In a league where players often speak before they think, Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett bit his lip.
While fans and media howled, and some Timberwolves management hinted they needed to be the beneficiary of even more from the team's lone superstar, Garnett stood tall but silent, and accepted the newfound role of being the dartboard of criticism.
Garnett could have lashed out through the newspapers. In other cities, NBA superstars might have called a press conference and begun firing verbal missiles in all directions at teammates, team management, reporters and even fans. In other cities, if a player gets criticized too "harshly" he exercises a bunker-down mentality that makes him Public Enemy No. 1.
From a public relations standpoint, Garnett had myriad options.
But in the offseason, Garnett worked on what he could control — himself — and through his silence showed an allegiance and never-ending faithfulness rarely seen in all of professional sports.
"At the end of the year, when they start pointing fingers, it's always going to be pointed at me first. I don't have a problem with that," Garnett said. "I've heard all those things before. At the end of the year, things go bad and they say, 'Kevin Garnett ain't doing blah, blah, blah.' It's very unfair. But like I've said, you control the things you can and not the stuff you can't."
Garnett couldn't control what was being said about himself and the Timberwolves, but he could have responded. Garnett is the top reason the Wolves are in the postseason every year. Ironically, when they were eliminated in the first round, he became the most convenient excuse for why they didn't move on.
But last spring the criticism took on a deeper tone. Last spring, when Garnett and the Wolves were ousted from the first round of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, people began to wonder aloud whether the Wolves were better off with or without Garnett.
The economic factor kicked in. The business side of sports always weighs heavily on most personnel decisions. Garnett could not do it alone, analysts said. But with his enormous salary, the team could ill afford to sign another superstar. Bottom line: Could the Wolves go deep into the playoffs with or without Garnett?
It was more a question of business and economics than an indictment on Garnett's ability. Still, for the first time since he came to Minnesota from Farragut Academy, people wondered if Garnett was a sail or an anchor.
"It did bother me," Garnett admitted. "Some of the criticism was in-house and some of it was coming from management, and I thought that was tough. When things aren't going great, you have to stick together, so I took it very personal."
While other superstar athletes have crumbled in their communities, Garnett has not. While some professional athletes see their name frequent police reports almost as often as the morning newspaper's box scores, Garnett stays clean. He does that because he feels a responsibility not only to the Timberwolves organization and its fans, but the entire community.
It's a rare attitude for an athlete, especially one who had no ties to the community before he came here to play basketball.
"I feel like this city is mine and I wear Minneapolis on my sleeve," Garnett said. "I don't mind being the poster boy for the Twin Cities — I like that — but I don't like when you take shots that are inappropriate. I think you should always evaluate yourself in the mirror first."
That's what made the criticism last spring sting.
Admittedly, Garnett could improve on aspects of his game. In some ways, he has this season. Just watch his post-up moves underneath. Some of the new weapons Garnett added to his offensive arsenal are triggered by footwork reminiscent of a certain Boston Celtics forward who grew up in Hibbing, Minn. But what may have annoyed Garnett most was that some even dared to question his desire.
"I took it very, very, very personal because I work very hard," Garnett said.
In the offseason, Garnett focused on improving his game, and it shows. On Sunday, Garnett will play in his sixth career All-Star Game, his fifth as a starter as voted by fans. He is averaging career-high rebounds and assists and has led the team in scoring 36 times, rebounding 38 times and assists 18 times. To go along with his NBA-leading 39 double-doubles, Garnett has three triple-doubles and several near-misses this season. He tied his own team record with 24 rebounds and set a franchise mark with 19 defensive boards Nov. 7 vs. Milwaukee. On Opening Night, Garnett scored his 10,000th career point; he followed that with his 11,000th point last Thursday at Dallas.
The Timberwolves should consider themselves fortunate. In Garnett, they not only possess one of the game's elite, but a player who is devoted to the cause. For better or for worse, Garnett insists, he will be a Timberwolf.
"My mom's a big, big, big loyalty person and she stressed loyalty to people who've been loyal to you," Garnett said. "I've got loyal friends. I've been burned a couple times, but you learn from that. I think my support group I have around me is very solid and great. It's not something you take for granted. You surround yourself with loyal people and it spreads."
At the All-Star break, the NBA's unofficial halfway point, the Wolves hold the fifth spot in the Western Conference. Kendall Gill, Troy Hudson and Rod Strickland have been pleasant surprises, and without them, the ship might have sunk. But Garnett is quietly having perhaps the best season of his career.
"I wouldn't trade him for anybody in this league," NBA analyst Trent Tucker said on a Wolves postgame radio show. "He's the most versatile player in the league. He plays every single night with 100 percent energy. Kevin Garnett will give you an honest effort every night. And you also have a guy who, on the defensive end, can do so many things.
"He's a 10-position player. On offense, he can play all five, and he can defend all five positions. In my mind, I wouldn't trade Kevin Garnett for anybody in the league, not even Shaq."
"I control what I can," Garnett said. "I come out and focus on me and the guys. I love everybody in this (locker) room.
"Do I need to be more aggressive? Yeah, I think so. But I think I'm doing okay."