Emotions and Autographs: Growing Up with Kevin Garnett
In early October 2002, the Timberwolves held a Target Center-hosted event for its most diehard fans to come by and meet the Wolves. I was 11 years old, and very into the idea when my dad first presented it to me in my childhood Twin Cities home.
I got more than I had planned that day, and my expectations were high. I got to meet, and get an autograph, from former All-Stars Terrell Brandon and Wally Szczerbiak, on Wally’s practice uniform. I got the chance to meet Flip Saunders, but instead hid behind my dad, who was forced to tell Flip “Sorry, he’s a big fan of yours, just a little shy”. Flip, of course (according to my dad) was gracious as usual, still attempting to say hello.
I got Kevin McHale’s autograph, then-Wolves analyst Trent Tucker’s autograph, and even went to seek out out mascot Crunch for a signature. All of those moments were cool and memorable, but not why I made the trip. I was there for one reason.
I knew that, even if I had the opportunity to meet Kevin Garnett, I would have shied away twice as hard as when I met Flip Saunders, but I didn’t care. Kevin Garnett had been my childhood hero since I was six years old. I was just 11, but that still meant that over half my life had featured KG’s presence.
Like every other Wolves player, Garnett was there, but not as available as the rest of the roster. Not even close. In order to access a meeting with The Big Ticket, you needed to win a game of lightning. In order to get into that game of lightning, you needed to stand in the longest line to enter a game of lightning that you could possibly imagine. Times three.
I stood in line anyway. For the last 6 years of my life, I had idolized Kevin Garnett. I remember being at my first game at the Target Center, up in the nosebleeds, watching the Wolves play the Vancouver Grizzlies. That was the first time I really got to know who KG was. My dad had to point out that “Number 21 is our best player, and number 3 (Shareef Abdur-Rahim) is their best player.”
I remember watching the 1997 Wolves beat the Bulls (the 69-13 Bulls, that is). I remember watching him exchange friendly banter with the likes of Chris Webber, Gary Payton, and Shaquille O’Neal (if I remember right Gary Payton once kissed his then-girlfriend on the cheek to try to get him going…or just to mess with his friend) in a “respect your peer” sort of way. I was in line to try to win a moment with this dude. And to get a signature.
I stood there and watched these kids, some of whom looked to be at least 27 to my tiny 11-year-old self. I remember one of those kids (he probably didn’t, but in my memory, this kid had facial hair) predicting a win to the game’s host, then actually winning. He got an autograph, and a story to tell for the rest of his life.
But through all this, I kept my hopes up that I’d have a shot at winning. Or at least participating. Hell, even the dozens of kids getting eliminated were getting a high five and a pat on the back from The Kid (he was The Kid at this point, barely a 25-year-old). But as every kid in every game was eliminated, I felt myself inching closer to a chance to get into a game.
But then, the announcer took the mic again. Garnett was leaving.
“Alright guys, KG’s gotta go!”
I was at about the halfway point in line.
KG might have spoken too, thanked the fans. He might not have. I don’t remember, honestly. I just remember being a quietly devastated kid who thought he was at least going to get the chance to slap hands with his childhood idol.
Even as he exited the Target Center through the old tunnel, I raced after him. Security wasn’t heavy and I thought I had a chance to catch him if I ran. I didn’t mind screaming and acting like an idiot if it got his attention. Two or three other kids my age had the same idea. But as we got to the fenced off blockade, we saw Garnett go out of sight, and eventually through a door.
That night was special. I met Kevin McHale, a Hall of Famer. I met Flip Saunders, the best coach in franchise history. I met two All Stars in Terrell Brandon and Wally Szczerbiak. But there was still an emptiness. My chance at meeting Garnett was over.
A couple years went by, and as KG got better, the Wolves got better. In the 2002-03 season, KG finished only behind Tim Duncan in MVP voting, won the All-Star Game MVP (in the year of the infamous Mariah Carey Jordan jersey halftime show) and the Wolves got a top 4 seed for the first time in franchise history.
The next year, Garnett won the MVP, and the Wolves were the top seed in the Western Conference. They were probably the most consistent team in the entire NBA that season, with the possible exception of the Reggie Miller/Ron Artest/Jermaine O’Neal-led Indiana Pacers.
I never went for an autograph during this period, because those opportunities weren’t as available as they once were. Garnett was no longer an up-and-comer. He was a household name, up there with guys like Shaq, Kobe, McGrady, and Iverson. To the average fan, unless you were going to follow him around or get obnoxious, he was unavailable by most accounts. And you couldn’t really blame him for it. KG was more focused than ever.
KG won the MVP in the 2003-04 season, and it’s hard to argue for anyone else. For the first time in his career KG had other good players around him, but it wasn’t your cliche NBA crop of acquired stars we’ve become accustomed to in today’s NBA. His second fiddle was 34-year-old Sam Cassell, who not only made his first All-Star team that season, also made his way to an All-NBA Team (the 2nd team) that season. The team’s third option was 33, and was on a slow, but steady decline in his career. Still, Spree nearly made the All-Star team himself.
Still, those are just three guys, and the Wolves won a Western Conference best 58 games. To round out the franchise’s best all-time squad to date, they had rebounding/defensive hustle man Ervin Johnson, and hand-check era defensive stopper Trenton Hassell (for whom I have a far less sensible fandom for) to round out the starting lineup.
Off the bench, Wally Szczerbiak was the team’s most talented player, but only mustered 28 games (but shot very well in the games that he did play). Troy Hudson was probably the next most notable, but only played 29 games that year. Michael Olowokandi was a big acquisition for the Wolves that past summer that never quite worked out. Instead, it was guys like Fred Hoiberg, Mark Madsen, and Gary Trent that did the most damage off the bench.
I was lucky. My dad had season tickets, and had been taking me on a consistent basis since about 2001. This meant I got to see a good chunk of that season first-hand, and it furthered my love for basketball, and specifically my admiration for Kevin Garnett’s game, all that much more. But at this age, albeit just 2 or 3 years later, I was far less intrigued by the showmanship of his game, and more by his passion. Instead of his dunks and his seamless fadeaway jumper, I was more intrigued by his obsessive pre-game routine, his insistence to talk on the defensive end of the floor, his trash talking capabilities, and his unwavering focus.
This all culminated in the playoffs, where the Wolves still hadn’t made it out of the first round at any point in franchise history. I was at all five of those first round games, and still remember the fan reaction after the Wolves had won it. It only took the Wolves 5 games to beat the Nuggets (led at the time by a rookie Carmelo Anthony) 4 times, and had just won by double digits, but Wolves fans left that game as if they had won on a buzzer beater. Even in the skyways to ramps A and B, there was applause, as if the game was still going and the Wolves were gaining on their lead.
In the second round, Garnett’s heroics reached a level he never hit again in Minnesota. This was especially evident in game 7, when he and he alone scored field goals for the Wolves in the 4th quarter. His 14 points that quarter were what gave the Wolves the win. His 33 points and 21 rebounds overall were what gave them that win. Now factor in that it was his 28th birthday, and the 4th anniversary of Malik Sealy’s death (a friend and then-teammate of KG’s who was tragically killed while driving home by a drunk driver). Whatever emotions may or may not have been weighing on Ticket’s mind that night, everything clicked on the hardwood, and the Wolves moved on.
But, from there, everything else slowed down. Injuries to Sam Cassell and Troy Hudson forced guys like KG, Fred Hoiberg, and Darrick Martin to play point guard against the mostly healthy Los Angeles Lakers. The injuries caught up to them, and they lost in 6 games. There’s no telling whether the Wolves would have made it to the Finals if Cassell were healthy, but if you ask any Wolves fan in 2004, they’d tell you unequivocally “YES!”.
Would they have taken out the eventual champion Detroit Pistons? It might be fair to assume the Wolves would have matched up with Detroit better, but still unfair to assume they would have taken out a team that took out the Lakers (who, took the Wolves out just a week ago) in 5 games. Maybe Garnett would have been the difference. Maybe not.
I expected more after 2004. Three years, just three years after the Wolves made it to the Western Conference Finals, all semblance of a title contender was gone. All except for Kevin Garnett. My whole life, a naive side of myself had assume KG was going to be a Wolf for his entire career. I assumed he would play his whole career in Minnesota, win a title or two, then call it quits sometime while I was in college. I had this all planned in my head, as if KG and the Wolves worked around (and knew, and cared about) what I wanted.
But then Garnett was traded to the Celtics. He got dealt for a slew of guys that, with the exception of Al Jefferson, never amounted to much in Minnesota.
There’s two things I remember about that press conference: First, I remember saying “Holy shit” when he held up his No. 5 jersey for photo opportunities. I remember this because, while I was 16 at this point, I had been pretty good about not swearing in front of my parents. This threw them off. Second, I remember thinking to myself, “How did I go 12 years, going to all those games, without getting an autograph? How is that possible?”.
Garnett continued to play at the same MVP-caliber level, but his teammates made it easier for him to do it at a more human pace. He finally had the help he needed. He was able to be a franchise-changing defender, but didn’t have to take on the entire scoring load every night. But even though he wasn’t asked to do quite as much, he was still probably the team’s most important player. And that passion, but vocal and hustle-based, were still completely there.
I never stopped rooting for Kevin. The change in jerseys was an initial shock, but I felt a responsibility to myself to continue following his career. Even when he played against the Wolves the first time, I felt myself cheering for both sides, in a way. The fandom never wavered. So when he won his first and only title that same year, my emotions ran marathons.
I was watching the game from my best friend’s house. I remember “This one’s for Sota!” so well, but it’s hard for me to fully describe what that whole sequence was like. I think what got to me more than anything was how clearly he meant what he was saying. He had been through 12 years in Minnesota, and finally gotten his ring. But it wasn’t with the team he has spent over a decade trying will to the top. It’s impossible to know what Garnett was thinking at the time, but after watching him win and lose for nearly my entire life, I gave myself the right to guess.
After that, KG and the Celtics continued to fight to win championships, and the Timberwovles continued to struggle. As the Celtics ended their 4-year run together, KG and Paul Pierce were traded to the Nets for their second season in Brooklyn. All the while, even with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio now making noise, the Wolves continued to struggle.
While I had just gotten out of college and my writing career was just beginning, this may have been my low point as a fan of KG and the Wolves. The Wolves were improving, but still not a true threat. Meanwhile, Garnett was at the low point of his career. After nearly 2 decades of grit and enthusiasm, fatigue and injury were starting to set in.
I never thought I’d be able to cover the Timberwolves professionally, especially right out of college. But Canis Hoopus gave me an opportunity to see the Wolves in a way I had only dreamed about eventually doing, maybe 5 years down the line? Certainly not out of journalism school. I was covering the Wolves, as a full-season credentialed member of the media.
A year later, I got a new opportunity. I got an invite to write with my friends. It’s how I ended up writing for A Wolf Among Wolves. It was (and continues to be) a great experience. I got to learn and communicate with some of my favorite Wolves writers, all while covering a team I grew up watching and admiring. Cliche as it may be, the words “dream come true” come to mind.
Through all this, I had seen Kevin Garnett visit Minnesota, both with Boston and Brooklyn. I had doubts that I’d ever see him in any personal setting again. Maybe, if I stuck around long enough as a writer (I plan to), I’d see him get his jersey retired. Maybe he’d do some things in the community I could attend. There were scenarios in my head, but nothing more than post-retirement gimmicks.
But then, Marc Stein did what Marc Stein does, and broke a huge story. “ESPN sources say Wolves making late push before trade deadline to bring home Wolves legend Kevin Garnett in trade w/Nets.”
I still remember the feeling. It was a month and a half after my 24th birthday was sitting in my Uptown apartment, seemingly overreacting about the possibility of my childhood hero returning to his team. The team he grew up with, and the team I grew up with.
Then it happened.
In my late high school and college years, I’d nerd out on the various 2K video games. Sometimes it’d be with the Wolves. Whenever that happened, I didn’t hesitate to pull some ridiculous deal to bring KG back to the his original team. The fiction of it is what made it fun, and I cetrainly didn’t expect that to be a real possibility. Never.
As a kid, I was a fan of the Timberwolves. I still am, but now that I’ve covered the team as a media member, my personal relationship with the team has changed. I’m not a fan in my mid-20s in the same way when I was 11, in line trying to get an autograph, meeting Flip, Wally, and Terrell.
Part of this might also have to do with age, but I think covering the team from the perspective of a journalist is the main cause. So when it came time for Kevin Garnett to actually return, and have his press conference, a feeling came over me that I haven’t really felt since I joined the media collective. I was nervous.
While I attend press conferences frequently, I rarely ask questions. Often times, I like to write stories around what the players say naturally in order to get my stories. The only time I really ask questions is when I truly am curious about something team or hoops related (whether I’m writing about it or not). So when it came time for KG’s presser, I knew I wasn’t going to ask anything. Still, the nervousness persisted.
As I sat there, talking to the people around about how craziness and awesomeness of the situation, I couldn’t shake the weird feeling that was over me. Then it was time to start.
As Garnett started to make his way to the podium, a big, goofy, dorky-ass smile came over my face. My instinct told me to clap, even though nobody else was doing so.
When KG started talking, my initial awe turned into nostalgia, then transitioned seamlessly into a sense of calm. It felt like 2004 again. He was goofing off with Sid Hartman, giving Eric Perkins props for his success, and talking about his excitement to be playing for the Timberwolves. In 2015. Nobody else in the NBA with the level of stature of KG, would be that genuine about playing for the Timberwolves. Not in 2015. But that’s part of what made his return so special. During his first 12 years here, he was genuinely invested in winning a championship in Minnesota. His excitement was real.
Most fans, including me, were with him. It’s KG, after all.
His debut back with the Wolves was as electric as I’ve seen the Target Center since those 2004 playoffs. Yes, you’d better believe I clapped when his name was announced with the starting lineup. Yes, I was in media row. I couldn’t help myself. But as far as on-court successes go, it didn’t get much more intense than that.
Garnett’s time on the court for the Wolves wasn’t much; he only played 43 games in a year and a half with the Wolves, but when he was out there, you noticed. But even when he wasn’t out there, it was hard to take your eyes off of him. The way he coached from the bench made you question why he ever said (adamantly) he doesn’t want to coach. His passion for the game was the same, just executed in a completely different way than what I remember from my childhood.
He couldn’t play the way he used to, which was hard to watch at times. But it was still so clearly KG in every other way, that it didn’t feel like he anything had changed. Whatever lens of bias I would claim to be watching the game in, I was still watching Kevin Garnett do great things on a basketball court again. For the Timberwolves. When I watched him play, mentor from the bench, lead on defense, go up for a rebound, or talk that famous trash, I felt like a fan again.
It was hard to imagine an NBA without Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, but I had already seen some of my favorites from my childhood go before them. I had already watched Shaq, T-Mac, Jason Kidd and Chris Webber call it quits, and I wasn’t broken up about seeing two more go. I was used to it. But KG’s departure is different for me.
It’s entirely possible that the Wolves will find another player that will one day be beloved by its Twin Cities community as KG, and when that happens, I’ll acknowledge it happily. While there is an admiration, there is no bias towards the idea that KG is the immovable gold standard. But, for now, he is the gold standard, and it’s a heavy one. It will be hard to topple what The Big Ticket has conquered here in Minnesota, let alone the power forward position, let alone the NBA.
But that’s not why Kevin Garnett became my all-time favorite player, a title that will never be taken away in my mind. As a member of the media, and as an adult (perhaps cynically), I’m no longer capable of creating the image of a sports hero for myself.
KG was drafted to Minnesota at the perfect time. I was 4 years old when he was drafted as a 19-year-old. In a way, we grew up together. The big difference is that one’s growing up helped another in a way.
I never got that autograph from Kevin Garnett, but at some point, I realized I didn’t need one. I got something that few people get the chance to experience. I got to grow up watching dozens of games, in person, watching KG. I got a first-hand look at what passion, determination, and leadership truly meant.
Then I got to cover him as a writer. His evident love of basketball is a big reason why I eventually grew to love writing about the game. It’s how our paths crossed again, in a completely different way than it did in 2002.
As a kid, I wanted Kevin Garnett’s autograph. I wanted in on that game of lightning in 2002. As an adult, I just want his work ethic, his passion, and to remember the way he made me love basketball so much as a kid. His impact on me last through his whole career, and that impact continues now that he’s retired.
Thank you, KG.