Holding You Down
SLAM 144: Kevin Garnett is still getting it done at the highest level.
A 12-year-old might debate his or her own enthusiasm about going back to school, but KG’s is apparent enough. And all the new additions aside—the O’Neal “brothers,” the return of the prodigal Delonte—the most important piece of the C’s title hopes is a refreshed and rejuvenated Kevin Garnett. “We’re anxious to see which KG we have this year,” Ainge says. “I think he’s in great spirits, he looks good physically, this week he’s been in the gym working out.”
And playing more like the KG of old than an old KG. “Man, KG is one guy that’s looked great,” Paul Pierce says. “The way he’s movin’, his attitude—you could tell that he’s over that injury and he’s ready to play some ball right now.”
Not all the Celtics are so ready to declare Garnett rested and ready, though: “Are you happy to have a fully healthy KG back?” “We don’t know if he’s fully healthy,” Rajon Rondo responds flatly. “He could just be sayin’ that. So I mean, I’m anxious to see Kevin. He gotta catch at least four consistent lobs from me. So until he does that, he’s not back 100 percent.” In his defense, Rondo hasn’t run with the squad yet. Also, he’s the deadpan master on a team laden with jokesters. So one can only presume he’s kidding. Still, Rondo has seen enough of KG this fall to determine one thing: “He’s been talkin’ like the healthy KG. Even when he got hurt he was still talkin’ like the healthy KG.”
That’s an aspect of Garnett’s game that can never be underestimated. Yes, he’s far more useful on the court than he is on the bench in a tailored suit. Yes, with him fully healthy they won a championship, and with him recovering late last year, they made a run back to the Finals. But his unseen contributions can be as important as the ones he makes during the 30-odd minutes he spends on the court. Asked who the most talkative member of their veteran-laden squad is, Pierce doesn’t even hesitate: “I would say KG, man. He’s got the most stories. I know he don’t talk to y’all (the media) a lot, but we get it.” He laughs. “I know we get it. I wanna go home, and I’m sittin’ there for another hour listening to the KG stories.”
For veterans like Pierce, those stories may be just that—stories. But for the younger guys, like Turkish rookie Semih Erden or 24-year-old Glen “Big Baby” Davis, KG’s words are gospel. “KG’s done a lot man, just showing me how to be a professional, how to be on top of the game,” Baby says. “He’s been on top of the game for a while, he still is, being a dominant player because of his work ethic and just the way he carries himself throughout the whole year and just how he handles people.”
Picturing the infamous YouTube moment of a seething Garnett leaning into Davis on the bench and ripping into him viciously enough to bring tears, I have to ask Baby one last question: “Does he cuss more than anyone you’ve ever met?” “Uhh, yeah, he does.”
Fortunately for the assembled media, Garnett reserves the cussing for the court, the bench and the practice floor. With 30 minutes left in the two-hour “media day,” he slides into the designated spot in the corner of the practice court as cameras cluster and recorders flash red. Unlike the other Celtics, who show off their new lightweight jerseys (and, in Shaq’s case, his new No. 36), Garnett is in a black Celtics longsleeve warmup, white game shorts, some no-longer-white NBA socks and a pair of fresh-out-the-box Antas (the China-based company being his fourth shoe sponsor in 16 seasons). His first words are unprompted: “I have a lot more confidence in my leg and my body. I feel a lot better. I’m eager to start camp.”
The queries come anyway, of course, and Garnett responds with his usual mix of one-liners (“I don’t like us, I love us.”) and good-natured barbs (asked about Pierce’s statement that he keeps them an hour after practice listening to stories, KG responds, “Because they’re stories, you know? Paul doesn’t have any good stories. At least that he wanna share.”). And there’s eloquent sincerity. Always that. Asked about the summer following the Game 7 loss in the NBA Finals, he doesn’t hold back: “The summer was painful. Very painful, very dark. Not enough time—like anything—but we’re back here.”
He mentions the return of Doc Rivers and Ray Allen, and is asked whether there was a point when he thought the team would be broken up. “No. I’m kind of optimistic, man,” Garnett says. “I like to pull out the pluses in things, I like to think that things are gonna be like they say they are until proven different. Wasn’t gonna think anything different from Doc unless he said it to me man-to-man. And that’s true with Ray. Anything they said was always gonna be respected first, then understood secondly. That’s how I deal with life. Until it changes, pull the pluses out of it.”
Unspoken is the fact that—no matter what—the Celtics’ window is closing. Garnett has two years left on his current deal; both O’Neals inked two-year deals. But they’re not going anywhere quite yet. Garnett calls this team more talented than the one that won the ’08 title. And if his words are sincere, he feels better than he did then, too. “I feel very, very strong. I feel very vital, if that’s the accurate word I wanna use here. Eager to have the Big Fella here—it’s a shame, I told him it’s a shame we had to wait for our last couple years of playing, wish we coulda did this earlier. Dammit, Danny!” He laughs. “But it’s good, it’s cool, I’m totally embracing this and we’re gonna have some fun this year.”
It’s probably still too soon to start talking legacy, but legacy surrounds these Celtics nonetheless, from the banners that ring the practice court (unlike other teams, the Celtics only honor NBA championships) to the presence of living NBA history. Tommy Heinsohn was drafted by the Celtics in 1956, had his No. 15 retired in 1965, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986 and has been their color(ful) commentator for nearly three decades. He won eight rings as a player, and as the only person to be involved with the Celtics for each of their 17 titles, thus is uniquely qualified to pass judgment on KG’s place in Celtic history. Asked whether Garnett’s No. 5 should join the many numbers already hanging in the rafters, his look is almost pitying: “When guys are responsible for championships, they normally go up on the flag. So I would expect he’d be there, too.” I stammer out a protest, that KG hasn’t been a Celtic that long, but Heinsohn parries that effortlessly: “Yeah, but titles are important, and he was an integral part, an important part of that team.”
Championships. Titles. Thus far Garnett has only brought one of those to Boston, and in a town where the superstars have traditionally been laden with the plural—from Russell’s 11 to Larry Bird’s three—one has to wonder whether it’s enough. Trust this: It’s not enough for Garnett. Not after two injury-plagued seasons, not after a long Playoff push that fell just one quarter short of a second ring.
“I think more mentally than anything last year was hard for me because I knew I was playing through some difficult times,” says Garnett, averaging turn-back-the-clock per-game numbers of 15.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game through the season’s first two weeks. “But I’m not the one to make excuses, I’m not the one to be out here bitchin’ and complainin’ about stuff—I’m the one to work, come in here, continue to work, try and better myself. So that’s what I do.”