By J.A. Adande
It might be hard to fathom in a time when Stephen Strasburg is pitching in the big leagues seemingly right after baseball’s draft, when Derrick Rose leads a team to the playoffs as a rookie not long after LeBron James saved a franchise before he was old enough to savor a bottle of wine ... but the two most accomplished players in the NBA Finals began their pro careers on the bench.
Kevin Garnett didn’t start until the 32nd game of his rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, on Jan. 9, 1996 against the Lakers. It took Kobe Bryant two seasons -- and an injury to Eddie Jones -- to become a full-time starter. In these cases, Hall of Fame careers came to those who waited. And here they are, each with a Most Valuable Player award on the shelf, their teams facing each other in the NBA Finals for the second time.
I doubt young stars today would get the same time to ferment as these two did. Not in this age, when athletes feel entitled to everything immediately, when the concept of redshirting in college seems as antiquated as freshman ineligibility, and when professional teams expect immediate returns on their investment.
When Kevin McHale was the general manager in Minnesota he took an old-school approach for his fresh-out-of-high-school kid: “Make him earn it.”
“He was very young,” said McHale, who is at the Finals providing analysis for NBA TV. “You didn’t want him starting some nights against Karl Malone. Kevin was a stick back then. Why get him beat up? Bring him in, put him in favorable matchups.
“I was afraid at an early age if he didn’t have success he’d start losing his confidence. We were very cognizant of bringing him along slowly.”
Garnett played only 22 minutes in his first start. He went back to the bench for the next six games, then became a full-time starter in the team's 40th game.
“I did not start when I first came into the league, and it was great,” Garnett said. “I got to actually sit back and see the game, try to understand it from my perspective, not an older guy perspective. And then when I did have a chance to get in the game, I messed up. I was able to make mistakes and be able to watch film and try to limit those mistakes as best I could with hard work and preparation.
“I think it’s kind of good not to just come in and start. I think it gives you a chance or a cushion to make some mistakes, and it drove me. It drove me to not only be a starter, but to be one of the best players to ever play this game.”
Bryant didn’t take such a long-term perspective. As Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said, “Kobe wanted to play every single minute of every game since he’s gotten to Los Angeles.”
But he was a 17-year-old when they drafted him, and they had Eddie Jones (who would make the All-Star team in Bryant’s rookie year) starting at shooting guard.
“There was really no urgency to fill a position that had already been filled,” Kupchak said. “In our opinion, the best way to deal with that situation was the way it was handled. Come off the bench, no pressure to produce.”
He started six games as a fill-in during his rookie year, and only one during his second year. Even as a reserve Bryant still dazzled the fans enough to be voted into the Western Conference starting lineup for the 1998 All-Star game, and he gave the Lakers enough incentive to sign him to a $70 million contract extension after two years. Not even that financial commitment was enough for them to move him into the starting lineup until Jones was injured before the lockout-shortened 1999 season began. Bryant got his spot, and there would be no going back.
If the careers of Garnett and Bryant don’t serve as strong enough evidence of the value of delayed gratification, there’s always the example of Kevin McHale’s bicycle.
“When I was a kid, my dad was a miner,” McHale said. “I worked, I got a bike. It was my bike; I knew where it was at all times. My kids, they’ve got three bikes, I say, ‘Where’s your bike?’ They say, ‘I don’t know, I think it’s at my friend’s house.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
“But they didn’t earn them. That’s when I realized, if you just give things to people, they don’t respect it. You earn it, you respect it. If you teach the young players how to respect the game, how to earn their minutes, they’ll be better.”
Or at the very least they’ll know the location of their bicycles.