NBA basketball in the 21st century is known for its positional versatility, its financial discipline via a salary cap, and its steady influx of precocious young stars who short-circuit their college education for trial by fire in professional competition. The primary catalyst behind all three of these phenomena is Hall of Fame inductee Kevin Garnett.
When KG became the first NBA player in 20 years to bypass college and broad jump from the preps to the pros in 1995, he landed as a lithe unicorn who quickly became capable of guarding any position on the court, from leviathan centers to jitterbug guards. Within two years, he bumped the win total of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 21 to 40 and made his first All-Star Game at age 20. Wolves owner Glen Taylor responded by signing him to what was then the richest contract in team sports—$126 million over six years—before his rookie deal had expired. That a kid barely out of his teens could command that kind of coin in a minor market out on the frozen tundra was an unacceptable precedent for Taylor’s fellow owners, who locked the players out of the 1998-99 season until they agreed to a structure that set a cap on individual (and team) salaries that was well below KG’s going rate.
Bottom line: KG transformed the contours of pro basketball. But the furious joy he brought to the court was, in its own way, also transformative. He performed with a charismatic intensity that raised the stakes of our viewing experience.
The way he was built, and wired, was utterly unique. His appendages came from the top shelf of God’s toolbox, inlaid with sturdy sinew that’s pliable, flyable, and impossibly long. Nobody in NBA history grabbed more defensive rebounds, yet Garnett rarely boxed out, instead hoisting himself skyward over the opponent in front of him and then using what the late Wolves coach Flip Saunders called his “Inspector Gadget arms” to grab or tip the ball backward into his possession.
Thanks to his lateral quickness, vertical lift, and keen anticipation and scholarship, there isn’t a player alive who can simultaneously defend both end of the pick-and-roll better than KG could, and he knew it, often slapping his palms on the floor, spread out in his crouch, as the opponent brought the ball up the court. He took rim protection to a new level, swatting shots with gleeful scorn when the clock was running and indulging in cat-and-mouse mind games with opponents who wanted to see the ball go through the hoop after the play had been whistled dead. He and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players ranked among the NBA’s top 20 all time in both blocks and steals.
There was a method to his on-court madness. The trash-talking, the chest pounding, the rapid-fire headbutting of the ball in his two hands after a silly error, all helped to regulate the pressure, like a gas flare at an oil rig. It also camouflaged a genius-caliber court IQ that was alert to every nuance and tendency. When KG emerged from the shower after a game, there was a CD breaking down all the plays from that night awaiting him on a folding chair in front of his locker stall. He’d immediately go home and study it—and, more often than not, talk about it on the phone with Saunders, a fellow night owl.
During his dozen seasons in Minnesota, the franchise’s ongoing failure in the postseason became a more intractable source of pressure and frustration. KG’s place in the NBA pantheon will always be unfairly docked a notch because of the Wolves’ ineptitude, which stemmed, in part, from the poor timing of his massive deal.
The 1999 CBA penalized Taylor for paying full freight for KG by capping individual player salaries between $9-14 million and imposing a luxury tax on high-spending teams. The only other player whose salary vastly exceeded the new threshold was Shaquille O’Neal. But Shaq toiled for the Lakers, the league’s most glamorous and profitable franchise, who were on the cusp of winning three straight championships. Kobe Bryant was already under contract, and the team had the means to pay the luxury tax to secure the talent it needed.
The Timberwolves literally didn’t have that luxury. Stephon Marbury, who was homesick for his native Coney Island and unreasonably angered because he couldn’t match KG’s salary, balked at negotiating his post-rookie contract and forced a trade to New Jersey just a few months after Tom Gugliotta signed with Phoenix for less than what the Wolves offered. A year later, the Wolves’ attempt to subvert the salary cap with an under-the-table agreement with forward Joe Smith was exposed. In response, NBA commissioner David Stern voided Smith’s contract and deprived the Wolves of five years of first-round draft picks from 2001 to 2005, although he later allowed the Wolves a pick in 2003.
In other words, just as his fat contract was kicking in, KG was bereft of his two most talented teammates and denied the lifeblood of quality rookies joining the team for five years. (The 2003 pick Stern later allowed became Ndudi Ebi, an infamous bust.) An interesting parlor game is coming up with the best player who was teammates with KG in Minnesota for at least three full seasons. Terrell Brandon? Wally Szczerbiak? Compare that to his fellow Hall of Fame inductees this week. Tim Duncan joined a team that was led by David Robinson and that later added Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Kobe Bryant joined forces with Shaq and later Pau Gasol.
Yet Garnett hauled an ever-changing assortment of motley teammates into the playoffs for eight straight years between 1997 and 2004, winning at least 50 games in half of those seasons. The first seven of those playoff appearances resulted in first-round exits, all but once to opponents with better records. Rather than demand a trade, KG remained fiercely loyal to ’Sota despite enormous pressure to leave—the inverse of today’s vagabond movement on behalf of creating superteams. Great players turned talking heads like Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson used the inferior personnel around him to question why he didn’t assert himself more via hero ball. Then–Chicago Bulls beat writer Sam Smith wondered aloud whether KG really wanted to win if he wasn’t willing to go to another ballclub.
When Taylor went into the luxury tax to acquire Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell in 2003, KG won the MVP award (he’d finished second the previous season) and the Wolves went to the Western Conference finals. In Game 7 of the semifinal series with Sacramento, Garnett put the “doesn’t come up big in big games” myth to sleep by scoring 32 of his team’s 83 points, and adding 21 rebounds, four steals, and five blocks.
Even when salary bickering between Sprewell and the Wolves front office dissolved the chemistry and sent the Wolves tumbling into a rebuild, KG was initially reluctant to be traded. Of course, when he was finally paired with the likes of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston, he finished third in the MVP race and won his first and only championship. (That fierce loyalty cropped up again when Allen left the Celtics to play for the rival Heat, something Garnett still hasn’t forgiven.)
The African philosophy of ubuntu that Celtics coach Doc Rivers famously invoked during that championship season as a means of subverting egos and prioritizing the improvement of your teammates is something that Garnett unwittingly adhered to throughout his career. “The ideal situation for a coach is when your best player sets the tone for your locker room,” Saunders told me in the midst of that string of Wolves playoff appearances. “That’s one of the ways I’ve been so lucky to have KG.”
The intensity of his practice habits has become the stuff of legend—even during walk-throughs he had difficulty holding back, and team scrimmages could easily morph into heated battles. But that tough-love work ethic was abetted by a desire to include and recognize teammates at the bottom of the depth chart.
There was the time KG didn’t head for the showers early as was his custom, but rather waited for the media to enter the locker room and then stood on a chair and celebrated teammate Bill Curley late in the 1997-98 season. Ankle and then knee injuries wiped out all of Curley’s second and third NBA seasons and marred his subsequent first year with the Wolves. KG talked about how much physical therapy and time on the exercise bike Curley had endured and how important his play that day had been to a Wolves win. Waving a towel over his head he commanded the room to cheer Curley, whose face went from suspicion that this was a prank to a battle to keep from breaking into tears.
Then there was the “bunny hop butt slap,” an elaborate pregame ritual the notoriously superstitious KG concocted with bench scrub Reggie Jordan in the late ’90s that the two would complete just before KG retied his shorts, adjusted the elastic band on his right wrist, and walked the length of the court to the far diagonal from the Wolves bench, tapping his heart and then pointing to the Target Center rafters where the jersey of Malik Sealy is retired. KG grew up admiring Sealy’s game when Sealy was at St. John’s. He became a mentor—in KG’s words “an anchor” in his life—when he was signed by the Timberwolves. In the early-morning hours after helping KG celebrate his 24th birthday, Sealy was killed by a drunk driver heading down the highway the wrong way.
Kevin Garnett is no saint. He has punched teammates Szczerbiak and Rick Rickert (and perhaps others that didn’t leak to the media). He has taken trash talk into personal territory beyond the norms of decency in an effort to gain an edge on the court. Former members of the Wolves media department have enumerated the different ways he was difficult to work with.
But as someone who covered every game he played as a member of the Wolves, I have on balance admired his character, his honesty, and the fact that he never cheats the fans or the game. I benefited from being the only media writer not on game deadline most of the time when KG emerged late from the shower amid much grumbling from my colleagues, who grabbed a quick quote and went off to file their stories. It gave me dozens of five- and 10-minute one-on-ones before he was finished dressing and a Wolves media rep hurried me out of the locker room.
After wins he was mostly clowning and profane; after losses, quiet and analytical. He’d joke about the cold weather, relish or rue plays that turned the game around one way or the other, talk about his nephews and nieces. Bemused that I was an old white guy who liked hip-hop, he asked what I was listening to and leaned into our mutual love of DMX. On social issues, he was leery of grandstanding. When I brought up the $1.2 million he donated to build 24 new houses in a neighborhood demolished by Hurricane Katrina, he replied, “It is what it is. There are a lot of people who need help. A lot still do. I’ve been poor. Now I’m not.”
When Saunders came back to guide the Wolves and in turn lured KG to accept a trade to Minnesota in 2015, that kind of informal access was long gone, not only to ward off the pervasive invasion of social media, but also because KG spent nearly all of his time at the arena getting enough treatment to will himself into 15 minutes a night. In his youth he’d roll his ankle or tweak a knee a half-dozen times every season seriously enough to put most players on the shelf for a week, only to grimace and hobble for a play or two and be good to go. But coming on age 40, in Season 20, those appendages were past the expiration date on their warranties.
Yet as Saunders anticipated, the grit was inspirational. “He changed the culture over here,” point guard Ricky Rubio said in late November 2015, 17 games into KG’s final season. “He comes two hours before practice, gets some shots up, does some extra work. Now everyone does the same. You’re at home knowing he is going in, and thinking, ‘I should be there.’”
KG lasted until January 23, 2016, logging time in 38 of Minnesota’s first 45 games. During the 556 minutes he was on the court, the Wolves had a defensive rating of 97.4 points per 100 possessions, compared to the overall team mark of 106.2. The next-most-beneficial impact on the team D was by fellow graybeard Tayshaun Prince; the Wolves’ defensive rating was 105 when Prince played. Brought in to mentor then-rookie Karl-Anthony Towns—they shared the court for 93 percent of KG’s minutes—Garnett may in fact have spoiled Towns with his prescient instruction of where KAT should be as the play developed and his ability to cover for him even if the adjustment wasn’t made.
For a variety of reasons—past comments, a misunderstanding over a share of team ownership for KG, and treatment of some of KG’s former teammates—Garnett is embittered toward Taylor. But the legacy he left in Minnesota will inevitably transcend that, especially if controlling ownership of the Wolves goes through to Alex Rodriguez and his partner over the next three years. Then Garnett’s jersey will be retired in Minneapolis. This week, however, is about his likeness hanging on the wall at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, where it belongs.
Britt Robson has covered the Timberwolves for a variety of publications since 1990, most recently as a regular columnist for The Athletic and as a weekly guest on The Dane Moore NBA Podcast. Follow him on Twitter, @brittrobson.