Fixed Floating Elements

The Real K.G.

By Lenn Robbins | @lennrobbins
BROOKLYNNETS.COM
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

It is last Thursday morning and the Brooklyn Nets are about to start the last drill of their fifth practice in three days. If they haven't hit the wall, they can see it like objects in the side view mirror - closer than they appear.

Head coach Jason Kidd knows he's been pushing this team. He pushes one last time.

Each player must step to the foul line and hit a free throw. Any miss and the players - all of them - run an up-and-back, with the weight of the five practices on their backs like a sherpa's rucksack.

Kidd asks for the first shot taker. There is no hesitation.

Kevin Garnett, with his NBA Championship (2008), league MVP award (2004) and 15 All Star appearances, has earned the right to let another player face the heat. No way. He raises his arm, extending his hand, pointing his index finger.

He steps to the line and knocks down the free throw.

"I ain't scared of this s--t,'' he barks. "This ain't nothing but [bleeping] basketball.''

Several minutes later, Alan Anderson is the first player to miss; the players run. Anderson's head drops as he crosses the baseline. Garnett clandestinely moves alongside the teammate who he once coached in his summer camp.

"Control your breathing when you get up there,'' he says.

Anderson buries his next free throw. Garnett claps, his two huge hands clanging together like cast iron pans.

Two days later, in the final practice of what has been a brutally physical and intellectually demanding training camp, assistant coach Lawrence Frank is expanding on some defensive principles.

Garnett raises his arm again; he has a question. Frank says, “That's a great question. Great question.”

When Frank moves to the sideline, he says to Kidd, “Great question.''

Which begs the question: Who is Kevin Garnett?

Is he the menacing, scowling, chippy player as has been previously portrayed?

Or is he one of the most loyal, driven, passionate players in NBA history, one that has made every team he's been apart of better, one that draws no distinction between rookies and veterans as long as they adhere to KG's view of the pro basketball world?

Give totally of yourself - body, mind, and spirit - for the success of a team.

"The way he affects the culture in a locker room is like no other player in the NBA,'' said Sean Grande, a native New Yorker who is the Boston Celtics’ play-by-play broadcaster. "Some players are vocal leaders. Some lead by example. Some lead with their play. He does all three.''

As Garnett begins his 19th season in the NBA and his first with the Nets, which begin the preseason schedule tonight with a game in Washington, he has wasted little time putting his stamp on this team.

He was the first player on the court for each practice during training camp. He bought the team dinner Friday night, treating them to barbecue. He has been known to buy rookie teammates suits because it's important to him that they dress the part of an NBA player.

When the mother of Avery Bradley, a close friend of Nets guard Jason Terry passed away last month, the first text Terry received was from Garnett.

"He was like,'You alright? Everything alright with you?’ ” said Terry. “That's just something you don't expect. He's just that type of guy. And it's genuine. He's not just doing it just to be another guy. He's doing it because he genuinely cares.''

How do we know he cares?

In 2010 researchers at several leading colleges, as part of a larger study on the positive effects of physical contact, looked at the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, who had acquired Garnett in an off-season trade.

One season after a pathetic 24-58 campaign, the Garnett-led Celtics went 66-16 and won the NBA title. The researchers studied reams of game tape, trying to ascertain what qualities Garnett brought, in addition to scoring and rebounding.

It was his physical contact with his teammates: high fives, pats on the backside, a rub on the head. Those actions led to the growth of one of the most important and ambiguous qualities in team sports - trust.

"Kevin is three standard deviations higher than any other player in the NBA when it comes to physical contact,'' said Michael Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at Illinois and one of the lead researchers. "He's an outlier.''

"Think about defense,'' Kraus added. "If a perimeter defender doesn't think a big man has his back, he's going to defend differently because he has no trust he's going to get help. On offense, a player can take a somewhat open shot, but if he trusts his teammates, he'll swing the ball to a player that is more open.''

Consider this nine-minute, vintage K.G. trust-building stretch in a recent training camp practice:

  • 12:45 - Garnett puts a hand on Mirza Teletovic's back, encouraging him after they work on a double team.
  • 12:47 - Garnett, for no discernible reason, slaps hands with Gary Forbes.
  • 12:50 - Garnett places a hand on Frank's shoulder during a conversation.
  • 12:52 - Garnett pounds Jorge Gutierrez three times on the chest.
  • 12:54 - Garnett playfully pushes a camera man from NBA TV.

During that span, Garnett talked, whispered and shouted at everyone, mostly himself. When asked the biggest misconception of Garnett, Terry didn't hesitate.

"That he's crazy,'' said Terry. "All his crazy antics are calculated and well thought out.''

Such as his decision to return this season. When asked how close he came to retiring after the Celtics’ first-round playoff loss last season, Garnett said, “Real close.”

But he began, in Garnett's words, the process of evaluating if his body and soul were still in it. Before Nets GM Billy King pulled off the blockbuster trade that brought Garnett, Terry and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, K.G. was, 'All In,' the phrase the Nets use when breaking a huddle.

"It's amazing that he has played this long considering the way he approaches the game,'' said Kidd. "He only knows one speed. He has too much respect for himself, his family, his teammates, his coaches, the game, to not give everything he has.

"So many times during my career I would look at him and wish I had him as a teammate for a season. I don't know anyone in the league who doesn't want to play with him.''

Kidd and Garnett have work to do. Kidd, who retired after 19 seasons in 2013, wants to trim some of Garnett's minutes to keep him healthy and fueled come June.

Garnett, of course, did not take Kidd's first offer of not playing a heavy load on the second night of back-to-back games. The thought of not giving everything every night, even if it's a detriment over the long haul, was initially not palatable.

The dealmaker in this could be the breathtaking possibility of what this season holds. Not only can K.G. get a second ring, but he can secure a place in the pantheon of New York sports heroes - the man who led the Nets to their first-ever NBA championship.

"That’s the only reason I came back, man,'' he said. "I like the bones of this team and what I thought I could bring to this team could help.''

"I didn’t watch all of the Chicago series,'' he continued, referring to the Nets first round playoff loss last season. "But I thought with the additions [we] could help that. But it would mean the world. That’s the only reason I came back, was to try to win another ring.''

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