|ESPN Network: ESPN.com | NBA.com | NHL.com | WNBA.com | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY|
Like Mike: KG hits for 37 at 2003 All-Star Game
'Da Kid' progressed quickly
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"Who would have ever thought that a high school player would come in and change everything? But here was Kevin Garnett, who came from nothing and all of a sudden has become as great a player as there is," says Hall of Famer Bill Walton on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
At first, Kevin McHale thought he was wasting his time. The Minnesota Timberwolves executive doubted that Kevin Garnett, a Chicago schoolboy who had just turned 19, was worth the attention of a special workout, worth the serious consideration of a first-round draft choice.
McHale and Minnesota general manager Flip Saunders, though, were so enamored of Garnett's skills that they made plans to take him with the fifth overall pick. "He has the running ability and agility of a 6-2 player," said Saunders, who that year became Minnesota's coach.
Backboard-dusting rebounds, blocks of stunning force, soft jump shots: Those Garnett trademarks befit a tall, lanky kid from Chicago's Farragut Academy who was USA Today's national prep player of the year.
The crisp passes, slick moves, ballhandling, ability to run the court: Those came from a different breed with skills never seen before in such a tall player. Garnett was a "small" forward with guard-like sensors who could post up inside and play almost anywhere on defense. Who was this alien?
"A genetic freak," said longtime NBA coach Doug Collins. "All the great ones are."
The Timberwolves figured Garnett, who was the first player to go from high school to the NBA in 20 years, would become the cornerstone of their six-year-old expansion franchise. In short time, he became just that.
He went to the All-Star Game his second season and helped the T-Wolves to their first playoff berth, then re-signed with Minnesota for six years and $126 million, a record for an athlete in a team sport. He has gone on to play in seven more All-Star Games, become the team's all-time leading scorer, been named to the All-NBA first-team three times and the all-defensive first-team six times, and in 2004 was voted the league's MVP.
Garnett did it with a flair and exuberance that drew fans to him. Some people thought Garnett's contract upset league owners so much that it ignited the lockout of 1998-99. For Garnett, though, the game was his true love, not the green.
"I don't play basketball for the money. I don't play it for the crowd," he said. "When I didn't have a friend, when I was lonely, I always knew I could grab that orange pill and go hoop. If things weren't going right, I could make a basket and feel better."
Kevin Maurice Garnett was born May 19, 1976, in Mauldin, S.C., a suburb of Greenville. His mother, Shirley Garnett (her maiden name), never married his father, O'Lewis McCullough. Kevin grew up with his mother and stepfather, Ernest Irby, with whom he didn't get along, and two sisters.
Garnett began playing basketball while in elementary school, and the game became his passion. As a 6-6 freshman at Mauldin High School, he started on the varsity and excelled on defense. As a sophomore, he added offensive punch.
Garnett was the state's Mr. Basketball after a junior season in which he averaged 28.5 points and 18.5 rebounds, and college recruiting letters rolled in. He moved to Chicago with his mother and younger sister in the summer of 1994, after being charged with being involved in a school fight in Mauldin.
Garnett and four others were charged with second-degree public lynching -- the victim suffered a hairline fracture of an ankle -- and after going through a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders, the charges were dropped. Garnett has always maintained he was just a bystander, like many other students, and not a participant in the incident.
He enrolled at Farragut, where he helped the school to a city title, a 28-2 record and the state quarterfinals. With colleges panting, Garnett struggled to make the qualifying SAT score. The NBA was waiting.
The Timberwolves realized that the fast life of the pros could be rough on a teenager, but McHale and Saunders took the gamble.
Garnett signed for $5.6 million over three years and started 43 of his 80 games in his first season, averaging 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and a club record 1.6 blocks. Still 19, he was selected to the league's all-rookie second team.
In little time, he was handling interviews with ease, standing up to vocal teammates such as Christian Laettner and starring in Nike commercials. "Da Kid" had a fast learning curve. In his second season, he became one of the NBA's most productive forwards, boosted by heralded rookie guard and buddy Stephon Marbury. The two fit together neatly, like Karl Malone and John Stockton, some suggested.
"These guys play unselfish ball," McHale said. "They think of themselves as basketball players, not quasi-entertainers. One guy has a bigger game one night, the other isn't upset.'
Garnett, who shot 49.9 percent and averaged 17 points and eight rebounds that season, went to the 1997 All-Star Game along with forward Tom Gugliotta, the first two Timberwolves to be so honored. He also broke his club record with 163 blocks.
Minnesota went from a 26-56 record in his rookie year to 40-42 and gained the playoffs for the first time, losing to Houston 3-0 in the first round. That started a stretch of seven consecutive postseason appearances for Garnett and the Wolves, although they have yet to win a playoff series.
Life became more stressful after that season when Fleisher and Garnett rejected club owner Glen Taylor's extension offer of $102 million over six years. Taylor, opening with what he considered a high bid, was stunned, as were other league executives. Fleisher figured Garnett would go for more on the open market next year as a free agent.
Taylor looked hard at the situation, realized Garnett was young, popular and a player who might lead his team to a title, and right before the October 1 deadline, signed the 21-year-old for $126 million.
The T-Wolves, even with Garnett's success, are still waiting on the championship. The team, primed for greatness with three young stars, came apart. Gugliotta left before the lockout season of 1998-99, signing with Phoenix as a free agent. Marbury, upset after realizing Minnesota would never pay him as much as Garnett, was traded to New Jersey 18 games into that season.
As time went on, Garnett tried to forget what might have been. "Through adversity and difficult times," he said, "one of the main keys is staying together as a team and not losing focus."
The Timberwolves had their first winning season, 45-37 in 1997-98, when Garnett raised his scoring (18.5) and rebounding (9.6) numbers and became the first Minnesota player to start in the All-Star Game.
In the lockout season, the Wolves slipped to 25-25 as Garnett rose to 20.8 points and 10.4 rebounds. The next year, Garnett led Minnesota to its first 50-win season and was voted to the All-NBA first team after averaging 22.9 points, 11.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists.
With the NBA allowing zone defenses in 2001-02, his versatility became even more important. He played on the wing in Saunders' "50" matchup zone and at the top of the key in a 3-2 zone in which he has to cover a large amount of space. He was third in the league in rebounds (12.1 per game) and averaged 21.2 points and 5.2 assists in leading Minnesota to another 50-32 season.
Garnett was even better in 2002-03, averaging 23 points, 13.4 rebounds (second in the league) and six assists as the Timberwolves went 51-31. He won the All-Star Game MVP award and finished second in the season's MVP balloting to Tim Duncan.
Signed through the 2008-09 season after agreeing to a $100-million, five-year extension in October 2003, Garnett points toward finally winning the NBA title. "I've always told my teammates, 'If you don't think we're going to win it, if you're not in here to lay it down on the line and push for the world championship, then leave. Because you're wasting your time, you're wasting our time.' We're here to win."
Garnett came closest to getting that championship in 2004 when the Timberwolves reached the Western Conference final before falling to the Lakers. During the regular season, Garnett led the league in rebounding (13.9) and was third in scoring (24.2) as he led Minnesota to the best record in the West at 58-24 to win his MVP award. In 2005, he again led the league in rebounding (13.5) and averaged 22.2 points, but the Timberwolves won 14 fewer games than the previous year and missed the playoffs for the first time since Garnett's rookie season in 1996.
Away from basketball, a small group of friends and family members run much of Garnett's business affairs. They're known as the "OBF" or "Official Block Family" and provide him a support system.
Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories