The first time I saw Kevin Garnett in person, I was 8 (soon to be 9) and he was 19 (soon to be 20). It was Sunday, March 31st, 1996. My father scored second-row seats from a coworker, so we made the trek from Eau Claire, WI to the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis to see the Timberwolves take on the Clippers.
I remember only a few things, and every one of them is pretty random. The Clippers’ Bo Outlaw, whose name always struck me as being extremely cool, was very loud and funny while bantering with officials, occasionally employing questionable language to make his points, which was also extremely cool (especially to an 8 year old). I had a Stanley Roberts rookie card at home, and he dunked on a breakaway in front of us, which felt like some sort of validation to me. I remember Tom Gugliotta looking sweaty and tired. And I remember my dad pointing out Kevin Garnett to me. (“That’s the kid,” he said, “He’s Jake’s age,” referring to a cousin of mine, and the comparison blew my mind). I remember thinking, “He’s so little,” and I wondered if he was scared to be so young, and playing against those old people.
The second time I saw Kevin Garnett in person, I was 26 and he was 37. It was Friday, November 22nd, 2013. I was three weeks into my brand new gig as a writer for this website, so I made my way from my home just north of Minneapolis into downtown to see the Timberwolves welcome KG and the Brooklyn Nets.
I remember much more about my second KG experience than the first because I wrote our recap that night. I remember watching KG play defense, the way he placed his hands on his man’s hips, subtly suggesting where they ought to go (which was always somewhere out of position) rather than outright shoving them, the kind of veteran trick that takes years to master without being whistled for a foul. I watched him battle intensely with Kevin Love, but to no avail – the Wolves’ new Kevin nearly racked up a double-double in the first quarter against the Wolves’ old Kevin. And I saw him commit a flagrant early in the third when the frustration boiled over. I remember thinking, “He seems so brittle,” and I wondered if he was scared to be so old, and playing against those young people.
Now that KG is back with the Timberwolves, I’ve seen him many times, more often than not in a suit on the bench. Despite the fact that the 17 years between my first and second KG appearances weren’t exactly full of basketball memories (I didn’t really fall in love with the sport until I was in my early 20s), I felt a strong pull to watch Garnett as closely as possible this season, no matter if he was in uniform or not.
What I saw was a guy who loves to teach, loves to talk, and seems to relish every little aspect of being a leader. He was always in KAT’s ear, Wiggins’ ear, LaVine’s ear. Even Greg Smith, a journeyman center brought in to shore up the Wolves’ thin front line, could be seen leaning in to Garnett on the bench, listening intently to what the future Hall of Famer had to say. He’d pump up Ricky Rubio and yell instructions to him, especially on defense. He kept a close eye on Gorgui Dieng and often had animated advice for him during timeouts. And he was the first to rise from the bench to offer a fist bump to Tyus Jones after his first minutes of NBA action.
On the court, his offensive numbers were a fraction of what he could muster at his zenith – 3.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists per game on 47% shooting. But at age 39, he managed to post the best Net Rating on his team (+6.6 points per 100 possessions). When KG was on the court, the Wolves’ defense allowed just 96.4 points per 100; when he sat, that number jumped all the way to 108.8 points per 100. He kept people in the right place. He communicated. He demonstrated. He (hopefully) helped lay some of the foundation that Tom Thibodeau can build on to make the Wolves a stout defensive team.
I don’t know if we’ve seen the last of KG. I hope we haven’t. He’s signed through next season. Perhaps the plan is to ease him in slowly, then get him on the floor for 15 minutes per night for 20-25 games of the stretch run, when the Wolves are (hopefully) in the playoff chase. Maybe he’ll surprise us all next week and retire. I know his knees and back are achy, so I wouldn’t blame him if he did. But for what it’s worth, I’m not tired of watching, yet.
Besides, is a man who can do this sort of thing to Blake Griffin really ready to walk away?