Kevin Garnett Opens Up About the Early Years and How He’d Have a ‘Three Ball’ If He Was Playing Today
It’s mid-morning on the West Coast, where Kevin Garnett lives now, and the sun is shining through the window behind him, gleaming off his Larry O’Brien trophy (“Just always know when you see me, you see her, and when you see her, you see me”) as well as his luxuriously moisturized bald dome (“It’s all coconut oil and sunshine, it ain’t built for everybody, you know what I’m sayin’?”). KG is 44 now, five years removed from his last NBA game, but he still looks like he could get out there right now and give somebody buckets.
This is not going to happen, of course. KG spent his 20-plus-year NBA career squeezing it all out down to the pulp, retired—if I can mix metaphors here—with the tank on E. But that intensity, that drive, that demon that drove him, that didn’t just go away. The fire still burns. So what’s supposed to be a half-hour Zoom call goes on for an hour, then an hour and a half, despite the fact that he’s got a whole gang of other interviews to get to. KG might be retired from the NBA, but he sure ain’t retired-retired.
Back in his playing days, Garnett was always the last to speak after games. He’d get his half-hour or so of treatment in the back, then get dressed, and only then—when everything was perfect—would he come out and answer questions. The entire media contingent was always still out there waiting, because we all knew he always had something to say.
That, at least, hasn’t changed.
SLAM: I want to start going back to—I think this was the very first time I ever met you—and it would have been the Wheelchair Classic at Madison Square Garden.
KG: Wheelchair Classic, Wheelchair Cla—oh wow. Wow, wow, wow. That’s a throwback.
SLAM: Do you remember what it was like getting out on the court with those guys?
KG: Anytime when I was in high school I stepped on the court with any pro player, I was always in awe, I was always in awe of the difference and I always wanted to see the difference in what makes this mug a motherfuckin’ pro. And then when you play, you actually saw, you actually experienced a pro. You saw the difference in the style of play, the style of pace, the patience. And that’s what separates, to me, the professional from just a regular basketball player. You learn how to attack, you learn how to defend on all genres, on all categories—fast, big, strong, long, lean, you learn how to guard it all. So whenever I would step on a court, I would always be in awe of pros just because of that reason. But man, the Wheelchair Classic, you took me back. That’s deep.
SLAM: With young guys coming up back then, it flowed the other way, too, because you guys were so different from people who were already in the NBA. There was definitely a shift coming.
KG: Mm-hmm, definitely an energy coming, definitely a different—I think after you saw UNLV start making their run, you start seeing, like, the Fab Five come into it, the energy started to change a little bit, at least for me. Growing up during the crack era, kids getting killed for they shoes was, like, a new thing. Remember the first time you heard a kid got killed in Chicago for a pair of Jordans? That changed everything for me, man. Like, kids at school and all of us growing up and the way we competed. MJ made it cool to dress up and be professional, and then it’s like, Onyx came out and it was like “Duh duh duh, duh, duh, duh. Let the boys be boys!” It was a different energy vs the Anita Baker and the Luther Vandross. Our generation was coming off a bunch of, like, Yo, my dad ain’t in here, we single mom kids, we coming up like this. You learn to slap box, you learnin’ the street. It was just all of it, all of it at the same time, kind of rush the door and hit it all at once. And it was crazy that SLAM was, like, the birth of all of that, was at the same time.
SLAM: Did you feel that extra weight on you coming into the League? From that?
KG: Not weight, but I felt like I was representing. When I came out, no bullshit, this is a true story, I actually thought Felipe Lopez had the tools and the confidence and the skills to actually do what I did. When I actually sat back and thought about why more people didn’t actually take this route, it was really because of the education. I don’t think too many kids, any city kids, country kids, kids from the suburbs, didn’t matter. Overseas. All that. I didn’t think people was educated enough on the possibilities and the options of actually going from high school to the pros. And with that, I felt like I was representing Steph [Marbury]. I felt like I was representing AI [Allen Iverson], Shareef [Abdur-Rahim], Big [Robert] Traylor, Paul—Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, because I had played with all these guys. And I felt like I was representing that. I was representing the next wave of players that wanted to come in and make their mark and be impactful in the League.
SLAM: Your first game you were 4-4, you were pretty comfortable right from the start. Was there a moment when you thought, Wait a minute, I belong with all these guys.
KG: Comfortable, but I went through a couple preseason games against Big Dog [Glenn Robinson], which was like a grand opening for the League. He was the first superstar I played that didn’t take it easy. Big Dog was talking shit, it was bucket for bucket, and it grew a fire in me. And you know, the first couple games I was—I won’t say gullible, but I knew all these guys and I looked up to ’em, even Joe Smith and Rasheed [Wallace] and Stack [Jerry Stackhouse] and all those guys, even though we was all in the same [draft] class. I was a true fan. I was a kid who had posters on his wall. So Webb [Chris Webber] was my favorite player. And when I played Webb, he shot a jump hook on me, and I was looking so googly-eyed, and Sam Mitchell—to his credit—slapped the shit out of me like, Look, hey, you can’t come out here and appreciate these guys like this. I know you got these guys on your wall, fuck all that, we out here now. And it wasn’t until then, I can honestly say that moment there for me, was actually like, OK, OK, you can appreciate these guys and respect them, but not out here.
SLAM: Do you think about how coming out straight from Farragut shaped you? How maybe you would have been different had you gone to college? I know you were talking about Michigan, Carolina…
KG: If I’m being honest, I’m glad I came out of high school, man. I see how college muzzles these kids and how these kids don’t really have a voice, how they get told and controlled so much. You know my biggest thing coming out of high school was [deep breath] just the control of me, man. I felt like so many times, you didn’t really get to make a decision, someone was making the decision for you. You know part of what took me so long in picking a school was me actually liking it vs a crew of people around me or people that want the best for me telling me. I wasn’t feeling that. I was like, Look, when I make a decision, I’ll make a decision. When I got to Chicago, I was a lot more mature than I was in South Carolina. I grew up a lot faster and the city helped me deal with a lot of intangibles and little things that kids really go through. I ain’t had no Mom and Pop to bounce things off of, I had to grit and grind and make decisions on my own, and those decisions, I had to stand on ’em. And they had to be decisions that carried a workload, and I was committed. I was committed to basketball day one, and I wasn’t gonna let anything stop me. And although I did have some, you know, bumps in the road, I kept it moving and I kept it going.
SLAM: Was there an exact moment when you’re like, OK, NBA, we’re doing this?
KG: I played Scottie Pippen in the summer one time. And we got to, like, a little shit, like, a little, I don’t even know. A little pushing match? Elbow? Some shit, I don’t know what Scottie was doing. But you know, he’s Scottie Pippen, and he’s a beast. Super GOAT. And I just stood my ground. But it wasn’t until then that I had confidence in myself and my skills, that the stuff that I was having confidence in was working, which built my confidence even more after playing him.
Then I sat and I had a conversation, probably like a three-, four-hour conversation with Isiah Thomas about the West Side of Chicago and 16th Street and what I have to deal with every day, and he knew all of it. And the ABCs that goes with Chicago. Again, I’m gonna use the word “intangibles,” that come along with Chicago and going to school and playing in the Red West [Conference]. Like, he understood all that. We got to talk about street shit and just everyday stuff, right? Soon as I talked to Isiah Thomas, I knew it. I was committed. I came in, I knocked on Wolf’s [William “Wolf” Nelson, Farragut’s coach—Ed.] door. I was like, Yo, sit down, I need to tell you something. He thought something was wrong, he thought I got a girl pregnant or some shit, he was looking at me like, What? I was like, I’m going to the League. I need you to write this down. Tomorrow I need you to look up these agents…and da, da, da. He was looking at me and laughed. He’s like, What? He saw my face. And he saw how I was looking. And he saw how I looked at him. And I wasn’t smiling. I was deadass and I was looking at him like, I ain’t fuckin’ around, after you get through laughin’ I need you to get a piece of paper and write this down. This is what I need you to do. And I was talking to him with so much conviction that it wasn’t no laughing in the room. It felt like a Sunday but it was really a Saturday, and Monday got here and it started. And I can honestly say that that moment, after speaking to Isiah, and feelin’ that synergy, feeling like, I’m about to do something that everybody else ain’t did, I ain’t going to junior college, I’m not going to college. I’m about to bet on myself. I’m one of the hardest-working people I know. Don’t nobody work harder than me. Don’t nobody want this more than me. I’m fittin’ to go all in with this, and I jumped out and I jumped right in the rabbit hole. I didn’t care what it was. And in my mind, it couldn’tve been no harder than getting up, surviving every day in Chicago from the time I walked out of my house to the time I walked back in it. I looked at the League like it couldn’t have been harder than the West Side. I was like, No, it can’t be harder than this shit.
SLAM: I feel like from the moment you stepped on the floor, first game, your rookie year, you were influencing people, people who maybe never thought you could make the jump from high school to the pros. But you stepping on that floor made that real. Were you aware of that from the get-go?
KG: I wasn’t aware of it, but you know, you know how something is there, like a consistency of something being there? I felt that. And then people who know me, know I have, like, a little presence about myself. As a rookie, I would talk, but then I was listening so much and I was trying to soak up so much. And again, you’re trying to prove yourself so much that you find yourself just in this state of just always, always soaking up something, always gravitating toward something. Always. I don’t care what it is, it was always a learning moment for me. So I felt like I didn’t have the privilege of going to school like these other guys. I didn’t have the privilege of coming in here learning and all this other stuff. But Kevin McHale put me in a position that I can learn under him. And he put me in position to where I can be transparent with him and all the older guys that were there. And then I had a great group of older guys. Sam Mitchell was probably the best fit for me, very aggressive guy, from the South, he’s from Georgia. So he kind of understood, but he understood my motor, too, and that I wanted things. And then you know, when we got on the same page as far as where we come from and start peeling back layers about who we are, that’s when our relationship grew. And he knew I was a competitor, and I wasn’t backing down from nobody. And he loved that. I was a fucking pit bull. And I didn’t care about who—after that Webber incident, I didn’t care about any of that shit no more. I took more of a West Side kind of Chicago attitude with some South Carolina skill and discipline. And I worked my ass off.
SLAM: When were you able to take the time to start looking back? Was it after you retired?
KG: I still haven’t looked back on shit. Fans send me videos or stuff all the time—fans make fan pages, tag you in shit, fans make YouTube joints and all this, and I like to thank all the fans, too, because half the shit that I’ve done I forgot about. You don’t really think about how much time you’ve actually put into this until you look up and your kid is 12 or 13. The only reason I think I actually look back at it now is because my kids actually want to converse and talk about it, and then I get younger fans coming up to me and their friends. That’s the only time I really talk about it. I don’t really like going back in time, unless I’m talking to [young players], I used to train some of these young guys, so giving them examples of things that I’ve been through and stuff I recall. But I never wanted to be the guy to be like, Hey, man, when I played…
SLAM: It’s funny to me that people talk about you acting in Uncut Gems, but my introduction to Kevin Garnett the actor was the Fun Police commercial with Cherokee Parks—you, Cherokee and Tom Gugliotta.
KG: The Fun Police was fun. I remember Cherokee and Googs being in it. I remember my best friend Bug being in it with me. Fun Police was fun—Trump was in one of my Fun Police joints, too. You remember that? Fun Police was probably one of my favorite commercials that I’ve ever done. And Uncut Gems was just a gem within itself, if I’m being 100. It fell in my lap. Adam [Sandler] was unbelievable. I got to see the true essence of his greatness. Julia Fox was great, she was unbelievable in this. The Safdie brothers was…they was just so easy to work with. They was so simple, so down to earth, so encouraging. I was like, You motherfuckers should be some goddamn coaches the way y’all do this shit.
SLAM: Do you want to do more acting?
KG: I have a production company called Content Cartel, and we are co-producing my documentary along with Blowback Productions. Shout out to Marc Levin. Shout out to SHOWTIME. Got a bunch of projects coming up. This is my second calling. I love storytelling. Believe it or not, I have a ton of stories that I don’t tell on purpose. Production is something that I think I get, and it’s a lot of stories that need to be told.
SLAM: What about from an NBA perspective? I don’t want to bring up sore subjects, but I know the Timberwolves thing didn’t necessarily go the way you wanted it to go. Is there still interest in being involved at an ownership level?
KG: I noticed that in this boys club of owners, you have to play the game and know the game. And, you know, I think at this point, I’m considered a worker from that standpoint, I don’t think that the [owners] overall see the value in players coming back in ownership, which is sad, because, you know, Michael Jordan was once a player. Needless to say, I felt like the new wave of things to be done is coming. And this old wave is on its way out. So I’m just gonna wait for this old way to just kind of die out and new ways of business start to take over. And I think that’s the way that kind of fits me and suits me. If not, if I’m not able to be in an ownership group, then it’s all good. But it’s not gonna stop my greatness and other things that I want to accomplish.
I love Minneapolis dearly. I do have an opinion on the reactivation or at least the reoccurrence of the city in which I think some real development in capital dollars in education, police reform—like all that needs to be addressed. We need education, we need our communities to feel like they’re safe. Real shit. And I think Minneapolis has a bunch of underlying issues that need to be addressed. And I think the ownership can play a huge part in not just educating, but bringing two parts together and bringing people together. Sports, believe it or not, and, you know, you can agree or disagree, but I think that sports brings the world together like music, you know? And my only real take in all of this was to be able to bring the city back together for what I know the city to be.
And that was my real influence with trying to go in so hard and trying to make this work. But you know, in all things, if you’re gonna dance, if you’re gonna dance with somebody or if you’re going to partner with somebody, it’s got to be a two-way street. And it’s got to be something that both of you see the vision of, and I just, I think that in this situation, the vision wasn’t valued, nor looked at, and I think that it was ignored. I’m looking forward to being part of a different group, if it’s in Minnesota with the Timberwolves, cool. It doesn’t look like that. But if anything else comes up, I know Vegas is on the rise for getting a franchise soon. I know Seattle has roots, so we’ll see, I’m not going anywhere. And that situation too, it helped me and it educated me. So, you know, the second time that I come, I think I’m gonna come a whole ’nother way than I actually went this first time. But it was a great education for myself, all parties involved. I appreciate the experience. But yeah, I’ma fall back, I’ma regroup and then I’m gonna come back at this again. So you ain’t seen the last of me. So we’ll see. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
SLAM: You’re sounding like somebody who could be governor of Minnesota instead of just the owner of the Timberwolves.
KG: [Laughs] Hell no, hell no. There’s too much responsibility, man. I’ve been really, you know, chill, playing the shadows, I’m watching everything. I’m paying attention. I’m staying in tune. I’m staying in tune with the street. I’m listening to the community, I’m listening to all the kids that’s going through it. A lot of those kids that’s going through it and are really standing on the front line in Minneapolis are kids that I actually know, been through programs that I actually set through with the city.
I went back to see the George Floyd memorial and the monument and just walk through there to get like a real feel for myself and, you know, get down on ground zero and feel the people, man, and it was one of the better things I did because I haven’t done it in a long time. I haven’t been back to Minneapolis in a minute. I still have a home there, I still have family there, still live there. Yeah, so things like that are just in my heart to do, but you know, I’m not a politician, I’m more the people’s champ. I fuck with the people. I don’t want to get mixed up with lobbyists and a bunch of other shit that I don’t really truly understand at the end of day. Nor will I give something to be something, you know. I stand on my square, you know what I’m saying, I’m five all day. And people know that. That means more to me than anything. But if the governor wants to reach out to me and help to bring some type of reform or some type of balance back to the city, I’m all ears, but it’s gonna be something of my own imagination and vision that I would like to see for the city and my people.
SLAM: I know the actual ceremony got pushed back because of COVID, but have you thought a lot about getting into the Hall of Fame and what that milestone means?
KG: When it first happened, I was all gassed. It’s just, it’s hard to actually feel good about the Hall of Fame with so much real-life issues and stuff that’s going on. I’m super gassed. And I’m just overwhelmed with the concept of being one of the best ever to do this. It hasn’t really settled in for me. COVID got everything effed up, you know what I’m saying? COVID got everything kind of, you know, sideways. But yeah, it wasn’t expected, to be honest. I got so much other shit going on in my life that I forgot about the Hall of Fame, if I’m being honest.
SLAM: It hurts with Kobe not being there for it.
KG: Yes, Kob’ fucks with me to this day, man. I still haven’t gotten over that. I feel some type of way when I look up and they just got him on TV every day. Like still here and…yeah. For all of us who had a relationship with Kob’, that’s gotta be hard. Because we’re all trying to get past it, we’re all trying to move on. And his energy and his legacy is still here. Somebody was asking me something the other day and before you answer you got to always take a breath, you know what I’m saying? Shout to Kob’, rest in peace to Mamba, man. Always. Till we meet again.
SLAM: What would it be like if you had a chance to do it all over? What would it be like if 19-year-old Kevin Garnett was joining the NBA in 2021?
KG: If I was joining the League in 2021? Well, my energy and my vision to be the best wouldn’t change, none of that. None of the intangibles would change for me. You gotta know, I competed differently, I competed angrily, I competed very aggressively. But that was the time. That’s not really the energy now, the energy now is more skilled, it’s more—it’s probably more skilled than ever. Like, do you see some of the shots that these kids are making? Jayson Tatum, every time I watch him, every shot that he takes looks difficult. He’ll shoot a turnaround going over his right shoulder, and I’ll be like, man, you really—for anybody who knows that move, you really got to get your right leg around and square up and—I’m just amazed at the skill level, man.
If I was playing today, I definitely would have a three ball. I probably would have displayed a lot more one-on-one. I was really an unselfish player to a fault and my mentality was more of, If I can get everybody else involved and they get going, then I can have chances to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities because of double teams. I had a lot more one-on-one game than I actually displayed in the League, because during the time that I played, you had to, it was more systematic, it was more plays being called, you didn’t really break the play. You know, I actually like to blame Kob’ and T-Mac for that shit, they broke more plays than anything, you know what I’m sayin’? And the Mamba Mentality wasn’t always accepted either.
I saw Joker [Nikola Jokic] do a step back off the so-called wrong foot and it was so unorthodox, but I had to sit back and as a student of the game I said, Hmm, there goes the Dirk part of his influence in our League and what Dirk brought to our League with that whole one-legged fadeaway off the glass with the 6-11, 7-foot guy shooting threes, being mobile. You know, as I go through and I watch the League and what we’ve actually given the League, I started looking at it like, Wow, I see Dirk’s influence, I see Timmy’s influence, I see Rondo’s influence, I see P’s [Pierce’s] influence, I see LeBron’s—I started to see my own influence. And then where they’ve taken our influence and doing one-legged step backs off the glass and facing up one dribble? The moves, man, the moves. The skills! Like, I heard Shaq say this, and just shout out to Shaq, man, and I love you Big Fella, but I don’t know if everybody from the older generation could have played in this generation. Just because it’s a faster pace, no one’s been at that Golden State pace as a League when you scorin’ 136-133.
SLAM: Did you ever think 25 years ago that you would be in this position? Did you think your career would last as long as it did? That you would reach the heights that you did?
KG: I want you to go and ask Kevin McHale a lot of the stuff you been asking me, and I’ll tell you, he’ll tell you, Day one, he wanted to be the best player in the League, he wanted to outlive everybody in the draft, he wanted to outplay everybody, he wanted to be the best hands-down in the All-Star Game, he wanted Olympics, all that. I wanted to cross everything off the list that you got to actually cross to be a master. You know? And I went in there like that, and more importantly, I worked my ass off. Part of why I definitely can’t run as fast or I can’t run after my kids is because I did go so hard, but there’s no regrets. And you asked me earlier what I would change, and I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe some tweaks here and there but nah, nah, working with Kevin McHale was a gift. I could never thank him more. Or, I couldn’t thank him enough for the knowledge in the stuff that I was able to get, I couldn’t have gotten that anywhere else but him. I’m very fortunate. I took that and I ran with it, and I grew it, and I put my own little vision on it. And it was only right to give it back and be able to give it to players so they can use it. Anything that you go into as a young kid, you hope that you come out on the other end as someone that is accomplished. I felt like I reached a lot of those things.
SLAM: Does that intensity go away? If you stepped out on a court right now and somebody rolled a ball out—
KG: I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. No, I wouldn’t. The demon never goes away. And if you do put the demon up, it’s banging on the door at times to come out so I have to be under control. I do a bunch of yoga, I do a bunch of meditating, manifesting, just to keep things at bay. But yeah, I’m pretty sure that if we started racing and I got to losing, or anything competitive and I start losing, then you start to hear the banging at the door, Uh oh, the demon’s trying to come out. So these days I keep shit real chill and calm. I haven’t played ball in a very long time, believe it or not. But I’m shooting stuff in the basket, I have a little son so we mess around and stuff. Basketball is something that I put in the closet for a reason. Whenever I have a long day or I’m having difficulty or something, I take a ball and I’ll just go dribble at the beach or just kinda get lost in it. That’s kinda always been my therapy. It probably always will be.
Photos courtesy of KEVIN GARNETT: Anything is Possible and via Getty Images.