Hall of Fame: Class of 2020
Excellence, unbridled passion propelled Kevin Garnett to Hall of Fame
Kevin Garnett's white-hot intensity and rare skill set were driving forces in his jump straight from high school to the heights of NBA success.
Legacies. Hall of Fame inductions bring out a lot of chatter about legacies.
About how a great athlete in his chosen sport will be — already is, given the usual eligibility waiting periods — remembered.
About what remains after the flesh and blood have turned to memories and video clips and, eventually, altogether, are gone.
“If you’re going to live, leave a legacy,” poet Maya Angelou said. “Make a mark on the world that can’t be erased.”
That’s Kevin Garnett over there, nodding in agreement with each beat of Angelou’s remark.
Benjamin Disraeli, the influential 19th-century British Prime Minister, said: “The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.”
There’s Garnett again, wishing he could dap up old-school Ben.
And if those comments are too lofty for you, here’s Brazilian mixed martial artist Vitor Belfort on the same topic. “Legacy is not what I did for myself,” Belfort said. “It’s what I’m doing for the next generation.”
Now that’s something to which Garnett truly could relate.
“It’s a sense of pride, a work ethic,” he said recently, when asked by The New York Times Magazine about his legacy. “I would be out there and be so energetic that I didn’t even know what to do. So I would Rahhh! I would roar or scream after something tremendous because that’s how I felt.
“When it comes to expression, I gave the league that monster face. I used to play with so much tenacity that you felt it from your seat every night.”
The most animated and emotional of the three NBA legends being enshrined this weekend as part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 walked into this league straight from high school aware of the game’s past, present and future.
An old soul resided inside that skinny, smiling 19-year-old who showed up at Halenbeck Hall at St. Cloud (Minn.) State for the first practice of his professional life. Beneath the ball cap and the wired Walkman headphones, Garnett knew fully what he was doing in breaking the NBA’s 20 year-embargo against prep players entering the draft. He knew about Bill Willoughby, Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone, saw and felt the eyes on him from before that first Sports Illustrated cover. And as far as he was concerned, that “Ready or Not” on the cover was about everybody else, because he damn well knew he was ready.
“That first practice, [former coach] Bill Blair was on him,” Sam Mitchell, a veteran when Garnett arrived, told KFAN in Minneapolis this week. “ ‘You rookie!’ and just cursing him and on him. And Kevin was frustrated, not in a bad way but he didn’t like making mistakes.
“I remember Doug West and I sat down. We were sipping on some Gatorade and we kind of looked at each other at the same time, and we both said, ‘One day we’re going to tell our kids we played with Kevin Garnett.’ Because we knew, just from that first 30 minutes of practice, that he would be something special. I’d never seen a guy that long, that athletic, that fast, that quick, and then he played with a hunger and passion and hard.”
It might not be long until Mitchell, West and so many others are telling that to their grandkids. For anyone who witnessed much of it — and those of us who were around for all of it — Garnett’s career seared itself into our memory banks. So here is a short list of things for which he’ll be remembered, in no particular order, none of which can be erased.
Garnett’s unmatched intensity
The Garnett that many fans recall from the final three quarters or so of his career — the ferocious, even manic energy, steam rising off his shaved head, grinding his molars — wasn’t the guy who showed up as a Timberwolves rookie. The word to best describe him then, on the court and off, probably is “joy.”
The way Garnett bounded up and down the court, celebrated his and teammates’ plays, randomly waved his arms to goose the Target Center crowd all made the game accessible to anyone watching. He shared the experience through his exuberance.
It was later, initially with the backlash to his enormous contract extension in 1997 and then in the wake of the Wolves’ string of first-round playoff eliminations, that Garnett’s joy morphed into something harder, edgier. At times it appeared to border on rage, unleashed almost uncontrollably.
Banging his head against the stanchion before tipoff, dropping and giving himself 10 to demonstrate he was fine after rough plays, screaming on the video board to challenge fans to just try to match how amped he was to start a fourth quarter.
He became a fire-breathing dragon on the floor and a guy who pulled up drawbridges off it, fiercely loyal yet slow to trust.
Versatility made Garnett unique
Garnett, along with Class of 2021 inductee Tim Duncan, were part of a generation of power forwards who demonstrated that players 6-foot-9 or taller could face the basket on the offensive end.
This was way before the term “stretch four” was introduced into the game’s jargon. All players such as Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Jermaine O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar’e Stoudemire, Duncan, Garnett and a few others knew was that no coach was going to turn them into traditional low-post centers.
Garnett’s slender frame contributed to his early use at small forward, alongside Tom Gugliotta and a series of Minnesota centers. But his skill set — the range on his jump shot, his vision and passing ability, the way he sprinted up the floor — iced it. His second NBA coach, Flip Saunders, always said that if you saw a photo of Garnett in full stride, with nothing else for perspective, you’d think he was a 6-foot-2 track athlete.
By Garnett’s fifth season, he was doing what multi-faceted players such as Larry Bird did, averaging more than 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists as the hub of Saunders’ attack. Then he did it again, and again, till he had strung together a record six such seasons. When the Wolves played zone, it was Garnett out at the top of the 1-2-2, slapping the floor in front of Steve Nash, yet managing to help back on the baseline.
Eight years before LeBron James came into the league with a Magic Johnson mentality to pass first, score second, Garnett brought it in a 7-foot package. It’s the biggest reason Stephon Marbury’s stubborn exit from Minnesota in 1999 over money remains such a local sports tragedy: Garnett was wired to defer on the floor in every way to Marbury’s score-first style at point guard, letting him take over late in games and post the gaudier numbers.
That new millennial version of Karl Malone and John Stockton or Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp — only maybe with rings — was gone almost before it was there.
A payday that changed the NBA
The first tremor that hit the NBA’s financial structure came about the time Garnett was headed from Mauldin, S.C., to Chicago for his senior year of high school. That was Glenn Robinson’s demand for a $100-million contract as the No. 1 pick in 1994. He settled with the Bucks for $68 million over 10 years, but the league’s owners quickly mandated a rookie salary scale by the next season.
By the fall of 1997, with veterans Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard landing nine-figure deals, Garnett and his agent also went deep in talks for a contract extension. Almost before the ink had dried on “Da Kid’s” six-year, $126 million deal, the NBA went into lockout. That kind of money for a 21-year-old with two seasons in?
That lockout was costly. It clipped the “1998” right out of the 1998-99 season, left time for only a 50-game schedule with no All-Star Game, even sent Michael Jordan into his second retirement. But it put a target on Garnett’s back, inside and outside the game. And it led to the NBA’s system of maximum salary limits.
As it turned out, no team suffered more from that lockout than Minnesota. The salary limits sent Marbury spiraling out, obsessed he could never earn Garnett money. Gugliotta left as a free agent for Phoenix when the rushed bidding period opened in January. And in trying to plug the holes, owner Glen Taylor signed a series of cap-violating contracts with Joe Smith that blew up a year later.
The Wolves were fined $3.5 million and stripped of what eventually were three first-round draft picks over five years. Losing those assets made it difficult to ever build a proper cast around Garnett. He wound up leaving, reluctantly — in 2007 via a trade to Boston — and it’s fair to say the franchise never has recovered.
But here’s another takeaway: For all the criticism of the nose-bleed numbers, for the overpays handed out to certain teammates, nobody who saw Garnett play over the length of that contract (and the next and the next) ever said he underperformed his deal.
Relentless competitiveness drives Garnett
You can say it was a different time then, that players are more fraternal now because of shared AAU roots and agencies, that social justice causes have united them off the floor in ways more overt than in the past.
Garnett gets that, always has. But he also played with a serious hatred of losing that spilled over into a genuine dislike for those who might put him in that position. The hazing he took as a high schooler playing against men shaped him too.
In his first preseason, the Bucks’ Robinson bumped him out of bounds into some fans in a small-town bleacher. Cedric Ceballos of the Lakers put a move on him and smiled running back, shaking his head and boasting, “He’s not ready.”
Garnett responded in kind, and soon brought the same level of rivalry to just about every matchup. Didn’t matter if it was a hoops hero of his like Webber, an off-the-clock friend such as Kobe Bryant or a nemesis like Duncan, who rankled Garnett because of the Spurs’ championship success.
Playing white hot caused some run-ins and episodes of trash-talking with the likes of Duncan, McDyess, Charlie Villanueva, Carmelo Anthony and others that are best not recounted here. Garnett brought a version of that to practices and locker rooms too, tempered only slightly for the players on his team while trying to ignite in them the same passion for excellence he sought.
He loved the best of them — Mitchell, Smith, Chauney Billups, Malik Sealy (who died in a 2000 car crash returning home from celebrating Garnett’s 24th birthday) — but there wasn’t one he didn’t prod or push. Or, in the case of Wally Szczerbiak and Wolves draftee Rick Rickert, slug.
Unique narrative, a Hall of Fame legacy
Garnett’s storybook career is even more impressive when you think about all that might have — or might not have — happened had he failed. Imagine if Garnett, out of Chicago’s Farragut Academy, had devolved into Darius Miles, Leon Smith or Robert Smith. It wouldn’t have taken long, just a bad month or two, or a serious misstep living on his own in the Minneapolis suburbs, to case the entire preps-to-pros experiment in a harsher light.
We can speculate where Kobe Bryant might have gone to college for a year or three, without Garnett smoothing the path. Maybe James and Dwight Howard too.
This was the right kid and, soon enough, man to take this particular route to the NBA. His personality, his preternatural maturity, his curiosity kept him always thrusting forward.
Garnett was a sponge about the game, about life, about opportunities people like Taylor had from which he could learn. The hard feelings now from Garnett toward Taylor over his inability to buy a piece of Timberwolves ownership — a plan that unraveled with Saunders’ untimely death in 2015 — is a shame, given their history together.
On rare occasion, Garnett has second-guessed himself about how long he stayed with the Timberwolves. He allowed 12 years of his career and most of his prime to tick away, with seven first-round eliminations and one trip to the Western Conference finals in 2004 to show for it.
But there was something ennobling about Garnett’s commitment, his determination to make it work in Minnesota. Hearing him even in the late stages, when the Wolves were falling short of the postseason from 2005 to 2007, declare “I’m ‘Sota, man” in an empty arena demonstrated a loyalty not often seen these days.
It certainly meant, when Garnett wound up in Boston with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to immediately win his lone NBA championship in 2008, that not one Wolves fan who’d been paying attention could do anything but celebrate with him. Anything was possible.
That spontaneous, rapturous, confetti-covered, post-title interview after Game 6 in Boston really just circled back to the beginning. That’s when Garnett, deep into his rookie year and still 19, in a conversation in a Houston hotel room, dropped this one on me:
“My heart don’t pump no Kool-Aid. This is all blood in here.”
Back then, when I started covering Garnett for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he was about half my age. Now, at 44, he’s more than two-thirds (which makes me feel he’s going to catch and pass me one of these days).
I’ve written about countless great athletes and players, some of them legends near the ends of their careers, plenty currently in their prime or early stages. But his was a story I’ve had the opportunity to chronicle in full. Start to finish, debut to denouement, Halenbeck Hall to Hall of Fame.
There’s another legacy quote that lends itself to this situation.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead,” Ben Franklin said, “either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Garnett took care of the latter, giving me a shot at a little of the former.
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