When I think of Kevin Garnett, one singular image of him always comes into my mind immediately.
It isn’t the wide smile as vast as his wingspan. It isn’t him flying through the air, cocking back the ball, as he’s ready to unleash a tomahawk dunk. It isn’t him hugging teammates or pounding his chest or having a staring contest with the basket stanchion or telling the TNT cameras and John Thompson that he needs a minute to compose himself.
I see KG looking off into the distance. I see the thousand yard stare coming from eyes trying to find strength in the moment. I see an unfocused glare into the void, conjuring up whatever ounce of psychotic competitiveness can fuel him for the task at hand. I see the distaste for failure fueling the unquenchable thirst for fleeting success, and the tail chasing process of trying to find relief in those fleeting moments.
That’s the look that has been plastered across KG’s Minnesota Timberwolves existence. Looking for something that can never be enough. Looking for the strength to lift him and his team over the obstacles that have been set up against him — both by opponents’ game planning against him and an organization that rarely has known how to get out of its own way. Garnett would complain privately, wanting more help. Garnett would preach loyalty in public, telling the media — and more often himself — that he had enough to win.
All the while, that look was permanently tattooed on his face during the battles on the hardwood. It’s why the screams felt so meaningful after dunks, blocks, and teammates contributing. The emotional release of the tiny moments hopefully leading to a bigger moment to learn from. Exultation was the outlet to briefly escape that search for whatever was going to finally be enough.
Through first-round exits, title runs derailed by a teammate’s dance of fertility, and roster constructions that would quickly get you fired in the franchise mode of any basketball video game, nothing was enough and the burden laid on those broad shoulders while seen in those distant, exhausted eyes.
That look is still seen on KG but for very different reasons now. When I talked to Karl-Anthony Towns back in early April, he glowed about the work ethic of Garnett. He spoke of recognizing just how much work KG puts in to be able to do what he does on the court, as limited as it has become. 55,000-plus minutes over 21 years will do that to you. The punishment endured — both in games and in preparation of games — is the unstoppable tag team with Father Time.
For Garnett to be able to play 14 minutes a night over just 38 games is excruciating for the 40-year old who has spent more than half his life in the NBA. It takes more work to get his body ready than it does for most players to play much higher minute totals. The competition in those 14 minutes a night on a lottery-bound team was fierce. It’s why the Wolves were 12.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the court. Everything he had to give went to the Wolves on their most pressing end of the floor.
Futility didn’t matter. Re-establishing the culture Garnett tried to cultivate with Flip Saunders two decades prior was everything for a potentially special core of young players in desperate need of direction. It’s why Saunders, who was the only person who could have ever bridged the divide between KG and Glen Taylor in the twilight of Garnett’s Hall of Fame career, brought him back to the organization. He wasn’t going to let Andrew Wiggins fall by the wayside of NBA potential and not knowing what it took to be great.
And when Towns was added to the equation — becoming the crux of the formula — Garnett’s presence was going to be the constant reminder of what it takes to realize potential. You can be better. You can do more. You can come through on what KG was never allowed to do in Minnesota. But it was going to take the work ethic of an old athlete limping onto the court for less than half the season, at minimum. Anything less than that reminder was going to doom the Wolves to the same irrelevance the franchise has experienced past December of most years. Go into the season as everybody’s League Pass sleeper team and be forgotten by the time we turn the page on the calendar year.
You can’t make young players embrace that requisite work ethic. You can only show it to them and hope it resonates. That’s why KG was brought in and that’s why it’s heartbreaking (on a basketball level) when you hear Taylor discuss the present and possible future of Garnett.
“I just asked him, ‘Kevin, what are you going to do?’ His answer was, ‘I’d really like to play next year ‘cuz I’d like to go out knowing we got into the playoffs,’ ” Taylor said.
“Then he said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’
“I asked him, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’
“So I asked the question but I didn’t get an answer that helped me. Yes, theoretically, he’d like to play. But he has some doubts of his knees holding up. I believe he told me exactly the truth.”
The inferno inside that psychotic competitiveness still rages for KG. He wants to be there. He wants to compete. He wants to continue the fostering of a bright future that Flip envisioned before being taken from us far too early. However, he continues to be reminded of something that all the greats suffer through at the end of their careers. Wanting to do something and being able to hold up doing that something are two very different things. Kobe Bryant found out. Tim Duncan found out. Garnett still tries to delay the inevitable. There is an end to every career and eventually the fire can’t outrun the crumbling body.
There are so many harrowing and inspiring tales juxtaposed throughout Garnett’s career. Too many to get into a thousand words deep in this particular space. But a recent one stands out both in embodying KG, his career, and that distant stare. It’s the one from earlier this year in which Gorgui Dieng revealed to the world that Garnett still stews over losing the 2010 NBA Finals.
“He always talks about the  Finals they lost,” Dieng said.
“I think he can’t swallow that pill. He always talks about it. You can see how angry he is when he talks about that Finals.”
“They were great and they were going to win it,” Dieng said, “and he still doesn’t understand why they lost.”
This is a man who has literally done everything a player can do in a career and he seethes over losing the 2010 Finals after going up 3-2.
It’s not a teenager that reopened the conduit from proms to the pros. It’s not a 6-foot-13 figure posing as a small forward in a way that seemed cartoonishly effective in the NBA. It’s not the man whose potential and rarefied abilities in a league of his profession’s top 0.0000015% of the population caused an unthinkable contract. It’s not the man whose unthinkable contract caused the biggest work stoppage in NBA history because the owners didn’t know how to understand the landscape they’d created.
It’s not the man who redefined what a man could do on defense — taking the freakish things guys like Hakeem Olajuwon had done in moments and turned them into possession by possession norms and existence. It’s not the man who was placed at the top of a pseudo zone because Flip could screw with everybody’s game plan by doing such and changed the way big men defended forever in the process. It’s not the MVP of the league or Defensive Player of the Year or greatest defender of his generation (and by some accounts any generation if you ask the infinitely brilliant Britt Robson’s opinion).
It’s not the man who preached loyalty over seeking progress while the first 12 years of his career were essentially wasted by poor decisions outside of his control. It’s not the man who won yet another title for the city of Boston and then dedicated that it was “for ‘Sota.” It’s not the man who will go down as one of the greatest, most versatile players of all time. It’s not the man who can still light up an arena by giving us the unexpected and sending his young protégé into bodily convulsions.
It was that insatiable feeling of regret that he and his team couldn’t get a second one and for whatever reason (injuries, chaos, etc.) blew a 3-2 lead to Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, and the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s what keeps KG speaking in tongues, staring off for added strength, and remaining a beacon of competitive purgatory that can’t be escaped.
That’s the fire you simply can’t impart on anybody else. That’s the nature that is either given to you at birth or escapes you for eternity while others wonder if you’ll ever want it bad enough. That’s the internal force the Wolves hope Towns, Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and anybody else who comes through the door drives their young players looking to deliver on what KG and Flip started for this organization 21 years ago.
That’s what we hope to see for one more season — a 22nd season that would be more years committed to an NBA career than anybody else has ever given the sport — even if it comes with hobbling, weeks missed, and tailored suits fitted to an old, sinewy frame. That’s where we hope to see the lessons and knowledge of history offered up to the understanding of the next generation.
That’s the look you see across his face, searching for more to give when it’s no longer possible or required. That’s Da Kid. That’s The Big Ticket. That’s KG.