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One, Two, Three Garnetts

Photo: Flickr/@Doug88888

Photo: Flickr/@Doug88888

Normally a 37-year old player missing a couple of games late in the season wouldn’t be too concerning. NBA careers are not infinite in length and careers can be taken in a second. Yet, for the Nets’ Kevin Garnett this will mean that he has missed 10 consecutive games with back spasms and is now expected to be out until he is re-evaluated on Saturday. The timing is unfortunate. After an atrocious start to the season, Garnett was rounding back into form. His efficiency in January and February had climbed back into the mid-20s, and his offensive and defensive ratings were also on rebounding to respectable levels. Yes, it was still a far cry from his MVP days, but weren’t bad considering him being in his 19th season.

Then the back spasms took their hold and placed him on the sideline since February 27th, his last game. Now, he’s out another five days or more, meaning we could have seen the last of Garnett. As someone who has been playing basketball nearly as long as I have been alive, this is a rather tough pill to swallow.

There are many ways people will remember Garnett. They may remember the Minnesota days as he evolved from a lanky 19-year old rookie into one of the best basketball players on the planet. Or they may first recall his exodus from the North to Boston where he finally had the team that could give him the title he had deserved. It will be unlikely that we first fondly recall this incarnation of Garnett in Brooklyn that resembles more of an impersonation of himself than anything.

Some may remember the other side of Garnett. The incessant trash talk, the sucker punches, and less-than-legal screens. For those that worked with him behind the scenes, they don’t miss working with him and would pass on the chance to do so again. Hey, I don’t doubt he was difficult, but that’s not the  Garnett I knew. While those are ways that some may remember him, I can’t help but to remember otherwise.

When I was an eight year old I attended my first game. I had been an NBA fan for a couple of years by this point but my parents, in true Minnesotan form, chose not to take me until the team’s prospects were looking brighter. From there, I was hooked on the team, but also Garnett as a player. He was my first NBA autograph as he stopped during pregame shootaround to sign memorabilia, including my schedule. If it weren’t for my Uncle telling me to get up there before he left, I would have missed my chance.

A few months later I received a present as my family could tell that I had become more and more enamored with the game. Yes, I was going to be attending Kevin Garnett’s basketball camp at Hopkins High School (Yes, the same one that produced Royce White, Kris Humphries and others). I was excited as I had just wrapped up my first season of organized ball and got to continue to indulge in the offseason. The days went by and it was great. We ran drills for some of the time and were later rewarded with scrimmages where we got to put our lessons to practice.

While the knowledge being imparted upon us was worth the time alone, the carrot we were all working towards was meeting Garnett himself. The staff had it arranged so that we all got to spend some time with Garnett and I fondly remember walking in the pack around Garnett and having to crank my neck upwards to look at him. It was an incredible experience for a kid. The player that seemed larger than life on TV was suddenly walking right next to you. Somewhere at my Mom’s place there is a photo of me and Garnett where the photographer had to step way back to get us in the frame. Lastly, I remember Garnett ribbing me for wearing a Rockets Charles Barkley jersey to his autograph signing. Hey, at least I was still wearing the official shorts of his basketball camp.

From there, I spent time learning his baseline turnaround jumper and aspiring to play the game with the same energy and intensity as he did. I was never going to affect the game with my offense, so the least I could do was bring my energy to the defensive end and the boards. Years later as a coach, I would pass these lessons on to my players.

That is the Garnett that will always come to mind first. This is a time where I enjoyed the game on  the most innocent level possible, a form of early stage fandom that you believe that the sky is the limit and things like lockouts and contract disputes aren’t something in your mind.

The second Garnett will be the one that changed the game and made the Timberwolves relevant.

Before Garnett, power forwards were supposed to be back-to-the-basket and not supposed to be floor stretchers. Even before Dirk Nowitzki there was Kevin Garnett, whose baseline turnaround jumper and ball-handling skills were something unseen by a player at his position. Look at the highlights of him in the fourth quarter of game seven against the Kings in 2004. He was playing point forward and hitting threes. Yes, this was at the peak of his powers, but how many seven-footers — even at that time! — were able to do that? It was ridiculous since the positional revolution wouldn’t arrive yet for a few more years.

Of course, Garnett’s contract extension was one of the reasons for the 1999 lockout because it was a record at the time. The owners pushed for more limits to be in place for spending, because, you know, exhibiting self control has always been hard for them. So we saw a salary cap in place. Garnett’s contract posed more of a challenge to his own team’s ability to built a worthwhile team around him and the team would spin their wheels with seven consecutive first round exits partially because of it. Of course, there was the illegal Joe Smith deal that cost the team several picks (read: affordable young help) and forced the team to overpay for the Troy Hudsons and Trenton Hassels of this world. Despite these facts, people unfairly labeled him as “not clutch” because of his inability to drag them beyond the first round. Since then, we’ve (hopefully) learned two things: 1) Nobody’s ever been a winner until they’ve done it; and 2) no one player can do it on their own, no matter how great they are.

Then, Garnett did it. First, he became MVP in 2004 when Shaq, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson..etc. were also tearing up the league. Second, he brought the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals, erasing the choker label and was a healthy Sam Cassell away from going to the Finals. It was a great run and incredible to see a great player finally be over that hump, but that it was short-lived.

Garnett would spend the next few seasons toiling in mediocrity as the Timberwolves tried to keep a great team around him. They let Latrell Sprewell walk so he could feed his kids and dealt Cassell to the Clippers for Marco Jaric in hopes of shaking things up. Once they compounded the  mistake of firing Flip Saunders in favor Dwayne Casey with letting him go in favor of Randy Wittman, the damage was done. Things were never going to be the same. And when Garnett was mercifully dealt to Boston on draft day 2007, Timberwolves fans wished him the best. After all, he had given us everything that he could in 12 years and some fun memories. There may have been more we could have asked from the team, but not a whole lot more from Garnett.

The thing about Garnett leaving was that he never really left. When you walked around Minneapolis, you saw countless more green number five jerseys instead of Timberwolves jerseys. It would take until about 2011 for Timberwolves fans to trade in their Garnett jerseys for Kevin Love jerseys. So, when the Celtics won their title and Garnett belted out “Anything is possible!” and said this was for ‘Sota, that resonated with us although other fans thought it was foolish. After years of falling short in the playoffs and then watching him spend his last three seasons in Minnesota mired in futility, for him to remember us meant a for Garnett to remember us during his crowning moment. The title may have been the Celtics’, but that was our tiny moment. No matter what happened between him and the team, Garnett has never once let that get in the way of remembering the fans who were there for him in the beginning.

And when Garnett struggled with his knee injury that derailed their run a year later, we all felt for him. We knew that he wasn’t going to play forever, but he exhibited such a resiliency to Father Time that we didn’t want to see him go quite yet. There was no way a competitor like Garnett was going to walk away, especially with the core of those Celtics teams still intact. Though he was older and not exactly the same player, he was the anchor of those Celtics teams even though he missed 36 games over his last two years in Boston.

Garnett was given the same mercy in Boston as he was afforded in Minnesota when he was dealt on draft day yet again last summer. He was going to still have Paul Pierce and be joining Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, so it stood to reason he would have one more shot at glory. When Garnett arrived in Brooklyn, undoubtedly knowing this was likely his last stop, he paid tribute to his old friend in Minnesota, Malik Sealy, by selecting the number two. This is the third Garnett I will remember: the one that was surprisingly thoughtful despite his on-court demeanor and never forgot where he came from. Garnett was greatly impacted by Sealy’s death on his birthday in the early 00s and he took his last opportunity to pay his respects once again.

Knowing Garnett he’ll still try to come back. Maybe he sits longer and returns for the playoffs. I don’t know what to expect if he comes back, but I think it would be foolish to count him out. Backs are finicky things, especially spasms, but if we’ve learned anything over the last 19 years it’s that Garnett is the type to want to go out on his own terms. Maybe he’ll go like Barkley did where he asks Jason Kidd to put him in to grab one last rebound and then take him out immediately. Or he’ll find his own moment. Much like Kobe Bryant, Garnett is one of the fiercest competitor’s of our time and one of those guys you don’t want to have a somber final memory of. As Steve Nash told Bill Simmons last week, people say veterans at the tail end of their careers are selfish because they’re washed up, but they don’t want to be washed up. Between his own competitive spirit and the fact that basketball has been his life, I’m willing to bet we see Garnett again.

Love him or hate him, Garnett is one of the defining players of our time and contributed to the game in order to make it what it is today. Before Garnett, stretch fours were not a thing and now everyone has one. You can’t forget that his second contract changed the way the economics of how teams can sign players. For me, Garnett will always be the 21-year old leading a group of kids around the halls of Hopkins High School. Perhaps I would feel differently if I were born earlier and had to work with him behind the season, but I didn’t and I’m okay with that. I would want to trade those memories for anything. However, make no mistake. This isn’t a eulogy. As bleak as things seem today, we probably haven’t seen the last of Kevin Garnett the player. Finally, in the same way that all Garnett has known is basketball, all I’ve ever known with basketball is Garnett. So I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.

 

Derek James

In addition to writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, Derek James covers the Minnesota Timberwolves for Howlin’ T-Wolf and the Charlotte Bobcats for SB Nation’s Rufus on Fire. He often finds himself writing too many words on irrelevant players. Andray Blatche and Isaiah Rider follow him on Twitter. Unrelated to LeBron James, but taught him everything he knows.