Kevin The Kid

This story appeared in the Nov. 22, 1995 edition of Timberwolves Tonight.

by Rachel Bachman

Standing in front of 650 teeming middle school kids, Kevin Garnett looks like any other NBA star about to give a "stay in school" pep talk. He wears a heavy leather jacket and baseball cap. Over one shoulder is a pile of T-shirts. When it comes time for him to speak, the kids clap and cry out, some not entirely sure of who he is but all enchanted with his height and carriage. He tells them that they don't know it now, but school will lay the foundations of their lives. They listen.

He begins flinging shirts into the buoyant crowd, looking himself like a kid who has just heard the school day's final bell ring. This is not a stretch; Garnett was in these kids' shoes just five years ago. Today, he is a millionaire with little idea of what lies ahead and much to prove.

"You go through middle school once in your life, so you might as well enjoy it," Garnett says. "It's like this NBA thing. When it's over, it's over. I can't say, 'Well, I should have done this, I should have done that.' You've got to have fun with it, so you can remember the good times."

Critics frown about Garnett's eschewing college. They say that even if his body is adequately trained, emotionally Garnett is not ready for the off-court responsibilities of the NBA. But if you asked 100 high school seniors if they would like to play professional basketball, how many would say no?

His wisdom is uncomplicated, free of many factors that pollute the decision-making of those older than he is. He says you shouldn't change your life "just because you have a few million dollars in your pocket." The thing is, he means it.

Kevin Garnett is more thoughtful than your average rookie. "[The NBA] is not like people think it is," he says. He is sitting near the team's practice court at the Arena Club in Target Center. "Just say you went to a game and you saw [Michael] Jordan. And you're saying, 'Hey, Jordan!' and you're yelling. Once you step out there, you're on the same floor, you're on the inside looking out.

"It's just like him in that room," Garnett says, pointing to a man playing racquetball. "The way he's playing that game, it looks hard. But once you get in there and get a racquet and start playing with him, you see that it's easy. It's just like that."

It isn't that easy, of course. Garnett was the first player in 20 years to go from high school to the NBA, and it's not because he happened upon a pickup game last winter and decided to make a career of playing the game. He had the support of his mother, Shirley, and the wherewithal to move from his home in Mauldin, S.C., to Chicago for his senior year. He went where the competition was better, where he could play summer ball with Scottie Pippen and Jamal Mashburn and Juwan Howard. As a result, says Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale, Garnett's talent is unique. "Kevin Garnett is not a small forward, he's not a forward, he's not a center," McHale says. "He's a basketball player. Those are the kind of guys you like. I couldn't think of anybody else in the draft I'd rather have on my team."

"Kevin Garnett is not a small forward, he's not a forward, he's not a center. He's a basketball player. Those are the kind of guys you like. I couldn't think of anybody else in the draft I'd rather have on my team."

– Kevin McHale, Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations

Garnett vows that he won't be changed by his good fortune, a difficult task. Recently, his friends went shopping to check out the new Penny Hardaway shoes, the new Jordans. They returned to Garnett's apartment talking about those — and the new Garnetts. How can such fame not change a person?

Helping to ground him is Garnett's reflective side, the part that shows through in his gameday attire. "The rubber band (that he wears on his left wrist) is just a symbol of hard work," he says. "You might catch me popping myself every now and then just to get me going." He also has written words in magic marker on his sneakers: "Mauldin," "Basswood Drive," "Springfield Park." If he forgets everything else about his past, Garnett will not forget his hometown, his old street address, and the park where he went from a late pick to No. 1 when it came time to choose teams.

He describes the placid community in which he spent most of his teenage years with equal parts of admiration and longing. Mauldin is similar to Minnetonka, where he lives now, Garnett says. "It's real nice. It has some rich parts. 'Course, I'm not rich or anything." He pauses, then smiles. "Well, I wasn't."

"See, that's the funny thing," Garnett says. "I don't feel like I have a lot of money. I live every day like I'm poor." It is not that Garnett is frugal; he has a hefty new television set and a 1995 Lexus. He simply still sees himself as the skinny kid who would dive for the ball even when the game wasn't all that important. Only now, he's playing with the big boys.

Garnett stole the show at the Wolves' home opener on Nov. 7. He scored eight points but also had five rebounds, a few steals and two ferocious blocks, one that was ruled goaltending but still left fans pointing at the replay board, their mouths open wide. In short, he performed better than some veterans of college powerhouses.

Yet there he was after the game, chomping on a Snickers bar and charming reporters, then staying up until five o'clock the next morning talking to friends incredulous about his sudden stardom. "They can't believe that last night I was checking Cedric Ceballos and Nick the Quick (Van Exel)," Garnett says.

The NBA is not just an endless string of games. Garnett knows that with money and fame come responsibility and public expectations that he will do good things off the court as well as on it. Garnett would like to start a summer league in South Carolina, to get the kids some nice shoes to use.

Already, Garnett has had some experiences most of us will never fathom: auditioning solo for NBA scouts, dressing up for draft day, swatting a Vlade Divac shot to the delighted yelps of the home crowd. And yet it's fitting that the most remarkable experience Garnett can recall was in his senior year at Chicago's Farragut Academy.

It was a carpet ride of a day. He and his teammates braved an early-morning El ride, weaved through gang fights and drug deals to arrive at a 6:30 a.m. basketball practice. Good Morning America was there to do a piece on Garnett, yet the thing he remembers is not eating breakfast and being dead-tired. The team practiced for more than an hour, took groggy showers, then shuffled off to first period. "That's the wildest thing I ever did in my life," Garnett says.

There is no doubt that wilder things are yet to come.