I have a confession to make. The Lakers are my team. But I was somewhat conflicted in last year’s NBA Finals. On the one hand, I wanted to see my team take home the Larry O’Brien trophy. On the other hand, I was pulling for Kevin Garnett to win his first NBA championship. I’m a basketball fan first, Lakers fan second. And as a basketball fan, there are very few players I admire more than Kevin Garnett.
Garnett is the embodiment of all that is right about NBA basketball. He is a selfless superstar who is completely devoted to his craft. Kevin suffered through losing season after losing season in Minnesota, and he never complained or demanded to be traded. He simply put his head down and persevered.
Garnett persevered with legendary intensity. And as Frank Dell’Apa of The Boston Globe reports, KG’s intensity has only increased after reaching the pinnacle of his profession.
“We are so prepared,” Ray Allen said yesterday, “that in one-on-ones, it got to the point where guys get in fights. Nobody ever actually fights, but we have a lot of barking on this team, from everybody, and I think you see that machismo among the guys. Everyone wants to feel like the top dog. Ultimately, we take that and translate it to the team concept, and everything we do helps the team.
“I’ve been on teams where guys thought they were good but never showed that passion on the floor. Ultimately, if you care about what you are doing, it shows up on the floor.”
The aggressive tone is set defensively, usually starting with Kevin Garnett.
“[Garnett] is a lot more intense this year,” Paul Pierce said. “I didn’t think he could go to another level, but he has. It’s infectious and you see it in practice – it’s like we never won anything.”
Said Garnett, “My intensity rubs off on Paul and Ray a little bit. The young players are getting to understand the intensity we play with for 48 minutes, that when we play at home, we protect that; what practice is – we come here and we don’t go long but we go hard.”
Championship-caliber supporting cast or not, Garnett has always been driven to succeed.
Throwing a basketball at Kevin Garnett’s head requires an almost inhuman level of fearlessness. It might explain why Tom Hammonds, a man nicknamed “The Terminator,” did exactly that 10 years ago.
“He had muscles coming out of his earlobes,” former teammate Bill Curley said.
One early spring afternoon in 1998, The Terminator was ready to bring the pain. Garnett had just thrown down a huge dunk, practically leaving a Spalding imprint on Hammonds’ forehead.
They quickly started jawing at each other. Then Hammonds unloaded his bazooka.
“All of a sudden,” Curley said, “they were tangled up.”
The day the Minnesota Timberwolves were scheduled to fly west to face the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the playoffs, Hammonds and Garnett were going at it at practice.
“Crap,” Curley thought. “We can’t have these two fighting.”
The scuffle was quickly broken up, but not before Garnett let every single person inside University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena know that The Terminator didn’t scare him.
“I’m not afraid of your kung fu (expletive),” Garnett screamed.
But a few minutes later, they were buddies again. It was like the whole thing never happened.
“That’s just the type of competitor he is,” Hammonds said from his office in Florida. “Him and I, we were a couple of best friends. We respected each other.”
A decade later, nothing’s changed. Hammonds, 41, may have retired from the NBA seven years ago, but he’s still a huge Garnett fan. In addition to Bernard King, Hammonds said, KG was the most influential superstar he ever played with.
A lot of players talk about the sacrifice and work ethic required to win a championship. KG lives it. He plays the game for one reason and one reason only — to win.
Having Garnett join your team is like walking directly from Death Valley at high noon on a July day into a meat locker. It’s an exhilarating, jarring rush to the head that takes a while to really sink in.
For the Celtics, the crystallization was finally complete on June 17, 2008. That night, Boston captured its 17th championship, its first since 1986. He didn’t deliver the title alone, but Garnett’s effect was immeasurable.
“KG just brings an energy to life that has an impact on everybody, day in and day out,” Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said. “I’m not sure there’s an awakening. I think it’s more of a long-term consistency. Anybody can have that energy at times, but he has it every day.
“His presence has changed our culture in that way. It had a great deal to do with our success.”
One of my favorite NBA moments is the interview ESPN conducted between Bill Russell and Garnett last season.
It’s that type of genuineness that allows someone to let their guard down and completely lose themself in a moment like this:
Or make a simple shoe commercial appear to be so much more.
So much of a player’s legacy is determined by chance and circumstance. But every once in awhile, the basketball gods get it right. They got it right when KG was traded to the Boston Celtics last season. Playing for an organization like the Celtics and alongside two superstars like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen is how KG deserved to finish his career.
I know that Kobe Bryant won the Most Valuable Player Award. And the Celtics won their 17th NBA championship behind Paul Pierce’s Finals MVP. But for me — Kevin Garnett was the story of the 2007-2008 season.
Which player or team will be the story of the 2008-2009 season?
Time will tell.
But one thing is for certain, they’ve got a tough act to follow.