When Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant were drafted straight out of high school in 1995 and 1996, respectively, I couldn’t have cared less about professional basketball. I could have told you the Chicago Bulls were good, and that was about it. Five years later, though, and I would count Garnett as one of my top few favorite players in the league alongside Vince Carter and Allen Iverson and count Bryant as one of my most hated following the Lakers’ thrashing of the Sixers in the Finals in 2001. Garnett’s jersey was not the first I ever bought — Shawn Kemp’s Seattle Sonics jersey circa 1995-96 holds that honor — but it was one of the only ones I didn’t buy on sale. I got a Warriors Antawn Jamison and a Suns Amar’e Stoudemire at bargain basement prices; I bought the Garnett because I wanted to identify myself with him.
That’s what jerseys provide: a frame, a lens, a wish. You could see it at the Target Center on Wednesday night, speckled as it was with #24 and #8 (and even some Lower Merion #33) jerseys. With nary a Russell or Randle or Clarkson in sight — my offer of $10 to anyone wearing the jersey of any current Laker not named Kobe went begging — the Target Center crowd wore their aspirations to be associated with greatness once again.
By and large, those Kobe jerseys meant a similar thing to the array of Garnett jerseys, but a very different thing from all the Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins jerseys in the crowd. Bought now, at the beginning of their hopefully long and fruitful careers, it’s getting in on the ground floor — it’s seeing Jimi Hendrix at the Cafe Wha? in 1966, a Led Zeppelin demo tape from 1968. Like so many things in sports, they point toward the future, the thing in itself obscured by what it could become. Wiggins bullying his way into the paint in the game’s closing minutes as he did last night is a sign that he’s willing to take over, that he’s confident. When the ball gets stripped on his spin move into the paint — as it did last night — it tells us his pet move has been scouted, that teams are prepared for it now, and that he has to develop countermoves to his moves if his growth is to continue.
When Towns has a game like he did against the Lakers — 26 points on 11-for-19 shooting, 14 rebounds, a +18 and one pass worthy of Ricky Rubio’s first ebullient year in the league — it says he’s already ahead of the curve that was expected, that he might not just be a solid big to pair with Wiggins but his own star. Every time it happens, a few more jerseys go out the door of the fan shop.
When D’Angelo Russell makes a wild shot to send the game to overtime or sets a new career high (23 points as of last night), more #1s will start showing up (in Los Angeles if not in Minnesota — will be interesting to see what the crowd in the Target Center looks like for Laker games after Bryant retires) as the sea changes slowly away from #24.
For all the individually impressive moments and accomplishments last night — including Rubio’s 5 points, 12 assists, 9 rebounds and +22 — the game itself came out ugly, in spite of the high final score. The best way I can put it is that it looked like two people who are bad at NBA 2K playing against each other on the easiest difficulty. The Lakers are the worst-shooting team in the NBA at 41.3% for the season and they shot 51.6%. The good shots came on defensive breakdowns on both sides of the floor and a lot of bad shots went in because of lackluster individual effort. In the postgame presser, Mitchell explained the way Minnesota played down to Los Angeles by saying, “I think sometimes our players are a victim of what they read in newspapers,” to which the Wolves’ 19 and 20 year olds probably said, “What’s a newspaper?”
For what it’s worth, I remember looking up the NBA’s scoring leader in the newspaper on a daily basis when I was a freshman in highschool and a fan of the Atlanta Hawks. I was gratified to see Dominique Wilkins beating out Michael Jordan, saw it as proof that Wilkins was the superior player. It validated my decision to like Wilkins and the Hawks, just as Kobe’s rings validate the jerseys bought in his prime.
But as the fans filed in last night, I was struck by the way the angle of the tribute inherent in these jerseys of Bryant and Garnett have shifted. There is still that allegiance, a kind of sartorial selfie with stardom, that wearing the jersey has always been. But they’re not pointing toward future games or championships or accomplishments. If they’re pointing ahead, it’s toward a legacy. When it comes to the game itself, they are — for once — stationary in the moment.
When Garnett rose up on the break and stuffed the entirety of the 13 year difference between his and Blake Griffin’s ages all over Griffin the other night, it wasn’t a new revelation about Garnett’s aggressiveness or development. It wasn’t a sign that this team can compete in the playoffs. It wasn’t a referendum on the rebuilding process. It was just an old man beating back time with a righteous jam.
It’s easy to get swept into concerns about the future and what the Timberwolves are going to be one day. Is Sam Mitchell actually the coach of the future? If not, what future coach can they get who will truly unlock not just the individual potentials of Wiggins, Towns, et al, but their collective talent? What if it never happens? Oh God, what if it never happens?
Calm down. The games will continue to be messy and fraught. They will go to overtime, will be won or lost by one point. They will look like bad video games and be played in front of crowds bedecked in jerseys both home and away, each one of them an investment in the future, the present or a legacy, but all of them a wish.