The Legacy of Kevin Garnett: Trend Setter, Timeless Champion and Teacher
After 21 seasons in the league, 40-year-old Kevin Garnett announced his retirement a week ago joining fellow superstars Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan in a who’s who of prominent stars to hang up their uniforms in 2016. The prolific power forward dramatically changed the landscape of the draft process for the NBA, becoming only the second player to be drafted from high school in 20 years back in 1995. The McDonald’s All-American signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves and slowly honed his craft in his rookie season, averaging a commendable 10.4 PPG.
The tenacity of Garnett’s offensive prowess emerged in the 1996-97 season when the Wolves drafted former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Stephon Marbury. In tandem with Marbury, Garnett’s offensive numbers soared to an average 17 PPG and he even had two games where he added eight blocks to the stat sheet. The team made their first playoff appearance in franchise history that year and Garnett cemented himself as a premiere big man. He capitalized on his impressive performance during the 1997-98 season when he accepted a six-year contract extension totaling an unheard of $126 million. Despite the grumblings from his detractors and critics he continued to produce offensively for the team, leading them again to the playoffs and being voted to the All-Star Game. He became known as The Franchise in Minneapolis, seemingly willing his team to win on his own.
By the 2004-05 season The Franchise had become The Frustrated. The Timberwolves didn’t make the playoffs, teammate Latrell Sprewell opted to forgo a three-year, $21 million extension and Sam Cassell was traded for a lackluster Marko Jaric. Individual honors were no longer enough to satiate the North Carolina sensation any longer. On July 31, 2007 the basketball world was stunned as the Boston Celtics traded seven players to bring Garnett to Boston, a move largely orchestrated by then associate head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau wished Garnett all the best in a statement he issued on his retirement this week, “I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank Kevin for all of his great accomplishments and contributions to the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves organization, and for me personally with the Boston Celtics,” Thibodeau wrote. “KG is without question the all-time best player to wear a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, and he is also one of the best to ever play this game.” (www.nba.com)
The 2007-2008 season was a momentous year for both myself and Garnett, he a superstar poised to finally accomplish a life dream of winning a championship and I the fresh-faced college graduate who landed the opportunity of a lifetime at NBA TV in Secaucus, New Jersey. Something in my heart said it’s their time and as I logged each of the Los Angeles Lakers games that season I always kept an eye on the progression of the Boston Celtics; the season was a storybook ending for the league, something fit for the movies.
The Celtics routed the Lakers in a decisive 10-point victory in Game 1, finishing 98-88. The basket must have seemed humongous to KG and longtime franchise player Paul Pierce, Pierce swelled his stat sheet with 15 points and Garnett added 24, including an audience rousing two-handed flush late in the game. With Kobe Bryant off on the offensive end, shooting just 9-26, the Celtics capitalized and took first blood in the series, later going up 2-0 when they doused the Los Angeles defense with 10 unanswered point at the start of the second quarter, by halftime of Game 2 it was 54-42 Boston.
Back home at Staples Center the Lakers didn’t allow themselves to be bulldozed into a 3-0 deficit and rebounded from their dismal shooting display on the east coast, holding off the Celtics with a win in Game 3 but Kobe and Co were back to buttery defense in Game 4; LA led 35-14 after the first quarter, marking the largest first-quarter lead ever in NBA Final history and would hold off the resurging Celtics for much of the game but a demoralizing 21-3 Celtics run to close the third quarter swung the momentum back to the underdogs. With less than five minutes remaining in the game the Celtics took their first lead when Eddie House made a picture perfect jump shot coming off the bench; Boston never looked back from that moment, they won the game 97-91 and went up 3-1 in the series.
Los Angeles started off strong again in Game 4 at home, jumping out to a 43-24 lead but like game four they let down their guard on the defensive end and allowed Boston to cut the lead to two points (62-60 Celtics). Finally, regaining their composure offensively, Los Angeles went on to outscore Boston 24-18 in the third quarter and build up a 14-point lead in the fourth. The Celtics were able to tie the game at 90 with a late 16-2 run but in true MVP form Kobe Bryant picked Pierce’s handle from behind, teammate Lamar Odom hauled in the loose ball and beamed the ball to a streaking Bryant for a fast break dunk at the other end. The Lakers went on to win Game 5 and send the series back to Boston, trailing 3-2.
By Game 6 all nagging doubts that Boston couldn’t pull off the upset were diminishing and a glimmer hope lingered in the back of my mind; could tonight be the night that my favorite big man finally got a ring? Like Garnett, I’d grown frustrated with the disappointing postseason play of the Minnesota Timberwolves and just hoped he’d find a team with complementary players before retiring ringless but while I applauded his move to the Boston Celtics I wasn’t convinced that a trio could pull off a best of four series against Phil Jackson’s seemingly impenetrable squad out west. As I drove down Harmon Meadow Blvd that afternoon and parked my Volkswagen Golf in my favorite spot I couldn’t help but have a small pit in my stomach as I drew closer to the entrance to the building; I was nervous for them.
By Game 6 the Celtics had actually set a new record, the most playoff games played in one season, competing in 26 post season contests; the previous record of 25 was set by the New York Knicks in 1994. I bit my lip as I logged each possession; Boston started off timid, passing on open shots and allowing easy looks at the basket on the defensive end but by halftime a smirk crept across my face as the Big Three layered it on thick offensively, overpowering the exhausted Lakers with their dynamic offense.
As the clock began to run down in the fourth quarter, I held off celebrating in my mind, fearful that Kobe Bryant would go on an offensive run, dashing hope for a championship but as the Celtics pulled away my heartbeat normalized and I teared slightly as the clock hit 0:00 at the end of the fourth quarter and confetti poured from the rafters at TD Banknorth Garden. From hundreds of miles away in North Jersey the victory was felt, I’ve never seen the room erupt in such excitement as it did that night. No one grumbled about working overtime to log the numerous press conferences or the inevitable long series of replays from every angle as usual, on that night none of my co-workers and I could have imagined being anywhere else other than that windowless room surrounding by computers, flat screen monitors and microphones, stat sheets strewn across our desks. I didn’t leave until the wee hours of the morning the next day but it was the only time I skipped to my car, overjoyed I’d worked that one game.
After the dust settled and he had his ring in hand Kevin Garnett left Boston; after a short stint in Brooklyn with the Nets KG returned to the place where it all started, Minneapolis, Minnesota, this time not as a fresh faced high school prodigy, but as a future of Hall of Fame veteran whose sole purpose was to pass the baton to the next generation.
Saunders brought Garnett back to the Twin Cities in the 2015 trade from Brooklyn to add much needed leadership to a young squad. There, in the same city where he became known as The Franchise, it was now the champion’s turn to pass the baton on. “He’s a Hall of Famer, been in the league for so long,” forward Andrew Wiggins recounted a week ago Monday, “He came back to mentor us players. No else is here to do that for us. Now we’ve got to go out on our own.” (Twin Cities Pioneer Press)
Number 21 will one day hang in the raters of the Target Center right besides No. 2 of his friend Malik Sealy who perished in a car accident 16 years ago. Before passing away last year, Saunders had given the team the their most valuable resource, he’d reconnected them with the one man who’d put Minnesota on the map in professional basketball. As the team meshes during workouts and practices in training camp they must look forward to a future without KG on the floor, “I always told him when the season was coming to an end that he could leave on his own terms and that no matter what I will always be his little brother,” center Karl Anthony-Towns said. “I told him whatever he decides, I’m always here for him.” (Twin Cities Pioneer Press) And like Anthony-Towns I have to agree, no matter what avenue he decides to go down in this new stage of his career, the coaches, the league, the players and of course the fans will always be here for him.
Kevin, thank you for the highlight reels, enthusiasm and raw emotion, it’s been one great ride. The future is even brighter and I can’t wait to watch you rise to the occasion off the court. Best wishes on your retirement.