In the minutes before he met, yet again, with hordes of NBA media types in a formal news conference setting Saturday at the Los Angeles Lakers’ practice facility, Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett talked backstage with MinnPost’s Steve Aschburner, who covered him during his entire 12-season stay in Minnesota. Here is the interview:
MinnPost: We’re talking NBA Finals, less than 12 months since the Timberwolves traded you to the Celtics. Look at everything that has gone on and how it all has worked out, compared with 12 years of paying dues, building and sweat equity. If you had gone to Boston and this had taken two or three years, that would have been one thing. But this is head-spinning, isn’t it?
Kevin Garnett: It depends on how you look at it, man. With the assets that this team has been able to acquire, not only are they assets, but they’re experienced assets. What you dream about and what you see is pretty much what it is. The only thing that comes into play is, you wonder if they’ll mesh. You wonder if the chemistry will be formed earlier than later. You wonder if personalities … stuff like that.
But for the most part, if you put a team like this together, the way it looks on paper, it can do anything you want it to do. But again, it comes down to the small things. A lot of it has to do with the coach and if he can keep all the egos under control. The philosophy of the team and what you’re trying to provide…
[At that moment, Kobe Bryant — done with his own media availability — walked over. The two players embraced.
“What’s up, Kobean?” Garnett said.
“Just chillin’, my man,” the Lakers All-Star guard said.
After a few private words, Garnett said loudly, “Absolutely.” Then he picked up his answer.]
KG: This is what it is. There are some things we’ve been able to do because we’ve all taken sacrifices and been there.
MP: From the outside, it almost seems as if it was instant: You, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen came together, you said, “This is how we’ve got to do it,” and it was there. There must have been some growing milestones — I won’t use the word “pains” but at least milestones.
KG: Pains is the word, though. Pains is the word. Because you’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad. You’re somewhere in between. I remember Flip [Saunders, longtime Timberwolves coach] used to always say that, and that’s evident for this team. We’ve been fortunate, obviously, to survive some things, though nothing that’s, like, over the top, that’s going to destroy you. But we have been through different things, difficult times where we all had to reassess ourselves and get back our focus. I feel like our philosophy here is, give to the next person and you’ll receive back something that is a whole lot greater.
MP: How did your role, your niche, shake out? Were there things that you might have had to do back in Minnesota that, now, you don’t have to do because Paul is there to do it or Ray is there to do it?
KG: We just have a love and respect for each other. Obviously, everybody is conscious of what each guy has done in this league, and there’s an unspoken respect about the next person. I’m telling ya, man, basketball is a flow thing. It just . . . flows. When it came to off the court, it’s all guys. Y’know? Like being in the clubhouse, in the locker room. You’re guys. You crack jokes, you do what you do. If you can’t handle it, you sit back, you listen.
I’m sitting here thinking, what was the hardest part? The hardest part was getting to know Boston and getting lost on game day, stuff of that sense. [Laughs.] Y’know? Not anything that came on the court, man. We have a great group of guys. A great group of guys.
We debate — we debate heavy — but nothing that’s going to clash us, nothing that’s going to destroy your chemistry. Nothing that’s going to have you to where you and this other guy don’t pass the ball to each other.
“I don’t think about nothing about the Timberwolves. The only thing I think about is the city of Minneapolis and how good it’s been to me. The state of Minnesota has been really, really good to me. And every fan who ever appreciated how I came out and gave a 100 percent effort every night, those are the people that are with me.” — Kevin Garnett
MP: Now that you know what it takes from September to June — from before the start of training camp and the preseason all the way to the NBA Finals — to get to this point, can you think of one or two things that just weren’t there in Minnesota? Does anything stand out, where you can say, “That’s the difference”?
KG: The first thing is, it’s easy to talk about a championship and saying you want to be a champion vs. putting forth the effort. That’s the first thing. When management steps up, you see how passionate these guys are here, you see the difference. You see how they do things in Boston, how they make talent evaluations when it comes to players and the things they want in their players.
Secondly, obviously, we have a different group of players here. I’ve always said, when you have veteran players, your locker room is a lot more sacred. The respect level is there. You have figures that younger players look up to and respect till you get things done. One thing I preached in Minnesota was that I thought we needed more vets. And I’m not talking about five-year vets, I’m talking about 13-, 12-year vets. And they never wanted that. They wanted a young team. But young guys are like the deaf following the deaf.
Look at the Lakers — you see the team they had last year and then they brought in Derek Fisher. A lot more sound. Huge step. Because now you’ve got a guy who, not only does everyone respect but you’ve got a guy who has performed in peak situations, has the credibility, obviously has the rap sheet, the rings and all that. It’s his voice in the locker room. It’s the voice that Kobe respects.
MP: You got that one year, with Sam [Cassell] and Latrell [Sprewell]?
KG: I got it one year. But I was able to understand that it was needed in other years. Because now, the young guys, they come in with an edge. They come in and really try to put their feet down and settle in cement. But there’s a way that you really go about it in this league. There’s a way that you get to where you want to be in this league. You don’t just come in and poke the chest out. This is a man’s league, and I don’t think a lot of guys understand it.
So the second thing that jumps out for me is that they were willing to make it a little more veteran team. Yeah, it’s a little older. But probably one of the easiest things to do in this league is to blow a team up and to start over. You can always just clean something off. But to put good solid pieces together and then to put your money where your mouth is . . . I mean, everybody says they want to win. But at the end of the days, I think some of these owners see it, it’s business.
The one thing I took from Minnesota is that, it don’t matter what you’ve done in the past, when they’re done with you, they’re done with you. That’s what it is.
MP: Where is Minnesota in this championship run? Where are the Timberwolves with you through all this? In your heart? in the rear-view mirror? Or somewhere in between?
KG: I remember being at Ruth Chris’ [Steak House in downtown Minneapolis] and watching one of the Finals games. At the bar, the restaurant, I couldn’t even eat my meal, I was so far into the competition. I told the bartender, or the guy who was sitting there with me, whatever, “One of these days you’re going to be sitting here watching me up there.”
He said, “I believe that. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, KG, I believe that.”
That was the first time. I looked, I sort of turned my head, and that’s when I knew. People understood. Like, “If you can’t win it here, go somewhere else and do it.” That’s when I knew people understood my position.
MP: Some people back there root for the jerseys, the Minnesota team. But a lot of people want to see this story play out to a nice ending for you.
KG: When people root for you, they root for the name on the back of the jersey. Then they root for the jersey. It’s how that player comes up and actually conducts himself. It’s what inside that individual, too. You can’t help who you are or what’s happened in the past, but you can definitely fix the future. I always say, you appreciate people who appreciate you.
MP: Did you have to go through all of that, with the Wolves, to get to this? Or could it have been fast-tracked just a little?
KG: Through heartaches and tough times, you learn to appreciate new opportunities. I’ve been able to do that. I’m talking about the personal journey to where you’re at. I carry not only ‘Sota but Chicago, South Carolina, I carry it all in me, man. All the people that know me, root for me, I carry them. All the people who are behind the wall, I carry them with me every day.
MP: People thought, if you did go get a shot at this elsewhere, you might have to go jump onboard the San Antonio Express or the Pistons Express, winning a championship with a ready-made team. But you guys still have built this from the ground up.
KG: Built it from the ground up. Makes it difficult. But again, with the proper tools, man, you can do anything. Especially with a great leader like that …
[Celtics coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers walks by, done meeting the press.]
KG: Doc is very, very much like Flip, except that he voices his opinion a little more. That might have been the whole Flip-Kevin McHale buddy-buddy thing. I love it. He’s not afraid to tell you when [you stink].
[It is Garnett’s turn at the podium, so he turns to head toward some black curtains.]
MP: Finish this out.
KG: Good to see you, man.