Hoop Magazine: The Man
They may still call him "The Kid" but those few close to Kevin Garnett know different
Nicknames are a funny thing. Some fit snugly -- Iceman, Sleepy, Microwave -- while others are a bit more of a stretch -- Sir Charles and Penny to name less than three.
But has a nickname ever carried more irony than the one Kevin Garnett has had to live with for years? Kid. Come on now ... Kid? This is a man who, as a teenager, moved from quiet South Carolina into the boiling pit of Chicago high school hoops, onto a Farragut Academy team that already had a bona fide legend -- Ronnie Fields -- running things.
And quickly, quietly, Kevin managed to make himself the story of that city championship season.
This is a man who also in those years assumed legal guardianship of his younger sister Ashley and, a few years later, adopted an at-risk teen, Michael Mason -- aka: Lil' Hype -- to go along with his close-knit crew of friends habituating in his Minneapolis home.
This is a man who started a company, OBF (a company that he passionately believes in), which will provide jobs and clothing and opportunities to many. He also started the 4XL Foundation almost two years ago, to help develop a nationwide Internet search engine for professional mentors for young people who want to do something with their lives but have limited or no outlets or direction.
Who, ever since he stepped on an NBA court, as a prom-to-pro cat, has been the flashpoint to any and all Twin Cities hoops addicts. The saving grace during losing seasons and the amazing grace during winning ones. The man who had multimillions of reasons to disassociate himself from his community and the hands and prying eyes of the general public, but hasn't. Who in a '97 Newsweek article reluctantly admitted that he was going to be one of the 100 most influential people (not athletes) in the world by the year 2010.
Man is a more apt term. And while you're at it, add a "The" in front of it, for good measure. Kevin Garnett's earned that title. Unlike the transformation made by other straight-from-H.S. diploma-to-the-League prodigies that are filling up this year's All-Star rosters, KG has had the unluxuried task of inheriting manhood way before NBA Commissioner Stern called his name.
He's in what he likes to call "phase two" of his life. A phase where, "If you look around, in a minute, you may see some Lil' KGs runnin' around."
The only thing basketball-related in phase two is the contract extension he just signed. The rest of phase two is about life issues, of making himself not just a more well-rounded basketball player, but a human as well.
We are dealing with a young man who's been grown virtually since day one.
"I've always had a job," he says.
"In all fairness to myself," he continues. "I had no choice but to be responsible. I had to. I had to work, you know? And I've had some jobs in my life. More than a couple. I had no choice."
No choice but to work earlier than the law allows, no choice but to become a father to his sister before he went on his first date, no choice but win the poker game with the messed-up hand he was dealt.
"It was never one day like 'wham-bam,'" he exaggerates to make his point. "[Being responsible] is something that I evolved into. I've always had to find some way to help out somebody that I found myself being responsible for."
But to what degree? This degree? The degree to which you promise to an old lady in the neighborhood where you played your final season of high-school basketball, after knowing the lady for less than a year, that when you "get straight, whenever you get situated, you'll come back and help her" with the grandson she's been forced to raise that she can't control. You know the grandson because you see him on the block everyday you go to class. He's younger than you but knows the streets like a CTA bus driver. You find each other. In him, you see you. Not now, but then, in South Carolina, hopeless, helpless. To what degree do you owe that child? Even after you make the promise that once in the NBA you'll come back for him? To what degree do you owe that child? Especially when you are still one yourself?
"You gotta understand," the legal father of two, birth father of none stresses. "Teachin' somebody and givin' somebody some money to save them are two different things. You know, I'm an example.
"Not just by sitting here saying it, but by action. As much money as I could have given Hype and his grandmother, him being around me, him seeing me everyday, to talk to me everyday, me talking to him, is a lot more valuable than me putting a check in the mail. You feel me?"
In other words, phase two of Kevin Garnett's life will be no different than what phase one was: a young man under 30 trying to find himself through saving other people's lives. He's complete like that. Yes, Ashley has gone off to college and Hype has reached semi-grown man status, but they're still inside of him. As will his grandchildren and "Lil' KGs" whenever they get here. His life is a streamed line of consciousness. To a whole 'nother power.
Cleveland. Gators, minks and seven-button suits. Phil the Fire chicken and waffles, the Sky Lounge's basement and Liquid's Lucas -- quietly the best bartender in America. Bar none. Kevin Garnett has come to town to face the future for the first time. For the first time in a long time (even in the shadow of Jordan, All-Star '03 and last season's playoffs -- first round vs. Shaq and Kobe), the spotlight is not on Kevin. Today, it is so on LeBron James (as is the entire city!) that KG can't even feel the heat.
"It's just another game that we have to win," he says. He's been through this before.
Fans, friends and teammates also call him Ticket. As in big, as in paid, as in stamped, punched or redeemed. As in franchise. The choice is yours.
Even before the game, an NBA exec (who asked profusely to remain anonymous) admitted to taking a League GM survey with the question, "Who would you build a franchise around?" -- and checking Kevin Garnett's name first.
Ticket 20/15, King James19/9. Minnesota wins by 14. Numbers are deceiving. It looks more lopsided than it reads.
After the game, a kid, all of six years old, walks up to KG in a Cavs No. 23 jersey. His father tells Kevin how much of a fan his son is of his, and asks if he can ink his son's little basketball. KG being KG bends down six feet to introduce himself to the kid.
"Wassup lil' man? I'm KG. Nice to meet you."
The kid's hand gets lost inside of Kevin's. About 20 people are surrounding them as they walk towards the bus before it leaves the stadium. "So, how'd you like the game?" KG still in conversation with the kid, never looking up as he walks, always keeping eye contact with his new fan. "Good. OK, who were you pulling for?"
All of a sudden the smile evaporates from the kid's face. His father's eyes widen. Everyone stops walking. We're in Cleveland, kid's rockin' LBJ's throwback, he can't front, the jig is up. The kid grows mute. For a second, so does everyone else. Then KG busts out laughing. Hands the kid the signed ball and rubs his head in a way that the kid—or his father—will never forget.
Jokes. He shakes the kid's hand again, tells him to listen to his Pops, then gives the father some love, telling him thanks for letting him meet his son. Then KG, black body in a white shirt, faded into the distance and onto the bus. He gave the kid a moment. What else was The Man supposed to do?
He becomes shook to some degree every time he hears the sound. He won't freak out whenever the sound appears on television, at the beginning of a Nelly, Murph Lee and Diddy classic or on PlayStation 2's True Crime. No, only when he hears it for real. There's a part of him that thinks that sound is for him. Again. There's a haunting feeling, a fear, a flashback. Even when he doesn't see them, the images of swirling blue and red lights pull him back. Back to when his life almost didn't begin.
"Sirens," he says. "To this day, they still mess with me. A little."
His life is Allen Iverson's. If you took a piece of tracing paper and put Kevin Garnett's first 19 years and put it over AI's first 19, it would match like DNA on CSI. Outside of neither having any relationship with their fathers, having to literally raise their younger sisters while being kids themselves, having to start providing food for the household as eighth-graders, or having all types of surrogate and stepparents help raise them because of unavoidable situations their mothers were in, both had to deal with serious legal situations designed to take their prospective futures away. Allen's made headlines, Kevin's didn't. That didn't mean it was less serious.
Kevin had seen one prodigy's life almost lost. He saw the same thing happening to him. He saw how the system, especially in the South, could work against the voiceless. Kevin Garnett had seen all of this too early in his life and he didn't want the same thing to happen to himself.
"Yeah, our lives are very similar, very parallel," Garnett admits with some hesitation. "And I think in both cases our lives are something we don't speak on unless it's necessary. Or unless it can change somebody else's life around. I think a lot of people can't understand what they don't know, and [AI and I] don't let people into our lives like that.
"But at the same time," he says, speaking through me to other specific—yet gracefully unmentioned media outlets and writers, "When somebody gets out of control and starts talking, they need to understand the background of certain individuals..."
A vein magnifies just above his right temple, then disappears.
"Everything ain't peaches and cream."
He looks at me as if I know. I do.
He then tells me how he doesn't ever want to be in a position where someone else has his future in their hands, suffocating him.
"That's why I have a better appreciation for the life I'm in now," Kevin says very necessarily. "That's why when I see cats in the streets, my dawgs on the block, that's why I give it up to them. Even though all everyone wants to talk about is basketball, I try to give them words of encouragement because I know trouble is easy to get into, and hard like hell to get out of."
I ask if he is glad for all the tough times he's had to endure?
Devoid of any shift in pride or ashamedness he says, "Yeah...looking back, yeah."
In his mind, he's falling. Just falling. He can't get up, stop or break this fall. In his mind his life is about to end and there's not a damn thing he can do about it. "In my head I hear DMX's song, 'Slippin'," he says. "All the time. For some reason, whenever I'm alone, close my eyes and think..."
There's a room inside of his house that allows him this. Shoes off. Eyes closed. His ebony skin hits the honey wood floors. Curls of marble embedded. Everything is white. Furniture. Walls. Fireplace. There is an almost life-size framed black-and-white picture of Malik Sealy above the fireplace. A green light illuminates the image at night. Green, Kevin was once told, is the color of genius. The picture reps that.
He is stretched out. Hands clasped over face, then behind head. No music. No sound, no electronic images. Just he, Malik and God. The way it's supposed to be, the way it will be again.
Through the silence, you can hear the thoughts of his life rush through his head, then his body. His energy channeled through a life still unfinished. It's almost as if he's rebooting. This room is his sanctuary.
"You ever see the cartoon Duck Tales?" he asked me once, describing the room. "Well, Scrooge McDuck had a room like this in his library. This here is pretty much my Scrooge McDuck."
Then, he falls into a trance. Entering phase three. Talking to me, meditating, soul searching. Simultaneously. Multitasking.
"When I sit back and think about my life, man..." he says, eyes still closed. "I think about, I think about like, how many wrongs I've done. Then I think about what I've done with my life; I think about how I've been through a lot, been exposed to a lot of things, and how through all of the mishaps, how I've been able to stay positive, you know? I think about how I put my Moms through a lot, the headaches I gave her, how much of a burden I was by telling her I'm going to the park to play ball on Friday and mess around, and go play in tournaments in Virginia, Atlanta, or Orlando, not coming home until Sunday without missing a beat. I think about Ash, my sisters, my niece, my nephew, my beautiful Moms. I think about how hard it was..."
He's slippin'... then he catches himself. He opens his eyes.
"But I also know it coulda been harder. I ain't going to sit there and play like I had some bogus life. When I think about it all, despite everything, I've had a great life, a great childhood. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't. I wouldn't want to ruin any of it."
His childhood is his manhood. And as much as we'd like to admit KG's had a blessed adulthood (contracts, superstardom, commercials, etc.), we have to remember, his adulthood had to be blessed...he never was able to be a child. He looks at the picture of the angel God sent him.
"There are two things that I don't really like to talk about," he says, touching a dream. "My private life and Malik. The issue with Malik is sensitive..."
He's not holding back tears anymore, he's past that. But to trivialize Malik Sealy's life and it's impact on KG for the sake of some copy in a story, Kev won't do it. But his maturity as a man leads him to honesty, to go places he's not trying to go: there is that picture of him in an old issue of Source Sports where he's wearing Malik's jersey just after his death; there's the fact that last year, even on the road, he kept a locker next to him empty for Malik; there's what he's about to say...
"Malik, man, got me to understand life outside of basketball [and at the same time] really enjoy the NBA. Um...[long pause] the life we live, taking advantage of seeing every place...I look at my relationship with Malik, and how it happened, and all I ever come up with, is that it was meant."
He looks directly at me for confirmation, knowing that I know he doesn't talk about this much to outsiders, so the few words he's saying to me have to resonate.
"You know what I mean? It was meant..."
Silence sometimes makes the loudest noise. He says nothing, I say less. I feel how Diddy feels about Christopher, how KRS feels about Scott La, how Fat Joe feels about Pun, how Joseph and Darryl feel about Jason. We all have to know when to stop when the beats come in. I look at KG, and the beats have stopped. There's no more left to say. And right before I push the stop button on the recorder, this exits KG's soul.
"It still shakes me. To this day, it still shakes me. I think until I die, I'll still be shaken."
In two days, he will shake the Sacramento Kings in the biggest game of the season for him. A Wilt, Moses or Big-O-type game, a grown-man's game. In the overtime victory, Garnett solidifies his MVP award six months early by scoring 33, pulling 25 boards, and draining a clinching three, willing his beat-up club to a huge win.
Kids don't put up numbers like this: 24.5 points, 14.1 boards, 5.2 dimes, and 2.3 blocks per, 49.8 FG percent and 40 3-pt percent.
He uses Mark Madsen, his imported teammate from the Lakers as an example.
"You have to understand, Mark's played three seasons, is 27, this is his fourth year. Me? I'm 27 years old goin' on my ninth."
He looks like a "kid" in a GameStop store. Clothes are everywhere. His passion, his business all woven in different fabrics that lace the floor, walls, sofas, chaises, chairs of his hidden hideaway called the Ice House. A 45-minute photo session turns into three hours. The Honey soundtrack loops like a sample. Discussions flow to the beat, discussions that have nothing to do with basketball. His love for clothes, his future once his next contract is up, his being raised as a Jehovah's Witness, his him being him.
He drapes on another set. The suit suits him. The pinstripes make him look longer...older. Without looking into a mirror, his wisdom forces this comment, "Y'all have me looking like André 3000." Ice cold. The love's above. "I'm still a kid," KG says releasing that famous smile during the photo shoot, "but I'm old school. Can you believe that? And that's cool with me.
"I've always taken the name Kid as a compliment, a good thing, the first nickname my dawgs gave me on the strength of I'm young, but I'm old."
As he stands you can tell how not just his face, but also his entire body has a story to tell. One of struggle, strife and success. Yes, basketball is part of it, but it's a very small part. That's what you see when you read his body. He leans the 7-1 novel over, grabs the back of my head, pulls it towards his, and says these final words that sum up his 27 years of manhood:
"I'm a young man, Scoop, but my soul... dawg, my soul is old."