand my game plan, understand who I’m playing, understand a guy’s likes and dislikes.”

Thompson, who finished with three points and four boards on Sunday, admitted that the jawing was at a minimum at the Garden.

“One time, I was asking what play we were running and he thought he knew what our play was, and I was like: ‘No! I know what I’m running!’” recalled Thompson. “That was the only thing he said to me. Surprisingly, I didn’t get too much of his famous trash-talking. Maybe on (Tuesday) night.”

Garnett isn’t the first NBA veteran who likes to get inside a youngster’s head, and he won’t be the last. A pair of the Cavaliers old-school guys recall their younger days going up against a player they grew up idolizing.

Earlier this year, Coach Bryon Scott talked about the lesson he got as rookie at the hands of the great George Gervin. (Scott’s actual idol, Bob McAdoo, was then his teammate in Los Angeles.)

“(I remember) listening to the Ice Man give me 37 points my rookie year and telling me I was going to be a good player while he was giving it to me. And wasn’t sweating (which was unbelievable) and he was smiling the whole time. (He’d) talk to you while he was shooting it, but he was apologetic. ‘Don’t worry about it, young fella.’ ‘You gonna be alright.’ ‘That’s good defense.’

Austin Carr, the No. 1 overall pick in 1971, thought back on his first encounter with his hero.

“My idol was Dave Bing,” reminisced Mr. Cavalier. “I think he knew because when I was coming into the league, I let everybody know that I grew up watching him and Elgin Baylor. Those were my idols.

“When I got out there with (Bing), I was a little bit in awe because I had seen him do so many things. But once I got out there, and we got into a little jostling and he started dotting my eye, I had to start competing. All it took was one or two of those, and I woke up real quick!”

Coach Scott thinks that even the art of trash-talking has changed over the years.

“Trash talking, I think, went to a different level,” reasoned Coach Scott. “Now it’s a little crazier because guys take it personal, whereas back in those days, if you were whipping my butt and you were talking trash – I deserved it.”

Even Garnett, one of today’s current masters, remembers hearing it when he entered the NBA as an 18-year-old from Farragut Academy.

“Magic, Chris Webber, Scottie Pippen – (they were) very talkative,” said Garnett. “Dennis Rodman talked a lot of trash when I came into the league.”

In this week’s home-and-home matchup with Boston, Thompson was thrilled to get up-close-and-personal with Garnett on the hardwood. The high-flying freshman from Texas only got 17 minutes of action in Boston and was matched up with Brandon Bass as much as the Big Ticket.

But as idols go, a young player could do worse than modeling his game after the nine-time All-Defensive First Teamer. And Thompson freely admits that his game is based on Boston’s big man.

“Especially his love for the game – (Garnett) shows the passion that teams need to get over the hump, especially during the playoff runs. The will to win always beats talent. And he definitely shows the will to win to help his team. And that’s what I try to bring every game.”

Garnett even seemed surprised that Thompson would voice the fact that he’s the young forward’s idol.

“It’s a different time now, lot of guys don’t even admit stuff like that anymore,” said Garnett.

Tristan Thompson might emulate K.G. on the floor, but it’s hard to ever imagine the buoyant rookie matching Garnett’s stoic, stern demeanor. It’s actually rare that the native Canadian doesn’t have a smile on his face. And he admits that it’s one part of his personality that’s nothing like his hero’s.

“No, not at all,” Thompson quipped. “I’m a happy guy – I just love to play the game. Why not have a smile on your face? You get paid to play basketball. What more could you ask for.”