Holding You Down

by December 15, 2010

If there’s a player with a bigger split between on-court and off-court personality than Kevin Garnett, I don’t know who it is. On the court, KG is basically insane, cussing at himself constantly and spitting trash talk so nasty that he has to explain himself to an entirely different team’s coach. Off the court, he’s thoughtful and original, dispensing with the “it is what it is” blank-stare clichés in favor of colorful metaphors and actual eye-contact honesty. Sometimes it takes him a good hour to come out after a game, but it’s always worth it.

Of course, for this piece I didn’t get him one-on-one at all. There was one group session with all the Boston media in the universe at Celtics media day (where players face the masses one-by-one) and a strikeout at Madison Square Garden pre-season game where he got tossed in the first half and (as per usual) didn’t speak at all pregame.

No matter. Even in group settings he’s terrific, and when he’s not around, teammates new and old are eager to big him up. Er, literally sometimes. “We both have the same aspirations,” Shaq said before the Knicks game. “I’m on the last two steps, and he’s probably three steps above me goin’ out the door. Know what I’m sayin’? We know this time is special, and we’re gonna take advantage of it, and do what we can to fulfill what needs to be fulfilled.” —Russ Bengtson

Kevin Garnett spread

by Russ Bengtson / @russbengtson

Kevin Garnett is old. He doesn’t look it, he sure as hell doesn’t act it, but nevertheless, Da Kid ain’t a kid no more. KG turned 34 on May 19, and his 41,694 regular-season minutes played heading into this season placed him ahead of Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Russell and even Michael Jordan on the all-time list. Two more seasons of 2,500-plus minutes—not inconceivable, given his history—would put him ahead of even the ageless Robert Parish and the tireless John Havlicek. There’s a lot of miles on those skinny legs.

A lot of years, too. And, as hard as it is to believe, the once-revolutionary Garnett (remember when 7-0 perimeter players were an oddity?) has become almost as much of a throwback as his No. 21 Timberwolves jersey. One only needs to look at his highly emotional game, which has been damn near legislated out of existence by the NBA’s new technical foul rules—evidenced by his first-half ejection in a pre-season game in New York.

The ironic thing is that said rules were instituted to make sure players respect the game. Respect the game? Garnett should be Exhibit A of why the new rules are so foolish. It’s hard to believe anyone could possibly love and respect the game more than KG. Just look at him before a game starts, while the anthem plays. Garnett’s in constant motion, shifting his weight from foot to foot, rocking his head from side to side, occasionally bringing a hand up. He’s damn near boiling over, ready to go. While the last note still sounds, he spins and heads to the bench, the first Celtic to do so.

Garnett’s pre-game ritual doesn’t end there. He has his own talc process that rivals (and pre-dates) LeBron’s, offers a fist bump to Celtics PR man Jeff Twiss, and goes to stand alone, head bowed, in front of his own basket stanchion. After his moment of violent reflection—banging his head into the stanchion—he stalks back down the court, offering the same fist bump—fist extended, elbow bent at a 90-degree angle—to all opponents. He ends in the backcourt where he pounds his chest twice and glares into the stands, before turning back and individually acknowledging all three officials. What is that if not respect?

Rewind. It’s a dreary early fall day in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Garnett’s 16th NBA media day—and a busy one at that, with multiple photo and radio setups, along with a slavering media scrum and a long table of items to sign, polo-shirted Celtics assistants and interns hustling players from spot to spot to spot—yet KG is already in mid-season form, trading quips with Shaq and yelling loud enough during a promo taping to interrupt Rajon Rondo’s interview in an adjacent room. Stillness is not in his nature. “You guys know KG,” Danny Ainge tells the assembled media. “He’s like a 12-year-old going back to school—he brings a great deal of enthusiasm to the gym every day.”