KICKS Presents: The Natural
KICKS 12 is coming; it all started with KG on the cover of KICKS 1.
With the Finals over, and the issue honoring the champion Lakers now burning up the streets (of Manhattan at least; this Kobe cover is getting the prominent placement it deserves at newsstands all over town), the SLAM Dome is taking its annual “break” from traditional NBA coverage (though obviously we’re still humming here on the site) to focus on the shoe industry.
That’s right, KICKS 12 is coming, with the ill cover story and shoes by the hundreds you all have come to love. In preparation for the release of this year’s issue (which should debut here on the site around mid-August and be on sale nationally around Aug. 25), we figured it would be nice to take a look back at how our KICKS franchise has grown. We’ll be running all 11 KICKS covers and cover stories on here over the next few weeks, and there’s no better place to start than with number 1. I was Associate Editor back then, and far inferior to Russ and Tony in my knowledge of shoes, so I definitely took a backseat to them in getting this issue conceptualized and complete, but I do remember the excitement surrounding its launch, and the fact that Kevin Garnett—already a SLAM favorite, and at the time one of Nike’s most promising young endorsers—made for a great first cover. Enjoy.—Ben Osborne
It’s not the fact that Kevin Garnett can play all five positions that’s so amazing. It’s that he makes it look so easy.
by John Holler
Ask Kevin Garnett who his childhood hero was and he’s quick to give you an answer.
“Magic Johnson,” KG says with a smile. “He could do it all.”
Garnett wasn’t even in kindergarten when Johnson had his most Magic moment–the rookie took over at center for an ailing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lead his L.A. Lakers past Philadelphia for the ’80 NBA title–but he’s seen it on tape. He knows what he’s supposed to do.
When Minnesota drafted KG out of Chicago’s Farragut Academy, he became the first high schooler to go directly to an NBA starting lineup since Moses Malone 20 years earlier. He was an unproved talent, but one that T-Wolves general manager Kevin McHale was convinced was going to be a star.
“There were a couple of other guys we were looking at, but, when it came down to it, KG was the guy we wanted,” McHale says. “We knew it was going to take time for him to adjust to the speed of the NBA and we knew that he probably wasn’t going to be ready his rookie year. But everything we had seen of him told us that this was going to be a special player and a guy who could be one of the very best four years down the line.”
Fortunately for Minnesota, Garnett wasn’t looking at that kind of timetable. He wanted to get his recognition and respect immediately, which was going to be that much more difficult playing for the NBA’s worst expansion franchise. Before KG came to Minnesota, the T-Wolves had not only never made the playoffs, they had never won 30 games–winning 75 games in the four previous years combined.
Three years later, the T-Wolves have made two playoff appearances and posted their first winning season in franchise history (last season). Along the way, Garnett has become more like his childhood hero than anyone could have imagined.
“What Kevin has done for us this year is nothing short of amazing,” Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders says. “He’s played almost every position a player possibly could and has done it well. He has become a complete player.”
A natural small forward, the 6-13 Garnett was pushed into playing off-guard due to injuries to Doug West and Michael Williams. When power forward Tom Gugliotta went down for the season, Garnett took on his role. When a season of pounding took its toll on centers Stanley Roberts and Cherokee Parks, the 220-pound Garnett moved into the middle.
“I’m glad I didn’t get hurt,” point guard Stephon Marbury joked with reporters. “He’s looking at my job. Every big guy wants to bring the ball up the floor and shoot threes.”
KG would have accepted his role of one-guard if asked. He accepted his constantly-changing role eagerly last season–making the most of every opportunity.
“If the team is going to win, you have to be able to move people in and out and go with whatever lineup works,” Garnett says. “I’ve moved around when it was needed, because I want to do whatever I can to make our team better.”
When Minnesota went on a late-season run to secure a playoff birth, it was with a small lineup that included mid-season acquisition Anthony Peeler, Marbury, and veteran Terry Porter. KG was the centerpiece of the team, making those around him play with the same intensity that he brings–and living up to the monster $125 million contract he signed last summer.
“When people heard what I signed for, they started expecting that I would never miss a shot or have an off night,” KG says. “There was a lot of pressure to play at the top of my game all the time, but I put as much of that on myself as any of the fans put on me.”
In the process, Garnett has become the biggest star in Minnesota since Kirby Puckett. He has also taken his place on the national stage with a multitude of endorsements, ranging from the high-profile “Fun Police” TV spots (“And your facial expressions when you dunk…”) to print ads in practically every basketball publication in the Western world.
Thanks to his visibility, Minnesota is no longer an NBA laughingstock. Kids want to rock Garnett’s No. 21, season ticket holders for other teams don’t give away their seats when the T-Wolves come to town and the rest of the league has taken notice that Minnesota is a potential contender for the NBA throne. Well, whenever Michael Jordan decides to blow out of the Windy City, anyway.
“People are starting to take notice of us,” Garnett says. “We’re getting on national TV. [Reporters] are coming to talk to us a lot more. They see that what we’re doing is working and that this team can beat anyone when we’re healthy and playing our best.”
Even with all of his accolades, the 22-year-old Garnett hasn’t let his sudden success get to his head. That could be due in part to McHale not allowing it. Having turned himself into a great player as he learned the ropes of the NBA, McHale is a good judge of talent and, as tremendous as Garnett’s accomplishments have been to this point, he still has room to get better.
“He’s still learning the game,” McHale says with conviction. “It’s hard to say that a player as good as he is has an upside to get a lot better, but he has it. Two or three years from now, he could be the dominant player of the NBA.”
Still, keeping Garnett and teammates Marbury and Gugliotta together won’t be an easy chore. Keeping Steph and Googs in T-Wolves colors will likely take another $30 million a year. While that may be a steep price to pay, KG thinks it has to happen.
As he sees it, the T-Wolves are starting down the same road Detroit and Chicago did in the years before they became NBA champs. They pushed further into the playoffs and kept the team together until the job was done. KG is convinced that the same can happen in Minnesota.
“I’d love to see it happen, because this team has what it takes right now to get to the top,” Garnett says. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of it, but I would like to see us stay together. We’ve come a long way in the last two years, but still haven’t gotten far enough.”
If there’s one thing that still separates Garnett from Magic, it has been post-season success. Magic was always money in the playoffs. In a Game Five playoff loss to Seattle that ended Minnesota’s ’97-98 season, KG had a horrible game, which he refused to attribute to jitters of playing in the biggest game of his life.
While fans and media alike felt that the T-Wolves should be proud of last season, Garnett refuses to be satisfied. Magic wouldn’t have accepted that, and neither will KG. All that matters is winning a championship. Everything else is prologue.
“Satisfied? No, I’m not satisfied,” Garnett says. “There’s a lot that I want to get done in the NBA and that ain’t happening yet. I want a ring and we’re still a long way away from getting that. We’re a lot closer than we were even a year ago, but we still have a way to go to get there.”
If it means playing center in a decisive playoff game or squaring up for a trey with the game on the line, KG is willing. Those who know Garnett know that there’s very little he can’t do on the basketball floor and he’s only going to improve. That combination has meant one thing for some other NBA superstars–a championship (or six). And don’t bet against him. As so many people have learner over the last three seasons, what KG wants, KG gets.