“You must have changed in these four years,” a reporter says to Garnett one afternoon at the Target Center.
"Yeah,” he replies. “I think I’ve changed, but the one thing I’ve always tried to be is myself. I think people respect a genuine person. I think I’ve become more of a leader. I think I’ve become more hungry about basketball, wanting to win. I think I’ve become more direct with people. I think we all change as we get responsibility, as we grow.”
He looks at the empty arena.
"Come back four years from now,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see how I’ve changed by then.”
He is 22 years old.
~ Sports Illustrated
May 3, 1999
WALTHAM, Mass. -- The reporter re-read the old story before he went to do the new story. He then recited a version of the last lines to Kevin Garnett as the interview began in a corner of the Boston Celtics’ training facility last week at HealthPoint, a suburban medical center and gymnasium outside Boston.
“So here I am,” the reporter said. “Took me awhile to get back to you. Fourteen years instead of the four.”
Kevin Garnett smiled.
“So what’s new?” the reporter said.
“Hah,” Kevin Garnett said.
Time rattles past, clicking and clacking, day after day, month after month, year after year, lands in a pile, just like that. He is 36 years old now, will start his 18th NBA season on Tuesday night when the Celtics go on the road to play the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena. What’s new? How much time do you have? He has played 1,255 regular-season games, 125 more in the playoffs. He has been a 14-time All-Star. He has scored 24,270 points, grabbed 13,313 rebounds. He has won an NBA championship, come close a couple more times. He has had the big knee injury, recovered, has gotten married, has had a daughter, has made an awful lot of money.
The major stops on the road map have been covered.
The title of that old story, spread across the SI cover, was “The Kid Who Changed the Game.” He has lived almost 40 percent more of his life since then. The Kid is a kid no more. He can feel that every day.
“Your body is a 24-7 thing at this age,” Garnett said. “You can’t just take two days off. Hot packs and ice packs and massages. This is where professionalism comes in. Living and learning. You know what you have to do. This is your job.”
The most intriguing statistics for all of these years are the ones that haven’t been kept at all. How many times has he jumped into the air? How many times has he come down hard? How many pushes, how many shoves -- some of them subtle, some of them not subtle at all -- has he handed out, trying to establish a position underneath the basket? How many pushes, how many shoves have been handed back in return? How many miles has he run? How many glares has he distributed to opponents, to officials, to teammates, if they disappointed? How many howls has he made at how many moons? How many times has he bounced his bald head off the padded basket support maybe 20 seconds before tip-off, blam and blam again, just to get ready?
The accumulation of all of these unrecorded numbers was enough to make him wonder at the end of last season whether it was the proper time to close the show. One grand speculation, after the Celtics were ousted in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals of the playoffs, tied 73-73 after three quarters with the Heat in that final game, 12 minutes from the Finals, then blown apart down the stretch, 101-88, was that maybe he would retire. He was one of the speculators.
“To tell the truth, I didn’t know what I would do,” he said. “I wanted to talk to some people. At this stage of my career I wanted to know what my role would be. You reach a point, if you do well in the NBA, where you’re under that fluorescent light every night. You’re expected to get 20 points, 12 rebounds, play 38 minutes, 42 minutes, 45. That’s how it was in Minnesota. It’s been a bit different since I came here to Boston, because there are other guys, but I wanted to know what my role would be. I wanted to talk to some people.”
He still could play. No doubt about that. In the 20-game run through the 2012 playoffs to that seventh-game loss in Miami, he played perhaps as well as he ever has. Moved almost exclusively to the center position, handed more scoring responsibility with Ray Allen missing some of the time, Avery Bradley all of the time, he averaged 37 minutes, 19.2 points, 10.3 rebounds. He was rolling so well that when he was dropped hard to the floor in the third game of the Eastern finals, he lay still for a few seconds -- maybe he’s really hurt? -- then flipped himself onto his stomach and did eight quick push-ups. He pointed out later, after he finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds in a 101-91 Celtics win, that he did those push-ups on his knuckles.
“That’s old-school,” he said at the time. “My uncle taught me to do push-ups on my knuckles. I don’t know who does push-ups in here, but there’s very few who do them on their knuckles. So that’s some Army-Navy stuff. Yeah, knuckles.”
The role he wanted now and in the future would be smaller than his role in the playoffs. There could be some high-wattage moments for sure, knuckle push-ups and extra minutes in big situations, but he also needed rest during the long season. The fluorescent light could shine elsewhere. He would be a piece of the picture, not the focus.
He talked with family and close friends and teammates to make sure he wasn’t being crazy to even think about re-signing with the Celtics. (They told him, no, he wasn’t being crazy.) He then talked with Celtics president Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers about his situation, about his role. Were they thinking the same way he was thinking? They also told him that he wasn’t being crazy. Help would be brought into the frontcourt from the draft and from the free-agent market. Time would be managed.
“Doc is the best coach I’ve ever had,” Garnett said. “He understands the reality of playing this game. He doesn’t shove anything down my throat. He has my best interests at heart. I’ve always thought that. He said all the right things.”
Public news of the new contract landed on the last day of June. The 36-year-old big man will be paid $34 million for the next three years. According to then-CNBC reporter Darren Rovell, Garnett’s new deal will bring his total career contract figures past the $292 million Shaquille O’Neal earned. Garnett will hold the career salary record for an NBA player at the end of the three years.
Three years? He was considering retirement and he signed for three years?
“Danny must have put something in my coffee,” he explained.
* * *
The negotiations for this contract were a bit different from the negotiations at the start of his NBA career. He had to negotiate then simply to find someone to negotiate with people who might or might not be interested in negotiating with him. He had to put the package together. He had to sell himself.
“The part I liked best about the old story was when you signed up your first agent for your first contract negotiations,” the reporter said. “Do you remember how you described that? How you went to his hotel room? How’d you get the courage to do it?”
“That was Chicago,” Garnett said. “That was high school. I learned how to hustle in Chicago. That was city life. If I’d stayed in South Carolina, country life, I never would have done the same things. I would have been too shy.”
He was in Chicago for his senior year of high school, 18 years old, 6-foot-11, recognized as the best high school basketball player in the country. He had moved there from Mauldin, S.C., enrolled at Farragut Academy on the West Side, to gain some notice. The notice had come. He lived in an apartment with his younger sister, just the two of them. He was skinnier than he is today, but otherwise looked much the same.
His plan was to go to some big-time college on a scholarship, but a snag developed. His scores on the SATs did not pass the NCAA minimum to qualify for a Division-I scholarship. He took an SAT tutorial class, was going to try the test again, but a second option had developed. Maybe he could go straight to the NBA.
No high school player had done that in 20 years, not since Darryl Dawkins and Bill “Poodle” Willoughby made the questionable jump. The NBA seemed like a long shot, but a Chicago area high school coach set up a meeting for Garnett with an agent, Eric Fleisher, to discuss the possibility. Fleisher flew into town, took a hotel room, set up a 7:30 meeting with his potential young client, sat at the appointed place at the appointed hour and waited and waited. Garnett never came.
Back in his room, 2 in the morning, sleeping at the end of a wasted night, Fleisher was awakened by a pounding on his door. The agent looked through the peephole and saw the largest teenager he ever had seen. Kevin? Yes. Fleisher opened the door. Garnett entered along with five other kids from Farragut, all of them dressed in oversized clothes.
The negotiations began.
“I’m not signing anything,” the largest teenager Fleisher ever had seen quickly announced. “I don’t owe you anything.”
Garnett had created the whole scene on purpose. He wasn’t some scatter-brained kid who slept through a meeting or just didn’t care. The idea was to come in hard. He wanted to wake up Eric Fleisher in the middle of the night. He wanted control. He wanted the edge. Eighteen years old, he was scamming the scammer. That was the approach.
“How’d you even think that up?” the reporter asked.
“You live in Chicago, you understand the rules of the street,” he said. “If somebody wants to do business with you, you better figure them out.”
Everything went from there. Fleisher ran a little tryout two weeks later at the Lakeshore Athletic Club, a gym where good pick-up games could be found. Garnett dominated against older, more-experienced competition. Fleisher said, “Oh, my.” Or something like that. To gauge NBA interest, he set up another workout, this time at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Coaches and scouts were gathered in town at the time for a pre-draft tryout camp, so Fleisher created his own one-man alternate tryout camp. He invited representatives from the 13 teams with lottery picks. They all came and sat behind one basket in the end-zone seats.
Garnett arrived after a full school day, which had been followed by Farragut basketball practice and an SAT tutorial. He was tired, nervous, all of the above. A former player for the Detroit Pistons ran him through assorted drills. There was no cheering, no noise. The grown men, some of them NBA-famous, some of them not, watched in silence. The workout ended.
Only then did the grown men speak. Blinded by the lights, Garnett couldn’t see their faces.
“Can he jump and touch the box?” a voice requested.
The man behind the voice meant the box painted on the backboard above the rim. Garnett jumped and touched the box.
“Can he touch the top of the box?” another voice asked.
Garnett jumped and touched the top of the box.
“Can he do it with his left hand?”
“With a running start?”
“How high can he go?”
Garnett jumped and jumped and somewhere in the process began to shout each time he jumped. Arrrrrgh. He jumped and jumped until all of the requests were filled. When he was done, he felt embarrassed. Why had he shouted like that? What got into him? Arrrrrrrrgh. He had blown the whole deal.
In the 1995 draft, he was taken fifth overall (after Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace) by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was off to the fluorescent light. He would move into the Timberwolves’ starting lineup midway through that first year and never look back. His success would open a door for high school kids that would get wider and wider in a hurry, kids tumbling into the NBA straight out of third-period study hall, so wide that the league finally made a law that a player had to be at least one year removed from high school before he could be drafted. Garnett would set the standard, a bunch of standards.
Four years later he would become the highest-paid professional athlete in any team sport. He would sign a six-year contract for $126 million, a figure so scary that it was the final impetus for a management lockout that lasted two months and 11 days, everything done in an effort to reduce salaries from the limit that had just been hit.
Garnett would live in a mansion in the Twin Cities with his buddies, up from Mauldin, the “Bug” and Artie and Jerome and the rest of them, a group they called the “OBF,” the Official Block Family. He would have a girlfriend from Chicago. He would have three dogs. He would be friends with Jimmy Jam, the famous music producer in Minneapolis. Jimmy Jam would be his mentor. Fun would be everywhere. He would be young and bulletproof, wondering what would come next.
He would be 22 years old.
* * *
“Everybody’s still doing good,” Garnett said now. “The Bug (Jamie Peters) is here in Boston, came with me from Minneapolis. Jerome is here. The OBF is still alive. Artie is in Los Angeles, but we see him. Everything is what it is. Everybody’s doing great. We all have families now. It’s a different stage.”
Jimmy Jam has switched operations now to Los Angeles. Also doing great. He not only is Garnett’s friend and mentor, but also his brother-in-law. They are married to sisters.
“No, I do my own contracts now,” Garnett said. “I’ve done the last three on my own. Well, not on my own. I have a financial advisor, Charles Banks, and we work together.”
The shift to Boston five years ago was the important addition to his tale. This was his final maturity. Boston was where he found his voice, where he felt he could talk with Ainge or Rivers or with any of the owners, and his words were important.
Boston was where these men listened to him. Boston was where he won his championship in 2008, that first season with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Boston is where he would like to win at least another one in the next three years.
“You only get so many chances to win the whole thing,” he said. “You have to do it when you can. We came so close, three years ago against L.A. Seventh game. Last year against Miami, seventh game … pissed is a good word. Yeah, I was pissed. Miami goes against Oklahoma City after us and just blows them out. Then Kevin Durant goes and works out with LeBron. What’s that about? Yeah, pissed.”
The whole thing begins again now. The headlines will be about Ray Allen, a new member of the Heat, matched right away against his old team, whether the Celtics will miss him, blah blah, but the most important Celtics news will be that the most important Celtics player is back. He will start at center, still the basis for all Celtics hope.
“I want to be a leader,” he said as his 18th professional basketball year approached.
“I want to lead by example. I want to help the young guys. I want to help [Rajon] Rondo. I want to be a professional, work as hard as I can at my craft, maybe win something along the way, then at the end of that three years, I’ll ride off into the sunset.”
“Which direction will that sunset be?” the reporter asked.
“Oh, to the west,” Garnett said. “Definitely the west.”
“Will there be a view of water involved?”
“Oh, you can say that. It’s 99.9 percent sure that water will be involved.”
The image is a very large man in a very large beach chair. His eyes might be closed. The waves might arrive in a pleasant cadence. There might be music in the background. A cold and colorful drink might be involved.
“Come see me in 14 years,” Kevin Garnett said. “See how it all works out.”
The reporter said he’d try.