CHICAGO — Kevin Garnett was just a nosy onlooker when he and some mates happened upon Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in a gym back in 1995. A senior at Farragut Academy on the city’s West Side, Garnett was tearing up the high school scene not just locally but nationally (USA Today’s Player of the Year).
But he was still just that, a high school kid, spying on greatness. Until a security guard beckoned him to come down to the court, the Chicago Bulls’ famous tandem curious to check out the tall, skinny wannabe.
“I just remember Pippen saying I was too young to be out here,” Garnett said in a clip from a new Showtime documentary due out in October.
Several thunderous dunks later and after some heated, NSFW trash-talking back at Pippen, Garnett heard a high-pitched voice loving the battle and egging him on. It was another Chicago legend, Hall of Famer and Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas, whose next words changed Garnett’s life and those of dozens of other future NBA players.
“I just saw you play Scottie Pippen,” Garnett recalled Thomas saying. “Boy, you can play in the league right now.”
Until then, the notion of going straight from high school to the NBA hadn’t crossed his mind. Within months, Garnett had made it a reality, getting selected with the fifth overall pick in the 1995 Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“Isiah gave me the know-how and the process to go about it,” Garnett told a small audience of reporters who showed up to learn more about the project. It will focus on the 15-time All-Star and newly minted Hall of Fame finalist, his role as a game-changer for players and for the league, and his trek across a quarter century of basketball and culture.
“This is an idea that I thought was really cool,” said Garnett, probably best known since he retired in 2016 for his “Area 21” appearances with TNT. “You’re [normally] not gonna hear me talk about myself. But if you ask me a question, I feel like I’ve got a story for damn near everything.”
Garnett already was a fan of Showtime’s boxing series and its forays into basketball with documentaries on Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Ron Artest. Then he happened to meet, on an international flight, the network’s president of sports and event programming. Garnett and Stephen Espinoza clicked in that long conversation and the seeds of the project were sown.
“Let me take you on an educational timeline of how we got here. Let’s go all the way back to ’95,” Garnett said.
Garnett spoke for a bit about the project, scheduled to debut not long after Garnett presumably is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a fellow first-ballot choice with Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Then he took questions from about a half dozen media folks in the crowd.
(Editor’s Note: Portions of this conversation have been condensed and edited).
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The Boston Celtics announced they will retire your jersey number next season. Any thoughts about the Timberwolves, for whom you played two-thirds of your 21 seasons, not doing that first?
Listen, I had some great years in Minny. But when it comes to management, it’s not even close. Minny, they run it one way. Boston, which has a culture of basketball, they run it a whole ‘nother way. And I respect that. I can’t tell a man [Wolves owner Glen Taylor, whom Garnett feels broke a promise to bring him in as a minority owner] what to do with his possessions or whatever he owns. But I’m very appreciative of Boston and their retiring my number 5.
How did you end up with a bigger role in the recent Adam Sandler feature film “Uncut Gems?”
They told me I was going to have a cool little get in-get out. Then two days turned into two weeks. Next thing you know, I’ve got a book in front of me and I’ve got to learn this whole exchange with Adam. It was fun. Acting is not something I’m looking to do, but if you’re all looking for a villain out there in your movie [laughs]. … Listen, I respect the whole cinematography process. I respect actors, actresses, the whole thing. Sixteen hour days is the norm. You’ve got to be on point. It’s very much like an NBA game. You have to be on your stuff. If you ‘Cut!’ and you mess it up, that means something.
In the documentary clip, you tell a story about your Chicago workout, attended by skeptical NBA personnel for what was pitched as the first high school player trying to come directly into the league since Moses Malone and Bill Willoughby two decades earlier. What was that like?
When you go through this process, you have to actually fly out. But I was still in school, so I couldn’t fly anywhere. I had to have the workouts come to Chicago. You could feel that GMs and the owners did not want to be in there.
If anything made me nervous, that was [it] — I had never done nothing like this. I had never worked out in front of anybody professionally. I heard [Miami Heat president] Pat Riley like, ‘Damn … what the…’ When I heard that, I lost it. I forgot everything. The nerves went away. And I attacked steel with steel.
I’m a Batman, don’t get it twisted. I can be a great Robin. … I played a great Robin when I had to. But in my own life, I’m an alpha, I’m a king, I run my own stuff. I don’t mind being able to step to the side and let someone be great also.”
Garnett, on taking a secondary role as a player
You grew up in South Carolina but transferred for your senior season to Farragut Academy. How did that experience shape you?
My year at Farragut actually helped me with the competition. There was so much good competition in the city of Chicago, I was never lacking an opportunity, I was never lacking a matchup, I was never lacking a certain level that I thought I needed to have, to go to the next level, D1 or whatever that was.
Not to say I won every battle, but I competed against — ask anybody in this city, they know me for hoopin’. Not just on the West Side but on the North Side, South Side where us West Siders go. I was playing a bunch on the South Side, courts where you had to get permission to come. I was in projects playing, where you ain’t supposed to be over here. … Every Saturday, playing against the Carver [High School] kids, the Simeon [High School] kids, the King kids. That’s how I got a reputation in this city. I’d go up and play the DePaul guys once they was done with practice.
Did you ever come close to playing for the Chicago Bulls? And why do you think the Bulls have so much trouble signing top free agents?
I was never close to signing with the Bulls, ever. [long pause] I don’t really have a ‘Why?’ There was never an opportunity to. And I saw how Jerry [Krause, longtime Bulls GM] was with Jordan. All players keep that in the back of their minds. ‘If you treat the greatest like this…’ The greatest didn’t even come back and have a chance to have ownership, the way [chairman Jerry Reinsdorf] invested to build the Bulls. He didn’t get a chance to come back and reap the benefits of that. Y’know? Guys see that and remember that, and put it in the back of their minds.
Who knows? Different times though. Shoutout to Zach LaVine, he’s doing his thing. Let’s see if they keep that nucleus together.
… When it comes to management, it’s not even close. Minny, they run it one way. Boston, which has a culture of basketball, they run it a whole ‘nother way. And I respect that. I can’t tell a man what to do with his possessions or whatever he owns. But I’m very appreciative of Boston and their retiring my number 5.”
On the Timberwolves not retiring Garnett’s No. 21 yet
Was there a moment in your rookie year where you thought, ‘I belong here?’
It took me about maybe 45 games. Flip [Saunders, Wolves coach] decided that he wanted to start me… The stuff I had been working on with [VP of basketball operations and legendary Celtics Hall of Famer] Kevin McHale, I wasn’t necessarily strong enough to get it off. I had to face [up], I couldn’t put my back to the basket. ‘Mac’ had these big, wide shoulders, and he’s showing you a move where, if you don’t have big shoulders, you can’t do the move. ‘Do the [bleep] move!’
Finally I’d go home, I’d be so traumatized, think ‘That stuff don’t work for me. I’m gonna face.’ I would take it through a process, make it fit. I got two, three moves, I got confident, I knew how to get ‘em off against smaller. Taller guys I could face and go around ‘em, and I started to understand how to use my speed. The strength that I did have. My jumping ability. Once I figured it out, that’s where my confidence came from… My first 20-point game, it was all from those two moves and hustling. I was seeing people who wasn’t in great shape, so I started outrunning people and using my youthfulness. Now I’m dunking everything. I’m not laying nothin’ up. I’m putting it on your head and I want you to know I’m putting it on your head. I wanted to be this young lion that everybody was looking at. He came out of high school? You see some of my early times, when I watch film of myself, I was such an angry kid. [But] it was really coffee. Coffee made me like a wild animal.
Late in your career, you said you would never coach and that you’d “fade to black” as far as public profile.” Why hasn’t that happened?
I tried that. Steve [Espinoza] called me, man. What you want me to say? I’m trying to chill. Turner called me. … I’m trying to get to the fade-to-black, but they won’t let me. We’re gonna build something here and put something dope out. I like this production [work]. I’m a visual guy. I’m with some great partners. We’re all synergized in what we believe in. We have something here so we’re going to present it to the world.
Since you’ve been retired, has it changed how you relate to the guys who came before you or the guys who are playing today?
My love for the history and the guys who have come before me has always been the same: respect. I seen Spencer Haywood at the Hall of Fame [finalists announcement] and he was the first person I had to go up and dap. I don’t know if y’all know this, in ’68, he was the first player to ever get his rights to play, so that we have the option to come out of high school and do these things. Whenever I’m talking to Dwight [Howard] or talking to LeBron [James], people in the game, I always make it a point for them to know their history. Because without them creating this path for us, none of us would be here.
When you were traded by Minnesota, there reportedly was a chance your destination could be the Lakers. What happened?
In ’07, I had a chance to go to Phoenix. I had a chance to go to the Warriors. To the Celtics, obviously, and the Lakers. I was trying to get Kobe on the phone, and he was on a Nike Italy Something [tour]. … I had to make a decision. I had a conversation with Steve Nash, and it was a terrible conversation. And I had known Paul [Pierce], Paul and I were friends from way back, 14-15 years old. I was with two personal friends, Chauncey Billups and Tyronn Lue, working out, and they just gave it to me really raw, man. ‘If you’re trying to win and actually be something that you’re talking about, that we know you want to be, you’re gonna have to move, you’re gonna have to make some hard decisions.’
That’s when I first started to actually think about, ‘I’ve got to leave Minny? Aw man.’ Shoutout to Minny, man. I didn’t want to leave but I felt like I had no choice, too. But the opportunity in Boston was a great one, I’m glad I made the decision to do that. I’m glad I had friends, real ones, to kind of take me through that.
Could you have co-existed with Kobe?
Absolutely. People know me, I’m a very sure person — I don’t lack any confidence in myself. But I can also be a great Robin. I’m a Batman, don’t get it twisted. I can be a great Robin. Paul Pierce is a big ego, he’s a big personality. That’s what he shines at. I understood I was coming to his team, and I wanted him to know that. I played a great Robin when I had to. But in my own life, I’m an alpha, I’m a king, I run my own stuff. I don’t mind being able to step to the side and let someone be great also.
Absolutely we could co-exist. If he could play with Shaq he could play with me. One my greatest attributes is that I was a great teammate, whoever it was. You can ask that.
What else can we expect, when this documentary hits the network in October?
If I was to put it into an example, imagine that in 2020, I’m going to take you all the way back to ’95. We’re gonna cover music, we’re gonna cover fashion, we’re gonna cover style. Think about the moves that the guys put on now. A lot of stuff that’s east-west, which means it doesn’t go from me straight to you, playing north to south. Music, how you dance and how you sway, your bop. Everybody walks to a bop, everybody walks to a beat, believe it or not. That’s in your style of play. So when we went to the basket, that’s how your bop played, we was finishing with that.
The music now is a different bop. When I’m watching guys work out, it’s to this new music, it’s to this new fashion. So it’s all synergized. So I’m asking the question, ‘How did we get here to 2020?’
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