At a basketball camp I went to once, I remember some college coach lecturing all of us aspiring young players to play “embarrassingly hard.” For the record, the man was a mental case: He was the kind of guy that always screamed BALL BALL BALL BALL and waved his hands everywhere and sweated profusely (I want to say he’s the current head coach for UMass Lowell, but don’t hold me to it).
Theatrics aside, what he said that day resonated with me. He tried to instill the idea that in a sport like basketball, if some random observer could stumble upon a game and say, “Wow, that guy is working hard right there,” you would probably be a good player: You’d at least be tenacious on the defensive end and active offensively, regardless of how much skill you had. Plus, and this was the important part of his message, your work ethic would rub off on the guys around you. That sort of desire and effort can become contagious, and soon the entire team might be playing with the same intensity as you. That would make the team you’re on one tough squad to beat.
Nobody embodied that sentiment more than Kevin Garnett. And now that KG–my favorite basketball player of all-time–has officially retired, all I can think about is how he played embarrassingly hard throughout the entirety of his illustrious, twenty-two year career.
My first distinct memory of Garnett, a.k.a. “The Big Ticket” as he came to be known in Boston, came on opening night of the 2008 NBA season. It was his Celtics debut and I was in attendance at the TD Garden that night. At that time, it was unusual for me to be at a Celtics game. I remembered attending a playoff game a few years earlier against Indiana that was enjoyable. But, ultimately, it was rather unexceptional because the Celtics went on to lose that first-round series as they did in nearly every playoff appearance they made after Larry Bird retired. Other than that, attending Celtics games were essentially just a semi-annual occurrence. It gave my family and I something to do around New Year’s.
To be clear: I had always been loyal to my hometown basketball team, even though they didn’t hold the same place in my heart as the championship-winning Patriots or Red Sox at that time. But who in their right mind would pay hundreds of dollars to watch some of those Celtics teams play live? Even the most passionate Celtics fans have to admit that it was hard to root for them when the franchise reached its nadir during the 2006-07 season.
And yet, I suppose it was for the best that the Celtics were so horrific. At least they assembled a stockpile of young players and high draft picks that made it possible for them to acquire a couple of future Hall of Famers to play alongside Paul Pierce. The most noteworthy of those acquisitions, of course, was former Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett.
Garnett came into the NBA with high expectations. That’s what happens when you’re the first player taken directly out of high school in nearly twenty years and expected to turn around a franchise that had never been to the playoffs before. Yes, as bad as the Minnesota Timberwolves have been in recent years, they were even in worse shape before Garnett arrived. In their first six years in the NBA, they didn’t register a single 30-win season. This stretch included two sub-20 win seasons that made them the equivalent of the 76ers today.
But everything changed for the Timberwolves once they finally landed a franchise player. It only took until Garnett’s second season to turn Minnesota into a playoff team; and although they lost in the first-round that year, this marked the beginning of a streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances for the once horrible T-Wolves. Moreover, it also marked the beginning of Garnett’s ascent to All-NBA status. Starting in the ’96-’97 season, KG appeared in every All-Star game played from then until 2011. Then, in 2000, he cracked the first team All-NBA squad after posting career highs in points (22.9) and rebounds (11.8). Yet despite the fact that Garnett was playing at an All-NBA level, Minnesota still hadn’t managed to get out of the first round of the postseason in any of their first seven playoff appearances.
Fortunately for the Timberwolves, the best of Garnett was yet to come. In his MVP-winning 2003-04 campaign, he posted a career high 24.2 points per game and led the NBA in rebounds. Moreover, his added win shares that year (18.33) have only been bettered by those with either the last name of James or Durant since 2000. That’s damn good company, especially when you consider that not even Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, or any of the other great big men who played in this era had as good of an individual season–at least in terms of win shares–as Garnett did in ’03-’04. In short, Garnett’s MVP winning season was one of the greatest individual seasons for a power forward of all-time.
This statistical excellence culminated in Garnett leading Minnesota to their first conference Finals appearance. Yet, like so many other of Garnett’s seasons in Minnesota, he ultimately ran into a team with a more-equipped supporting cast. Even though they had the top seed in the West that year, the Timberwolves were defeated by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the talented Los Angeles Lakers. And in spite of Minnesota’s unprecedented success that season and Garnett’s relatively young age, the Timberwolves could never assemble a roster good enough to reach those same heights with KG again.
I knew who Garnett was before he came to Boston. Obviously. Who didn’t know Garnett during his time in Minnesota? However, I learned on that opening night of the 2008 season that I truly had no idea what it meant to watch Kevin Garnett play basketball.
The intensity. Garnett came out onto the floor for warmups like a bat out of hell–fist pumping teammates; doing very demonstrative and aggressive stretches; sweating like he had just come out of the sauna. Wow…this guy is insane.
Like me, the Wizards must have been distracted by Garnett’s dramatics, too. On the shoulders of his 22 points and 20 rebounds, the Celtics won handily by 20 points. I suspected it then, but it turned out to be the beginning of something special.
Though he had a lot of help from future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, I saw Garnett to be the focal point of that great 66-win Celtics team. Though Pierce was usually the one counted on to make a play when Boston needed it most, Garnett’s defensive prowess and precision on the offensive end transformed the Celtics’ identity, and made them the class of the Eastern Conference overnight.
Luckily for me, Boston’s dominant regular season meant I got to experience how epic the NBA could really be come the postseason. I was 12 at the time, in the mist of my final season of Little League. Our games were normally at 5:30, sometimes 6:00. Plenty of time to finish a six-inning game and then race over to the TD Garden for an 8:30 tip-off!
Ironically, the game was almost secondary to the excitement building up before the opening tip. It would all begin when the recognizable horns to the beginning of “Going the Distance” from Rocky II would start to play, and Ray Allen would glide out of the tunnel holding two basketballs in his arms with the rest of the Celtics following behind. Garnett always came out last, his head bowed down as he jogged onto the court in layers of warm up gear, the sweat building along with with the intensity he needed to be at this best.
When warm ups ended, the lights would dim and the player introductions would begin. Set to the tune of a dramatic rendition of Clint Maxwell’s famed “Lux Aeterna” from Requiem for a Dream, a montage of highlights and a series of well-timed fire displays would electrify the Garden. Yet it was always Garnett’s famed scream–the only interruption of the entire montage–that would really get the Garden rocking. This soon became a staple of Celtics games for the entire Big Three era.
The smoke from the pregame fireworks never seemed to clear before the opening tip off. Perhaps this was figurative because there was a fire brewing inside the body of Boston’s unquestioned leader as he performed his usual pregame routine. He would start by striding towards the scorer’s table to meet with James Posey for their handshake, which would always turn into more of an aggressive hug where Garnett would always pound on Posey’s back with his fist to pump him up. Then he would make his way towards the baseline, where he’d adjust his waistband while he leaned his head against the padding underneath the basket. I always considered this to be Garnett’s form of pregame meditation, similar to the way Tim Tebow would always pray in the end zone before games or how Manny Ramirez would stare blankly into the stands as he made his way to home plate. During his baseline routine, Garnett would sneak a glare to the fans beyond the basket. I never sat behind the basket to see this Garnett stare in person, but from what a friend told me once, the look on his face was truly menacing.
Then he’d return to center court, tapping every one of his teammates and opponents like a general greeting his soldiers. And then came the best part of all, when Garnett would gallop over to the left baseline and scream at the top of his lungs, pounding his chest towards the fans and then flexing his muscles out wide. At this point, KG was ready for battle.
Kevin Garnett was the best. Not in the sense that he was necessarily the very best player of his generation, but the best in the sense that I’d rather lose with a guy like Garnett leading my team than win with many of the NBA’s egotistical stars. Aside from the championship that Garnett helped bring to Boston and the six other years when the Celtics were one of the NBA’s elite teams, he holds a special place in my heart because Garnett was the one player that really showed me how special basketball is when it’s played at the highest level.
He should be highly regarded by all of you as well. He’s one of the few players that you can say lived up to the overwhelming hype bestowed upon him before he even played his first game. He was not only one of the best statistical players of his era, but in contrast to other one-dimensional big men like Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, the 6’11” Garnett could do everything except shoot threes on the offensive end. He was an excellent spot-up jump shooter and an absolute force underneath capable of overpowering even the very best defensive big men. And speaking of defense, Garnett excelled at that, too: He was named to the All-NBA defensive team 12 times in his career. Taken together, Garnett’s superb skill-set is what allowed him to continue to play at a high level for the better part of his 22-year career.
Statistics aside, Garnett was fun and he served a greater purpose in the game of basketball. He had the best sound bites of any other player. He initiated things like goaltending shots after the whistle had blown. Most notably, in his later years, he served as a mentor for the young stars on the Timberwolves as one last thank you, if you will, to the franchise he was brought up with. Rest assured that a few years from now, players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will acknowledge how great of an influence the future Hall-of-Famer was for their maturity as players.
Above all else, Garnett played the game with an intensity that was unmatched by any of his peers. For someone who always played “embarrassingly hard,” you think his career would’ve flamed out sooner rather than later. Yet Garnett ended up playing 22 years, something very few people can even dream of. And yet, like the two other transcendent stars from the 2000’s who recently retired, Garnett’s continued excellence from a statistical standpoint doesn’t even do justice to what he meant to the NBA.
I’ll always be grateful for the memories of that six year stretch when the Celtics were one of the NBA’s great teams. Without Kevin Garnett, those memories never would’ve happened, and there’s no way I would enjoy basketball in the same way that I do now. For that reason, I’ll always appreciate having watched Kevin Garnett–one of the NBA’s greatest legends.
Garnett photo #1 courtesy of Getty Images; Garnett photo #2 courtesy of Fox Sports; Garnett photo #3 courtesy of The Sports Fan’s Journal; Garnett photo #4 courtesy of Boston.com;