Producer Jerry Bruckheimer should have been in charge of the Timberwolves, rather than team owner Glen Taylor and VP Kevin McHale, back when Kevin Garnett was traded to Boston in the summer of 2007. Then, perhaps, Garnett’s departure from Target Center would have been staged properly.
Cameras would have tracked him as he walked slowly down a lonely and dramatically lit hallway, a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. He would have glanced back, in close-up, one last time. Then, as Garnett turned to exit for good, he would have …. disappeared. Cue the murmuring whoosh sound effect. The piano music swells.
Without a trace. Eleven thousand, four hundred, ninety-six hours missing.
You can find a few reminders of Garnett scattered about Target Center if you look hard enough. This is, after all, the Wolves’ 20th season, so video clips and old-school photos to pump a sense of nostalgia can be spotted from time to time on the scoreboard or in the concourse. Some fans still show up wearing his replica jersey, a throwback classic for about 16 months now. Garnett himself will be in the building tonight, wearing No. 5 in the visiting Celtics’ green rather than his familiar No. 21, which eventually — sometime after he retires, when he no longer can come in and punish or embarrass the team that traded him — will take its place in the rafters.
But in terms of values and intangibles, the pedigree, swagger, credibility and ambition Garnett brought to and maintained in the Wolves across 12 mostly remarkable seasons, there is stunningly little left of him within the organization.
“What’s still here? You mean like the ghost of Kevin Garnett? Probably not much,”‘ Wolves head coach Randy Wittman told me Thursday. “There’s only three guys that played with him that are still here.”
Backup forward Mark Madsen teamed with Garnett for four seasons. Craig Smith and Randy Foye were rookies in 2006-07, his final year in Minnesota. And that’s it.
Everyone else on the roster knew him as an opponent or not at all. Garnett’s dressing stall and his anchor spot in the pre-game introductions belong to forward Al Jefferson, the man expected to replace him in a couple of statistical categories and as a leader (the former is going better than the latter so far). On one wall within the locker room, a jersey and a photograph, framed and matted, hangs as a tribute to Malik Sealy, the shooting guard whose two seasons with the Wolves ended tragically on Highway 100 in May 2000. But there is nothing commemorating Garnett’s dozen years (10 of them as an All-Star) because, let’s face it, things still could get awkward.
The team’s marketing department has tread lightly across the Garnett years in thumping this anniversary season, lest fans reminisce too long or too fondly for the franchise’s best and most popular player ever. Or recall that the Wolves were 8-4 in qualifying for the playoffs with him around, 0-7 without. A giveaway portrait featuring Garnett, part of a season-long series, depicts him simply as one of three with notorious NBA mercenaries Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, who spent all of two seasons in Minnesota.
It’s tricky, though, when the guy who wanted to win, and was expected to deliver, an NBA championship does it — bang! — his first chance out of Minnesota. He and the Celtics have a decent shot, too, at doing it again.
No looking back
“I don’t ever look back now,” said Wittman, a Wolves assistant coach for nine of Garnett’s 12 seasons here. “That’s in the rear-view mirror. He is who he is. He’s a Hall of Fame, first-ballot player who does everything. Plays the game the right way, practices the right way, conducts himself off the court the right way. All of those things are what we carry away from here as, maybe, remnants of who Kevin Garnett is.”
Wittman misses Garnett on the court in a half-dozen ways. He was the team’s defensive quarterback, calling out adjustments on the fly in a role that remains vacant. The 7-footer’s passing skills made up for the ongoing void at point guard. His competitive drive, nearly pathological, made intense practices as routine as flipping on the lights in the gym. “His work ethic, trying to get players to understand that,” Wittman said, adding to the list. “His sense of pride in the community as well as this team, and how he conducted himself. Those are things that are left over that you try to pass on.”
Values to teach, no doubt, but not necessarily traits that linger.
Wolves rookie Kevin Love, born into a basketball family, has a real grasp of and respect for the game’s roots. He mentioned Garnett the other day as the one NBA player he most would like to have on his team (Love must not have gotten the memo from the corporate office). “Everybody knows [he was here]. You can still kind of feel it,” the rookie from UCLA said. “People talk about, KG did this and KG did that. I think it will always be like that. He was a great player, a sure-shot Hall of Famer, one of the top 15 or 20 players of all time.”
Garnett also is a player known for some bully tactics, famously challenging and barking at younger opponents. Love would seem to be a perfect foil, in a Joel Przybilla sort of way. “I definitely think he’s going to test me and knock me on my ass a couple of times,” the Wolves forward said, anticipating tonight’s clash. “That’s what I have to expect facing guys like KG, Amare [Stoudemire], [Carlos] Boozer. Elton Brand was the same way [Wednesday against Philadelphia], trying to go at me. I’ve just got to get better and learn from that.”
Foye learned a lot from KG
Foye, in overlapping with Garnett for one season here, says he learned plenty from the veteran. It goes beyond the seating protocol on the team’s charters that he mentions at first, or a pecking order of who eats first or last on those flights. It’s the sort of stuff that, if Foye preserves it and pays it forward, truly can be a Garnett legacy within the Wolves. Right now, though, the guard from Villanova mostly pines for it.
“One thing I miss about him is, he just let me go. That’s why I was so successful my rookie year,” said Foye, who has sputtered in the season-plus since. “No matter what happened, if I made a mistake, I’d look at him and he’d go [Foye balls up a fist and pumps it], like ‘It’s all right. Keep your head up.’
“It makes you feel better. It’d be like that for anyone in their work, if there was a legend who pumped you up. For a young player, that just boosted my confidence. Sometimes, in my rookie year, I felt like an All-Star out there because he let me do what I wanted and when I got it going, he let me go.”
In games, Foye said, it was like having your big brother there to hold your coat in a schoolyard fight. “There was a swagger,” he said. “KG would come out and hit a shot, and it was like, ‘Everybody, we’re in this together. I’m patrolling it, but everybody who’s got a white jersey on, we’re in it together.’ “
There were lessons and ways off the court, too. “If you had something going on with your girlfriend or something in your head, and you called him, he explained things,” Foye said. “He’d say, ‘I’ve been through a lot.’ Or like, ‘Basketball comes first until you have a wife and a family. All the other stuff, just put it out the door.’ “
Foye said he has text-messaged Garnett four or five times since the trade, though not at all since summer. He didn’t plan to seek out an audience before tonight’s game, either. “He still calls me ‘Young’n,’ ” Foye said. “But I know he’s intense, so I won’t be trying to talk to him or anything.”