Despite the prep-to-pros link, Bryant and Garnett head into the final stages of their NBA careers in their own unique ways
POSTED: Dec 9, 2015 7:32 PM ET
Wednesday night will be the last time Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant tussle in Minnesota.
MINNEAPOLIS — According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, the over/under on chest thumps, hands raised to the crowd, nods of acknowledgment and the stray military salute Wednesday night at Target Center is 187.
Between the 2015-16 Kobepalooza Tour rocking its star's impending retirement on his last visit to the Timberwolves' gym (8 p.m. ET on League Pass) and Kevin Garnett counting down in his return as the Wolves' Obi-Wan in residence, the past 20 years should get as much attention as the night's 48 minutes. Hopefully Father Time will be relegated to a seat in the upper bowl, present but ideally uninvolved in the performance on the floor.
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Across the two decades Bryant and Garnett have shared in the NBA, they have been linked in so many ways -- and differentiated in a very big one that's making itself known all over again.
They share the preps-to-pros thing, obviously, Garnett opening the door again in 1995 and Bryant throwing it open a year later. With all the money made through all the years by all the NBA's players, they reportedly rank 1-2 in career on-court earnings (Garnett an estimated $335 million through this season, Bryant $328 million). Even the way we refer to them has an alliterative link, Kobe on a first-name basis, K.G. in the simplest shorthand.
Drill down just one level to their best-known nicknames, though, and the difference between them starts to emerge. Black Mamba vs. Big Ticket. One signifying Bryant's lethal mentality and killer game, the other Garnett's three-ring circus of ooh-and-ahh skills and versatility.
That's the backdrop against which each is taking or nearly taking a final lap this season. Bryant, 37, who made it official Nov. 30 that he will retire at the end of this season, has found it tougher to age gracefully because he always was The Man; becoming The Old Man under the glare of that same spotlight hasn't been forgiving.
Garnett, 39, who will slip away either this spring or next, never wanted to be The Man. Going geezer, as a result, has been less awkward and wrinkles-revealing.
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"That's Kevin's way though," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who had Garnett in Boston for six of both men's most successful seasons. "That's Kevin 100 percent. He's never going to go out on a Harley. That's just not who he is."
Look no further to grasp the distinction between the two than the player each admired and most emulated. For Bryant it was Michael Jordan. For Garnett, Magic Johnson. People in and around the NBA respected and even feared Jordan but, if they loved him, he rarely loved them back. That's how it has been for Bryant, with the Lakers' Hall of Fame-bound star having to morph quickly this season from villain to target of ridicule to gate attraction and museum piece. All of that and still, somehow, it seems off, an extended goodbye from a guy who stomped on opponents' and fans' hearts rather than say hello.
Garnett, who will stand on the stage in Springfield, Mass., next to Bryant (or maybe a year later), painted his love for the game in darker hues than Magic's pearly whites. But he sought out teammates in games, sought them out for whole seasons like the consummate point guard. He never had -- or if he did, never plugged in -- the selfish chip so integral in both good ways and bad to volume scorers such as Bryant or Jordan. He's on the brink of setting the NBA record for most defensive rebounds (since that stat began to be tracked in 1973-74), one of the most team-oriented numbers available.
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"We laugh all the time," Rivers said, "how many times ... the thing I yelled at Kevin the most about was shooting. 'Would you please shoot?' He would yell back at me, 'You just said in the huddle [to] move the ball.' I would yell back, 'I meant move it to you and you shoot it. Not pass it to someone else.' But Kevin is such a team player, he probably stopped himself from having 40 or 50-point nights more than the opponent."
Rivers summed up Garnett thusly: "I said before, I think Kevin is the best 'superstar teammate' ever. We have guys who are superstars and we have guys who are great teammates, but you don't see any better 'superstar teammates.'
I'm watching everybody who's considered 'elder' leave their mark on the game -- I think it's dope.
– Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett
No one, without fear of retribution back in the day, would ever make that claim about Bryant. The assassin from Lower Merion (Pa.) High generally comported himself with no more concern for other Lakers' well-being than for the rivals who stood in his way. If they wanted to follow, great. If they wanted their hands held, nope, Bryant wasn't their guy.
He could shoot his way into, through and out of trouble, sometimes more than once in a game. But as his numbers turned ugly this season -- 3-for-15, 5-for-16, 4-for-20 -- whatever tough love Bryant showed on his way up turned around on him on his way out.
"People keep killing Kobe right now," Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell told NBA.com the other day. "But I laugh and say, 'Kobe's going out the way he's supposed to go out.' He was a lion, man. He's supposed to go out fightin' and scratchin' and thinkin' he's still 'Kobe Bryant.' I wouldn't respect him if he didn't.
"Now everybody wants to dump on him, but for those first 18 years where he was winning championships and MVPs and taking you deep into the playoffs every year, wasn't nobody complainin' then. So after 20 years of service and five championships and seven Finals appearances, shouldn't a man be allowed to go out how he wants to go out? If Kobe Bryant said [to Lakers coach Byron Scott], 'Byron, put me on the bench and play me 10 minutes a game,' they'd be saying his hanging around for a paycheck."
Some have said that about Garnett, who is being paid $12 million -- $7 million more than San Antonio's Tim Duncan this season -- for production far lower than his Spurs rival's (3.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 16.2 mpg vs. Duncan's 9.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 27.4 mpg). But Garnett waived his no-trade clause last season for late coach/president Flip Saunders to tackle a blueprint that didn't hinge on his game stats. He came back to Minnesota to mentor young players such as Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Adriean Payne and even Ricky Rubio, with talk of an ownership stake in the team once he retired.
He's never going to go out on a Harley. That's just not who he is.
– Clippers' coach Doc Rivers on Kevin Garnett
Saunders' passing in October hit pause on the entire franchise's presumptions of planning. But slowly, basketball has helped folks move on and none of them is quibbling with Garnett's involvement.
"My choice in coming back here had a lot more of a plan and the future brought into it," said Garnett, who stirred some echoes of his prime Monday with a thunderous dunk in transition over the Clippers' Blake Griffin. "I don't know what Kobe's plan is. It doesn't sound like he's going to be in basketball after this. I'm hoping to, obviously, be a little more long-lasting in this organization hopefully. Kobe, seems like this is the last hurrah from him."
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As for the tricky task of aging gracefully in a no-excuses professional sports league, the 15-time All-Star and 2008 champion with the Celtics said: "I don't' know what I look like, but I feel OK. Some days are a little worse than others. But my effort, I feel like, is there. I try to give maximum effort every night. I try to be super-encouraging to these guys.
"It's fun comin' in here. Y'all know I'm very competitive. So the young guys definitely keep it light, keep it competitive. But I'm enjoying myself. I'm not a coach or no [junk] like that. It's cool comin' in here."
Not so long ago, Garnett was one of the NBA's most notorious, rabid-dog trash talkers, an intimidator who would butt heads, feign a chomp at Joakim Noah's hand or say the most un-PC things on the court this side of Donald Trump. Now he has perspective, throttling back more naturally than what Bryant's farewell has thrust upon him.
"The impact you put on the league," Garnett said, "leaving your stamp on the game, I'm watching Kobe. I'm watching everybody who's considered 'elder' leave their mark on the game, Dirk [Nowitzki in Dallas] -- I think it's dope. To come into this league, to have aspirations of wanting to be something in this league, to leave your mark in this league says a lot about not just your work ethic but your talent and what you've been able to become. So I'm fortunate. I'm very fortunate."
Same with those of us who have gotten to watch.
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