WATCHING WAS WASTEFUL, he thought, counterintuitive. Kevin Garnett loathed it. He'd spit at anyone who implored him to embrace it, even as his balky knee howled for a respite. Watching, to Garnett, implied vulnerability. It undercut his contention that he could go harder, longer, better than these fledglings who thought they knew it all.
Garnett actually knew. Greatness -- the pursuit of it -- was slippery, elusive, dependent on myriad variables, like health, conditioning, team chemistry, luck. But some components shouldn't be left to chance, and preparation was one of them. "Kevin had this belief that if you were the leader, you couldn't miss one snap of practice," says Doc Rivers, who coached Garnett in Boston from 2007 to 2013. "But I had this belief that you are 30-whatever and I need you for the whole season."
And so in February 2009 the coach sat down his future Hall of Famer. Not to skip a game. Rivers just wanted him to miss a practice.
"Coach, you don't understand," Garnett seethed. "If I'm sitting, they will see weakness."
Relegated to the practice-facility sideline, pacing, growling and cursing to himself, Garnett pulled up suddenly, an idea churning, a maniacal grin creasing his face. He unleashed a howl; his teammates glanced in his direction. They knew something was about to happen.
This was, after all, the superstar who had once dropped to all fours and barked at Portland rookie point guard Jerryd Bayless; whose pregame ritual was a violent head-banging assault of, and concurrent conversation with, the basketball stanchion; who would years later express his umbrage at Dwight Howard's post play by drilling him with an impromptu head-butt in the first quarter of a 2015 regular-season game against Houston.
Garnett, forbidden to take the floor by his own coach, had concocted his revenge: He would track the movements of power forward Leon Powe, the player who had replaced him in the lineup. As Powe pivoted, so did Garnett. As Powe leaped to grab a defensive rebound, Garnett launched himself to corral an imaginary ball. As Powe snapped an outlet pass, Garnett mimicked the motion, then sprinted up his slim sliver of sideline real estate as Powe filled the lane on the break. The players were mirror images: one on the court with a full complement of teammates, the other out of bounds, alone. Two men engaged in a bizarre basketball tango.
"KG," Rivers barked, "if you keep doing this, I'm canceling practice for the whole team. That will hurt us."
Garnett's reverence for coaches was legendary, but still he turned his back on Rivers. He returned to his defensive stance, an isotope of intensity, crouched, palms outstretched, in complete concert with Powe. He was, in fact, becoming so adept at this warped dalliance he'd invented, he actually began to anticipate Powe's movements, denying the entry pass to his invisible opponent before Powe thought of it.
Finally, an exasperated Rivers blew the whistle. "Go home," Rivers instructed his team. Then he glared at Garnett. "I hope you're happy."
Garnett was far from happy. He was, at best, resolute. He'd told his teammates countless times that there was no such thing as a day off. Why couldn't Doc understand that the most effective way for him to lead was to show his teammates how it's done? "Let's work!" he screamed to his departing teammates, pounding his chest. "Let's work!"
Powe and the others wandered off, mystified.
"'What is he doing?' That's what we were saying," Powe recalls today. "And at that point you start wondering, Is KG maybe a little crazy after all?"
INSIDE A HIGH school gymnasium in Santa Barbara, California, Jahlil Okafor is staring at a basketball hoop. A banner hangs along a wall with Mark 9:23 emblazoned on it: EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE. Today, Okafor wants others to believe in him.
The 19-year-old, 6-foot-11 former college standout has his hands on his head, sweat soaking his T-shirt. He lines up on the left side of the foul line and palms a basketball in one of his massive hands. He takes a couple of long strides to the basket and slams the ball through, a thunderous rattle echoing off the walls. "There we go! There we go!" one of his agent's representatives encourages from the sideline. Okafor grabs another ball and slams that one home too.
It's mid-June, and he is 12 days from the NBA draft, the raffle for which he's one of the top prizes. Two months removed from a national title at Duke, he has perhaps the most advanced game in the rookie class. Yet for all the accolades -- the preternatural footwork, All-American as a freshman, the 17 points and nine boards per game -- questions persist, and will continue to persist over the next five months, about the kid from Chicago. Can he prove he belongs?
At the moment, Okafor weighs 270 pounds. He is thickly built across his shoulders, chest and stomach. The first two owe to good genetics and a workout routine that has had him pushing his physical limits since he was in grade school. The last is at least partly Cap'n Crunch's fault. His size, once seen as the mark of a potentially prodigious career, now might be an albatross. Teams wonder whether the teenager is fit enough for the rigors of the NBA. They wonder whether he can play perimeter D. They wonder about his free throw shooting. The consensus No. 1 pick during the college season could slip to No. 2 -- or worse.
People in his inner circle -- his father and friends and coaches who know him best -- refuse to believe the talk. "He is hands down the No. 1 pick," says Rick Lewis, Okafor's trainer and former high school assistant coach. In the NBA, Lewis insists, Okafor could be a pounder with sweet moves around the rim, a contrast to the fast-paced, guard-heavy league everyone sees today. "It's like bringing the sexy back with Justin Timberlake," Lewis says. "We're bringing the big man back."
Lewis positions Okafor along the baseline and fires a pass. Okafor puts up a shot from the right. And misses. The first of seven misses in a row. He makes just five of his next 12. Okafor steps back, pounds the ball into the court in disgust. Another pass from Lewis. Another 15-footer. "Short!" Okafor yells. It goes in. "F--- me."
He wanted to climb Mount Everest. Or close.
To clarify, Korver and three of his closest friends schemed to ascend the steel-lined emergency stairwell of the tallest building in Los Angeles -- the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower -- enough times to equal Everest's soul-crushing 29,000 feet.
"Climb the stairs, take the elevator down, climb the stairs, take the elevator down and climb the height of the Mount Everest in a day," Korver says at a recent shootaround. "That was the thought."
This was going to be the third year of Korver's annual misogi (pronounced mih-soe-gee), a centuries-old Japanese spirit-finding ritual that requires undertaking a physical endurance challenge to push your mind and body beyond its known limits.
Last offseason, Korver and his friends came up with the idea to "run" a 5K relay, holding an 85-pound boulder, on the ocean floor. They took turns: dive down, find the rock, pick it up, and run weighted to the bottom, then surface for the next guy to take his turn. Blacking out was a constant concern, but they did it. The previous year, Korver traveled 25 miles uninterrupted on a stand-up paddleboard across the rough waters between the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara.
The natural extension was to climb Everest on West Fifth Street in downtown L.A.
"It was gonna be gnarly," Korver says.
Estimates varied, but the misogi group thought it'd take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours to complete. A business manager at the US Bank Tower said there was recently a separate event in which a team of fundraisers climbed the stairs once; Korver's crew wanted to do it about 50 times.
Exhilarated by the sheer lunacy of the idea, the friends started narrowing down a date. Late September, maybe. Korver prepared in stairwells when he could, and felt confident.
"It's a little safer," points out Korver, "than actually climbing Mount Everest."
Andrew Wiggins hit his first 3, then his second, and his coach knew right away what kind of night it would be.
It was Feb. 7, 2013, inside the gym at Marietta College in Ohio, and all Rob Fulford could do was stand and watch. For two years, Fulford, the Huntington Prep coach, had seen his star player perform any number of breathtaking feats -- plays in games or practices that left him shaking his head and looking toward his staff in disbelief. But this night was different.
Usually content to take over a game only when it was required of him, Wiggins was slashing to the hoop and sinking shots from the outside. He was rebounding and swatting balls near the rim. He was locked in like never before.
What had gotten into him?
The answer could be found hours before tip-off, when Sports Illustrated published an article placing the young basketball stars from Canada under a microscope. Included among them was Wiggins, the crown jewel of the growing crop of ballers from the north -- a long and lean 6-foot-8 wing born in Toronto and inspired during the age of Vince Carter's Raptors. Wiggins had become a local star -- and a YouTube sensation -- before traveling to West Virginia to play high school ball at Huntington Prep, a renowned basketball factory.
When the article came out, Grant Traylor, who covered the team for the Herald-Dispatch, was enjoying his day off. But it would not last. He texted Fulford about the story, and the coach replied that Traylor might want to show up for that night's game.
"Trust me," Fulford wrote.
If there was one criticism about Wiggins' game at the time, it was that he lacked a certain killer instinct. He played hard and he played smart, but some observers wondered if he had it in him to, just once, rip out an opponent's heart.
His coach knew otherwise. Before the game, Fulford tweeted he had a "strange feeling" Wiggins would go for 50 points that night. "Just a hunch," he wrote.
Fulford missed the mark. Wiggins, a senior at the time, scored 57 against Marietta College's junior varsity team, connecting on 24 of 28 shots from the field. He also grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked four shots. Huntington Prep won 111-59.
Fulford compares Wiggins' performance with Michael Jordan's famous "shrug game" against Portland during the 1992 NBA Finals, because even Wiggins couldn't believe some of the shots he was making. "I think that was the first time somebody had publicly called him out," Fulford says. "That was just his response, like: 'Hey, kiss my ass. Here's 57 for ya.'"
The press rushed to Wiggins afterward, desperate for a juicy quote confirming the performance was his ultimate act of revenge. But Wiggins would not puff out his chest. "I thought I responded well," he told reporters.
Wiggins chose to let his game speak for him, just like he does today, refusing to boast when given the opportunity even as the Timberwolves' franchise player, the NBA's reigning rookie of the year and the 20-year-old charged with lifting Canada's national team to prominence.
"We used to make a joke saying, 'Goddang, Andrew, quit being so nice,'" says Bill Self, who coached Wiggins at Kansas. "He said: 'You know, people in Canada are polite. What's wrong with being polite?'"
Chris Bosh feels like he's getting a taste of his own medicine these days.
"It sucks," Bosh, at his locker in Miami, said on a Wednesday night. "It's not cool. I'm supposed to be the guy doing this stuff."
He should be in a good mood. Just minutes before, the Heat beat the Washington Wizards at home. Beyond that, Bosh has returned to the court after a scary situation with blood clots in his lungs that put him in the hospital for nine days and abruptly ended his 2014-15 season in January. But forget all that, because right now Bosh is miffed. Three years after he famously migrated to the perimeter during the Heat's 2012 championship run, formerly paint-dwelling big men are draining 3-pointers in his face.
Threes are way up overall. Judging from preseason numbers, the average team is shooting 11.2 percent more 3-pointers than last season, and now shoots more 3s (24.8 percent) than the 2004-05 Mike D'Antoni Phoenix Suns (24.7 percent) -- the NBA's seminal run-and-gunners. But the biggest gains are courtesy of the biggest men. Back in 1998-99, only 17.2 percent of NBA players 6-foot-9 or taller shot at least 10 3-pointers all season. In 2014-15, that number stood at 45.6 percent, up from 30 percent in 2010-11.
"It used to be, 'I'm the 4, I'm the low guy and the 5 is out [in the mid-range],' " Bosh said. "Now they're all over the place."
Bosh had better get used to it. And fast. More and more teams are following the Golden State Warriors' blueprint by pushing the tempo and playing at least four shooters at all times.