Kevin Garnett had done his best to stay detached, to smile for the cameras and mingle with old teammates and rely on a limited clock and a lifetime of giving sound bites as his Kevlar to stop any real penetration.
But as he stood up, spun a basketball absent-mindedly in his hands and edged onto the practice court at London’s O2 Arena early in the NBA preseason, he couldn’t leave a few of the questions just hanging there.
“They saw it the way they saw it,” the best player in Minnesota Timberwolves history told me about his former team’s summer decision to trade him. “I wasn’t looking to go. At the same time, I can’t dwell on that, man.”
Garnett’s time in Minnesota ended with both a whimper and a bang, a sad end to an era of promises not kept, yet a big noise from the largest trade (7-for-1) for a single player in league history. After 12 seasons of a Hall of Famecareer built from marvelous individual achievements, the gifted 7-footer has started fresh this season with the Boston Celtics, two star sidekicks, countless fond memories of the Upper Midwest and a few wounds in need of time.
“I’m not the one to be bitching and moaning about things,” Garnett said in October. “You come in, it is what it is, it wasn’t in the plan, you move on. That’s how I have to attack it. I can’t sit there and be like, ‘Wow, this is how this was. This is what I gave them.’ “
Both sides have grumbled about the way things ended at 600 First Ave. N. Team owner Glen Taylor and Kevin McHale, vice president of basketball operations, have taken jabs at things Garnett left undone, as far as low-post play and leadership. Garnett can point to a half dozen personnel moves or financial decisions that were figurative air balls in the organization’s futile pursuit of a title.
Change of colors
At the moment, though, you cannot quite get over all the green.
Green shorts, green shirts, green on the shoes, green on the wrists. Roll with the Boston Celtics long enough and you’ll feel as if you’ve been in a major highway pile-up with a spinach truck, an Army tank, a jackknifed 18-wheeler full of shamrocks, an unfortunate herd of turtles and, naturally, Kermit in a Prius. Green, a color that never held much sway in Garnett’s wardrobe.
After so many years wearing predominantly dusty-blue and white, Garnett has found it easy to be green in his move from one of America’s dreariest sports markets (Twin Cities) to probably its best (Boston). More than that, his trade triggered a personality switcheroo of the two franchises that seems almost sci-fi.
Off to their best start in 35 seasons — 7-0 through Wednesday night’s 91-66 victory over New Jersey — the Celtics are an updated and possibly upgraded edition of the 2003-04 Wolves, with Garnett again as the centerpiece and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen as more stable (and contractually satisfied) versions of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. Looking so much like that Minnesota team that turned three dynamic stars into 58 victories and a spot in the Western Conference finals, Boston — despite an unproven roster from spots four through 12 — was a popular choice, even before its torrid start, to emerge from the East next spring in the NBA Finals.
The Wolves, on the other hand, have been transformed into Boston Lite, a starting lineup’s worth of Celtics prospects and rejects, spackled in with some homegrown hopefuls (Randy Foye, Craig Smith, Rashad McCants, Corey Brewer), and Antoine Walker rather than Pierce for old green’s sake. Boston finished a combined 50 games under .500 the past two seasons, and Minnesota labored to win 33 and 32 games in that time — now the clubs have been merged, minus their stars.
Teams reverse roles
The Wolves seem to accept that, for the 2007-08 season, they will be as irrelevant as the Celtics suddenly are relevant. They needed six games to win one, finally beating Sacramento 108-103 Wednesday, but that’s OK; all pressure and expectations have shifted east with Garnett, along with the fun and the privilege of watching one of pro basketball’s unique talents bust his hump nightly in an intense effort to win.
Green again, as in envy.
The Wolves’ prevailing color scheme this season? Think blue. Blue, as in the seat backs that will be visible throughout Target Center as this season drags on, tickets unsold or unused, fans absent from an entertainment option that has lost so much luster.
And blew, as in what Wolves management, assorted players and even Garnett did here to their opportunity at greatness and something really special.
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It’s not as stark and raggedy as 1989 now in the practice gym beneath the Wolves’ arena, but it definitely feels like 1991 or ’92, a back-to-the-future version of a fledgling Wolves team long on potential and other maybes.
A few weathered veterans (Walker, Theo Ratliff, Michael Doleac), several journeymen (Marko Jaric, Mark Madsen, Greg Buckner) and a kiddie corps that goes nine deep (Brewer, Foye, McCants, Smith, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Chris Richard and Sebastian Telfair) will divvy up 20,000 or so available game minutes over the next six months. Their objectives? Develop individually, bond as a team, establish some sort of pecking order, stay out of trouble, earn an enormous number of pingpong balls for the NBA draft lottery in May and come back for 2008-09 ready to improve to 30 victories or more.
This year, well, not so many. Before the season, USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan, using poetic license no sportsbook would accept, put the Wolves’ chances of winning an NBA championship at a staggering 1 billion to 1.
For a lot of us, these Wolves will be defined largely by who’s missing, like an amputee rattled by a phantom limb. The last time the Wolves began a season without Garnett, they had narrowly avoided a sale and relocation to New Orleans. Instead they stayed and lost 61 times, with Randy Wittman as an assistant coach. Now Wittman has begun his first full season as head coach … without Garnett.
“It’s tough on a coach,” Wittman said a few days into training camp. “From a selfish standpoint, you always want to be able to coach a Hall of Fame player. You never want to give up a guy like that.”
Tough times, tough choices
Want-to, however, gave way to had-to as the Wolves — mostly because of personnel decisions that backfired, tinged with bad luck — grew desperate for young talent, draft picks and salary-cap flexibility. In late July, the Celtics offered all three. With Garnett as an expiring (and increasingly frustrated) asset and a veteran All-Star out of sync with the franchise he more or less defined, trading him became the easiest hard decision the club ever faced.
“It came down to that choice: Either get a player like Ray Allen to play with Kevin, or go in the other direction,” Wittman said. “From a money standpoint, we were limited. We’d gone three years of not making the playoffs with him. So we had to go the other way.”
Minnesota’s loss became Boston’s gain. The Wolves set aside any championship ambitions, at least short term, while the NBA’s most storied franchise began chasing what would be its 17th overall but first in 22 years.
“They’re obviously looking at it as, we’ve got a window of a couple of years here with Paul and Ray and KG,” Wittman said, “and they’ve said, ‘Let’s try it.’ … This at least puts Kevin in a situation where he has that chance of moving forward.”
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The point-counterpoint on Nov. 2, opening night for both two teams, played out as if scripted. The Wolves were plucky and pesky enough to lead a more experienced Denver team by three points heading into the final quarter, then got outscored 25-14 the rest of the way. By the end, the broadcasters and reporters were giving out brownie points for effort. Expect a lot of brownie points this season.
One click away on the remote, the TD Banknorth Garden was rocking as if Bird was back and Magic was in town. The Celtics beat Washington 103-83 and Garnett dazzled with one of those nights — 22 points, 20 rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocked — Minnesotans came to take for granted. Just like that, it was David Ortiz and Randy Moss revisited, a great Twin Cities athlete reborn in Boston.
There was Garnett’s warrior yell on the videoboard during intros, his trademark clap of rosin at the scorer’s table right before tipoff. Geez, it was like watching your ex-spouse snuggle with a new squeeze, right there in your living room. With 2:30 left on the game clock, the three stars’ work was done and Garnett was kneeling in front of the Celtics’ bench, slapping hands up and down the row.
It was Game No. 1 out of 82, but it seemed like a glimpse of a Game 7 from somewhere in their future.
“I knew he had energy. I didn’t know he had this much,” Celtics coach Glenn Rivers had said early in camp. “Usually your energy players are your role players. It’s rarely your best player.
“You don’t have to tell Kevin [about the value of ‘team’]. Kevin is a verbal player. And I think he’s infectious, giving that to Paul and Ray as well. Pushing the young guys. The young guys are pushing them back in practice. That’s a good sign.”
Deep into the 2004-05 season, in the month that longtime coach Flip Saunders got fired, Garnett brought himself to tears (“I’m losing … I’m losing”) in an interview with TNT analyst John Thompson. This fall, Garnett almost did it again, this time out of joy.
“I’m probably, out of the three of us, more grateful for this opportunity,” he said with Allen and Pierce sitting nearby. “When you win or have a little bit of success in this league, you tend to bond with that. When you get that taken away from you because of many reasons — or whatever the reasons are — it hurts. I’m rejuvenated. I’m definitely rejuvenated. I’m excited about, not only this team but the opportunity to play a role with two guys who understand me and feel me.”
Garnett has yet to blast the Wolves, though his frustration was evident in words and deeds several times in recent seasons. Wittman said that, in 2006-07, it even showed up in his play. “Last year was not a typical smooth year,” the coach said. “Everything seemed to be a struggle for him. I think a lot of that had to do with his emotions, from where the team was at.”
Garnett spoke last month about developing a “callus” from his time in Minnesota. “Makes you understand this game from a business standpoint a little bit,” he said. “Live and learn.”
But Allen has gone through it too, twice actually, traded by Milwaukee and Seattle with only one conference finals round in 11 seasons. “Initially, you have some hard feelings,” Allen said. “Because anybody who gets traded, you’ve got to remove yourself from a situation you’ve been in for a while.
“But sometimes when you’re with an organization and they’re not moving in the right direction in a two- or three-year window, it’s time to move on. Kevin and I both were in that situation.”
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So what, exactly, was that all about? What should people think, how should they feel, about the Kevin Garnett “era” in Wolves history?
The man spent as many season in Minnesota (12) as Kirby Puckett. He made as many All-Star appearances (10) and won as many MVP trophies (1) as Harmon Killebrew did during his time with the Twins. Garnett played more than five times as many games (927) for local fans’ pleasure as popular Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton (177), and nearly four times more than legendary Bud Grant (254) coached.
He literally became a man in Minnesota, arriving at age 19 in a bold and shaky gamble (first NBA player arriving straight from high school in 20 years) by vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale, and leaving at age 31 as a wealthy but sad symbol of McHale’s team-building travails.
‘Groundhog Day’ results
The money Garnett made, a few flaws in his game (he never has become a dominant final-quarter scorer or buzzer-beating assassin), the “Groundhog Day” results in seven of the Wolves’ eight playoff tries, those three final dismal seasons and a tendency in all of us to take for granted, over time, even things that truly are amazing has enabled some fans to move on rather quickly. They’re buying the “blueprint for the future” marketing campaign that the Wolves have concocted, undeterred that Rube Goldberg still is the architect.
“Give it time,” said Andy Miller, Garnett’s agent. “When he’s not there and the team is losing by 20, that’s when we’ll see how the people react.”
Even if some Wolves fans already are dating again on the rebound from a relationship of 12 years, don’t expect Garnett to tear up his snapshots or trash his love letters. “I think the emotional side of the trade and the team is in his rear-view mirror. But I don’t think Minnesota ever will be,” Miller said. “He still owns property there [in Orono], he still thinks of that as one of his homes. I don’t think the fans there are anything he wants to forget.
“Garnett’s loyalty was always to the franchise and the community,” the agent said. “He had his issues with McHale. But that was like a marriage that went astray.”
It was all sorts of warm and fuzzy and raw, human drama. In Garnett, fans had a story line of a life, not just of a basketball team. He was a lanky and gutsy kid from South Carolina who moved way north, eagerly joined a team labeled by its own VP as a “laughingstock,” stayed while a dozen valuable teammates left, got rich but worked hard for it every night, kept himself off the police blotter, never asked to be dealt and changed the way many folks thought about both NBA 7-footers and the Timberwolves.
Now? It’s like Jerry Seinfeld’s line about cheering for a team after the players, the manager and even the ballpark change. “When you get down to it,” the comic said, “what you’re really rooting for is the shirt.”
Pardon us if we root for a green one.
Steve Aschburner, who has been writing about sports for nearly three decades, writes about sports and other topics. He can be reached at saschburner [at] minnpost [dot] com.