Update: After 12 years often filled with frustration in Minnesota, KG finally wins his championship ring

Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett grabs a rebound over Los Angeles Laker Vladimir Radmanovic as P.J. Brown, left, and Ray Allen, right, look on during Sunday’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
REUTERS/Larry W. Smith
Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett grabs a rebound over Los Angeles Laker Vladimir Radmanovic as P.J. Brown, left, and Ray Allen, right, look on during Sunday’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

UPDATE: Kevin Garnett finally achieved his goal of an NBA championship, scoring 26 points with 14 rebounds and four assists in the Boston Celtics’ 131-92 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night. The victory gave Boston its 17th league championship and first in 22 years, and Garnett his first in a certain Hall of Fame career. The release of 13 seasons’ (12 in Minnesota) worth of frustration, ambition, expectations and pressure had Garnett at turns ecstatic, sobbing, giddy and hyperventilating, and he shared a very public on-court hug with Celtics legend Bill Russell. “I’m so happy! I’m so happy right now!” Garnett said in postgame interviews at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden. “I’m not going to sleep for a week. . . . I can’t even take all this, man. But I’m certified. I’m certified!” And yes, he talked about carrying the people of “ ‘Sota,” as well as those in his other real or adopted homes of Chicago and South Carolina, in his heart. – Steve Aschburner

The NBA championship that Kevin Garnett, assorted (way too assorted) teammates and others within the Timberwolves organization sought for a dozen long seasons probably will wind up with the Celtics, either tonight or Thursday.

The one thing missing from Garnett’s career to validate him not merely as the best player in a certain sputtering expansion franchise’s spotty history but as one of the game’s best ever and a slam-dunk candidate for the Hall of Fame soon might be found. In the first place he looked outside Minnesota.

First time he looked, too. Twelve years in Minnesota vs. less than 12 months in Boston. Look, no one is suggesting that what the Celtics did this season was as easy as instant oatmeal — start with Paul Pierce, add Garnett and Ray Allen, pour water, stir — but the speed with which general manager Danny Ainge’s and head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers’ plan came together suggests simplicity, and simplicity suggests that, with 12 years to get it done, it all should have, could have, happened here.

“It depends on how you look at it, man,” Garnett said Saturday in sunny California, stepping outside the basic media obligations during the Finals to talk with a familiar face. Some Boston and national sports journalists were impressed, envious, maybe a little peeved. But trust comes slowly with Garnett; it took me 12 years of covering the former Wolves star daily to get something like 12 minutes, one-on-one, on the brink of his greatest triumph.

They were, however, a very worthwhile 12 minutes, behind the curtains of the main interview area at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. Behind a few of Garnett’s curtains, too.

“With the assets that this [Celtics] team has been able to acquire, not only are they assets but they’re experienced assets,” Garnett said. “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. 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.

“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 . . . There are some things we’ve been able to do because we’ve all taken sacrifices and been there.”

As in, been there, determined to do that.

But sacrifices? Players as experienced assets? Team philosophy? Upon further review, maybe getting within one more victory of the NBA championship couldn’t have happened here at all. And maybe, deep down, Garnett came to realize that, even as he was annually proclaiming his loyalty to ” ‘Sota.”

In fact, he admitted as much Saturday. The thought hit him a couple of years ago, well before the July 31 Wolves-Celtics trade that transformed both franchises, on a night out at his favorite downtown Minneapolis restaurant.

“I remember being at Ruth Chris’ [Steak House] and watching one of the Finals games,” Garnett said. “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.”
Trade to Celtics gives superstar his chance
Garnett got traded last summer — after eight playoff runs in Minnesota, seven first-round eliminations  and three seasons at the end that went directly from regular- to off-, with no post- in between — in part because the Wolves were impatient to unveil their blueprint for the future. And there was no room in it for a high-mileage, increasingly cranky superstar with opt-out leverage and his eye on a three-year, $60 million contract extension.

The Celtics had no trouble accommodating that, though, in their blueprint for the right now. Garnett balked at an initial trade to Boston, in June, fearing it would leave his new team undermanned for the lofty ambitions he still harbored. But after the NBA draft and a multi-player deal that delivered Allen, Boston suddenly looked more alluring.

“Well, when they got Ray Allen, I told him he’d better go to Boston,” said Celtics guard Sam Cassell, Garnett’s teammate for two years in Minnesota (2003-05) and a February pick-up from the L.A. Clippers. “I told him, ‘Hey, listen, you better go to Boston. This is an opportunity for you to get to the level you want to get to.’ And guess what? I came along and we here!”

With all due respect to the irrepressible Cassell, Garnett, Allen and a handful of others — savvy defender and three-point shooter James Posey, blossoming youngsters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, marksman Eddie House — had more to do with Boston’s memorable season than old Sammy. The Celtics got out of the blocks fast, winning 29 of their first 32, with a 41-9 record by the All-Star break. They finished 66-16, an improvement of 42 victories from the previous season — the biggest turnaround in NBA history.

The most dramatic change from within? Defense. With its kiddie corps in 2006-07 — including the group of five players that Minnesota got back in the Garnett deal — Boston ranked 18th of 30 NBA teams in points allowed per game (99.2), 24th in defensive field-goal percentage (46.8) and 12th in three-point defense (35.4 percent). This season, they led the league — 90.1, 41.9 percent and 31.6 percent — in all three categories, thanks to the arrival of defensive-minded assistant coach Tom Thibodeau and, most of all, Garnett. The sweat and effort that Target Center fans remember about Garnett at that end of the floor, up to and including the way he zealously guards his team’s basket even on dead balls, made the trip to Boston, too.

“Right after the big press conference, we sat in the back and we talked . . . and the only thing I brought up was defense, and I was very honest,” Rivers said last week. “It was great because Kevin Garnett was the guy standing up saying, ‘Listen, he’s right.’ So what? We can score. We’re not going to win unless we play defense and commit to it, and we did it as a team.

“When you hear Paul say that Kevin has changed the culture of our team, that’s what he’s saying.”

It earned Garnett the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, an honor that eluded him in Minnesota. The forward’s individual numbers dipped — his points per game (18.8), rebounds (9.2) and assists (3.4) all were down from his career averages — and at age 32, he missed more games to injury (11, abdominal strain) than ever before. Fans in Boston also saw some of the nits to pick in Garnett’s game with which Wolves diehards were familiar: a disdain for contact in the low post, a penchant for low-reward fade-away jumpers, a reluctance to seek his own shot late in close games. But they also saw a leader who placed third in NBA Most Valuable Player balloting and played in his 11th consecutive All-Star Game.

And if they squinted, those keepers of the Celtics’ traditions, they sometimes saw a latter-day Bill Russell. In all of their shared parts: the sinewy frame, the goatee, the defensive bent, the team-before-me mentality, the single-digit jersey (No. 6 for Russell, No. 5 for Garnett), the green and white and parquet all over. And in their spirit, too.

“Earlier this season,” Russell told NBA.com during these Finals, “I sat down with Kevin Garnett and told him I expect him to win a couple of championships here in Boston because of the way he plays, but if it doesn’t happen, then I’ll give him one of my rings because he plays like a true Celtic and a true champion. But the other night, I said, ‘I sure hope you win so I can be sure I can keep my rings.’ “

The trademark Russell cackle followed. Of course, with 11 championship rings, Russell might feel he can spare one. Kevin McHale, Garnett’s boss in Minnesota, who won three rings with the Celtics, offered none.

Which is fine with Garnett, who would prefer to remove himself, once and for all, from discussions about the validation, the certification, of  “greatness” for players who do or do not win titles. Frankly, Garnett believes there is something to that, a step not taken by those unable to win in June. Others do not agree.

“The story of Kevin Garnett is the same story that sticks with me from my first recruiting with John Wooden,” said Bill Walton, the great UCLA center who won NBA championships with Portland (1977) and Boston (1986). “Coach Wooden explained to me when I was 15 years old and the whole world of basketball was swirling around, dizzy with possibilities, ‘Bill, your ultimate success in life will not depend on how good you are. It’s how good your teammates are. That’s why you should come to UCLA.’ . . . I believed that then when I was 15 and I believe that even more so today.

“My only goal and dream in life, as a basketball player, was to be a part of something special. When you have the legacy of the Boston Celtics, which was my boyhood dream team, and Bill Russell, who was my favorite player ever, and the style, the team game . . . that’s the way Kevin Garnett has always played. But he’s never been in position where he’s had that group, that team, around him. Now that he has that, we’re seeing the fruits of one the most truly magnificent players ever.”

Walton played only 118 games, regular and postseason, with the Celtics near the end of his career but is revered as part of the franchise’s winning legacy. Garnett will participate in Boston’s 108th game tonight — 82, followed by 26 in the playoffs — and, if all goes well, will immediately become part of the tradition there, too. In time, he and Walton — who also wore No. 5 — might see another jersey raised to the Garden rafters.

“I am proud, honored, humbled and privileged,” Walton told me last week, “to have worn KG’s number.”
Garnett’s Finals performance underwhelming so far
Garnett’s first shot at clinching a championship hardly could have gone worse. His intensity got him eight points in the opening quarter of Game 5 Sunday night at Staples Center, but it also earned him two quick fouls and a seat on the bench. A third put him down again, limiting him to just 11 minutes by halftime while Lakers counterparts Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom found their rhythm.

The Celtics dug a hole of 19 points and then climbed out of it. They dug another in the fourth quarter, 14 points, and nearly got out of that one, too. But Garnett, at the foul line with a chance to tie — it was 95-93 with 2:31 left — bricked both free throws. “I played like garbage,” he said afterward. “I can do better, and I will.”

Fortunately, he will get the chance. If carrying an entire franchise on his shoulders was an impossible way to win in Minnesota, riding along as an afterthought in the decisive game would have been a little too ironic for Garnett or his fans. At least with Boston, he gets to hit the reset button tonight, symbolic of what this whole season has meant for him. Had his Game 5 performance come with the Wolves, you just know if would have been an elimination game for his team.

Because, let’s face it, none of this was going to happen in Minnesota for him.

“He had to leave. It was time,” Cassell said of his friend he calls “Ticket.”

“Hey, sometimes it’s good for a change, no matter what situation it is. He did all that he could do in Minnesota. Minnesota is great. I played there two years. City is cool. But it was time to get out. Ownership wanted to do its own thing. Ownership didn’t do some things that he wanted, like letting me go and not signing Sprewell back.”

More accurately, it was the loss of first-round draft picks in the Joe Smith illegal-contract fiasco — and bad decisions with too many of those that remained — that left the Wolves’ cupboard too bare to facilitate the maneuvers needed to get Garnett sufficient help. The best McHale could muster was Cassell and Sprewell in 2003, a move that got the franchise one trip to the Western Conference finals. One, and done. After that, owner Glen Taylor lost some of his willingness to spend. So when it came time for a blockbuster trade, one team pouncing, the other rebuilding, it was Garnett going to Pierce and Allen rather than the other way around.

“It’s easy to talk about a championship and saying you want to be a champion vs. putting forth the effort,” Garnett said the other day. “When management steps up — you see how passionate these guys are here, you see the difference . . . how they make talent evaluations when it comes to players and the things they want in their players.”

Seeing now what it really takes to play from October into June, that was the first thing Garnett — who did sign contracts worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars with the Wolves — mentioned. The second?

“I’ve always said, when you have veteran players, your locker room is a lot more sacred,” he said. “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.”

Sound like any, uh, local NBA team we know? “Probably one of the easiest things to do in this league is to blow a team up and to start over,” Garnett said. “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.”

Given that, Garnett’s answer to this question — where are the Wolves as he goes through this excellent adventure in New England? — is no surprise. A hint: Think rear-view mirror.

“I don’t think about nothing about the Timberwolves,” he said. “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 100 percent effort every night, those are the people that are with me.”

They’re the ones who paid their way into Target Center in February, then stood and cheered just to see the guy in street clothes when Boston made its only trip through town. They’re the ones who, as Garnett says, who root first for the name on the back of the jersey, then the jersey itself. They’re the ones who saw a Hall of Famer’s career arc, from its high-school roots all the way to, almost, the finish. Almost.

“Through heartaches and tough times, you learn to appreciate new opportunities. I’ve been able to do that,” Garnett said. “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.”

Carrying them all right now, for one more step.

Steve Aschburner, who has been writing about sports for nearly three decades, writes about sports and other topics for MinnPost.com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by scott gibson on 06/17/2008 - 11:38 pm.

    One magnificent piece of writing. It captures this special time for Wolves fans/KG fans very well. Upon seeing the final game and watching KG’s post-game, emotion-filled meltdown, you can’t help but feel great empathy for his journey. Such genuine feeling. We were fortunate to be able to watch him for so long. I do think most of us were aware of how lucky we were to witness his performances for such a long period of time. We didn’t get to be part of the championship, but we do have our memories, too.

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