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True Grit: Kevin Garnett, the greatest Timberwolf who ever lived, passes the baton

KG’s gaudy intensity obscured the formidable intellect that engineered his outlandish physical and emotional enterprise — and that made him the greatest defender I’ve ever seen.

In his prime, Kevin Garnett was the greatest basketball defender I have ever seen, and my visual memories extend back to Bill Russell in the early 1960s.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Garnett camouflaged his intelligence in mania.

In the joust and scrum of professional basketball, where the intensity of the players is naked to viewers, KG, who announced his retirement on Friday, stood out. His trash talk was brasher. His eyeballs were larger. His celebratory acknowledgement of a teammate’s good deed could careen toward assault and battery in its exuberance.

Garnett was the guy who patented the practice of snatching or swatting away an opponent’s shot at the basket long after the play had been whistled dead. He pounded his heart with his right fist like he was trying to dislodge his left shoulder blade. After a significant misplay, oversight, or situation that he felt required an extra turn of the screw, he was renowned for standing at the foul line and repeatedly ramming the basketball into his forehead with both hands.

Similar stories abound about Garnett’s mania in circumstances when there wasn’t a crowd on hand to watch. KG was notorious for his diligence and fervor at practice. When he was with the Celtics, coach Doc Rivers once had to call off practice for the entire team because Garnett refused his dictum to take the day off, stubbornly using the sidelines to mimic the court-length movements of the teammate replacing him that day. Then there is the tale, perhaps apocryphal, of him head-butting a hole in the wall at his home because he was so amped up about the disharmony of a hip-hop group during a talent competition on television. 

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That’s the gaudy window dressing on Garnett’s career. It obscures the formidable intellect that engineered his outlandish physical and emotional enterprise, perched in Zen-like repose as the eye in his category 5 hurricane.

A defensive genius

In his prime, Kevin Garnett was the greatest basketball defender I have ever seen, and my visual memories extend back to Bill Russell in the early 1960s.

KG’s versatility was unprecedented. Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders had the luxury of deploying him as the first or last line of his defense, depending upon which was more crucial to the team’s fortunes. He’d put Garnett at the top of a 1-2-2 zone, where his length, lateral quickness, agility and inexhaustible energy destroyed the sightlines and ratcheted up the pressure on the opposing point guard trying to initiate the offense. Or he’d have KG anchor a 1-3-1 zone down near the rim, where his combination of length, lateral quickness, strength and leaping ability allowed him to defend the post, protect the rim or patrol the entire baseline as the situation warranted.

The essence of NBA defense is stopping the pick-and-roll play, and again, in his prime, KG had no equal in this specialized pursuit. In particular, no one was better at single-handedly denying all aspects of the pick-and-roll decision-making. Garnett was long, quick, and smart enough to delay his commitment to guarding either the ball-handler or the rolling screener, operating in a no-man’s land that would be fatal to most any other player. But his calculated indecision forced the ball-handler to choose whether to shoot, drive or pass, and KG possessed the physical gifts and mental experience and scholarship to respond in time to disrupt it. He flipped the entire premise of the pick-and-roll play — to provoke a reaction and then exploit the vulnerability it creates — in his favor.

Yes, such astounding defense doesn’t occur without benefit of a freakish physique. (For psychological reasons, Garnett refused to have his listed height reflect the fact that he was at least 7 feet tall — Saunders used to joke that the 6-feet, 11 inches citation beside KG’s name in the program should actually read “6-feet, 13 inches.”) But part of the enduring beauty of Garnett’s legacy should be that he was a sage as well as a stud. 

He came into the NBA as a precocious student of the game, with deep knowledge and respect for the elders, not only for what they had accomplished, but how and why they had managed to do so. Long before advances in technology made it standard practice around the league, Garnett was given a CD or two in the locker room after games, breaking down his play that night and sorting the tendencies of the Wolves’ upcoming opponent.

Team personnel had time to prepare it. While most of his teammates hurriedly showered, dressed and disappeared into the night, Garnett was the bane of beat writers needing a postgame quote. He lingered in the shower or training room, still consumed by thoughts of the game. When he did emerge, those lucky enough not to be on deadline were treated to the treasure of postgame KG. He could be reflective and philosophical on a wide range of topics, and/or goofy and carefree, and/or intent on recounting the game or the team’s current status with razor-like precision and detailed analysis.

The Saunders kinship

Once home from the game, it was not uncommon for Garnett to call Saunders, a fellow insomniac, in the wee hours of the morning to rehash one of the finer or more vexing points related to hoops. Both Garnett and Saunders frequently — but always obliquely — made references to these conversations.

More than anyone else in the Wolves organization, KG saw Flip as his ally. The two were kindred spirits in the sense that they voracious students but discerning pupils of the game, jealous about what information they would take to heart and how it would be applied to their own style.

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For example, former Hall of Fame player, Wolves coach and President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale continually pointed out the ways in which Garnett’s game was not fundamentally sound, with a special emphasis on the need to gain inside position and box out opponents when rebounding down near the hoop. But Garnett preferred to expend his energy extending his defense out toward the perimeter, then using his extraordinary length and timing to leap up over an opponent from behind and tip the ball back his way. In his prime, it was one of his signature gambits. And given that KG has grabbed more defensive rebounds than anyone in the history of the NBA, it was a successful deployment of his skill set.

It is no coincidence that Saunders was not connected to the Wolves when Minnesota traded Garnett to Boston, a defensible decision given the corrosive effect on star and franchise that was developing after eight straight playoff appearances, but one that violated the sense of loyalty that is one of the core tenets in KG’s value system. And it is no coincidence that Garnett was enticed back to Minnesota — at terms that pretty much enabled him to set his own schedule, command a rich salary and be considered as a potential owner of the franchise one day — at a time when Saunders had control over both the playbook and the payroll.

The shocking death of Saunders right before the start of the 2015-16 season, and the firing of interim coach Sam Mitchell after that season, followed by the hiring of Tom Thibodeau — a strong personality who has both meshed wonderfully and collided with KG during their time together in Boston — likely put a thumb on the scale as Garnett weighed whether he wanted to try to coax another season out of his aging body or retire from the game.

A reason to enjoy covering the Wolves

This is by necessity a scattershot response to Garnett’s retirement. I covered the Timberwolves as a “beat columnist” for each of the 14 years he played for the Wolves. People frequently ask me how and why I have enjoyed covering this historically unsuccessful franchise for as long as I have, and the answer inevitably gets back to KG.

As with Saunders, Garnett’s close-range access and example has exerted an indelible impact on how I view the NBA game. It was the majesty of KG that gave me an outsized appreciation, relative to my peers, for the value of defense. His loyalty to the Wolves was infectious. And covering him on a daily basis gave me invaluable insight into the cerebral preparation required of true greatness even when one possesses physical skills that are a freak of nature.

Like a couple of other writers with a special affinity for and connection to KG — Steve Aschburner of and Paul Flannery of come to mind — I have hundreds of pages worth of statistical arguments, impressions and emotions about Garnett. Distilling them into a single column is a fool’s errand. But now that my top priorities — lauding his brains and his defense — are done, I’ll spray forth some unique memories and wrap it up with a synopsis of his legacy.

DMX, K-Swiss and Bill Curley

I remember Media Day in 1995, watching Garnett as a teenaged rookie stumbling through a reading of cue cards for a radio spot advertisement, and how he appreciated the encouragement when I urged him to relax.

The day he perked up when I noted that The Lox, playing in the locker room, were “Puffy’s boys.” On the handful of occasions when I was only person left when he emerged from the training room, hip-hop as well as basketball became part of our extended conversations. “DMX is my boy!” he exclaimed with a glowing smile, then literally barked, like a Ruff Ryder.

I became one of the coterie of people covering the team whom KG alternately made fun of and had fun with, like the time down in Mankato where he waxed eloquent for many sentences about the quality of my new K-Swiss sneakers — not a brand he ever did or would endorse — without once losing his veneer of sincerity. And I remember the pang, and the appropriate corrective to my ego and my role, when KG struggled to remember who I was when we encountered each other again on his second stint with the Wolves.

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Less personally, I cherish the memory of KG calling a still-full locker room to attention to lavish praise on Bill Curley, recounting to one and all how Curley had battled injuries all season (he was a fixture on the stationary bike at dozens of practices) and had persevered to play a small but crucial role in the victory that night. The unmitigated joy on Curley’s face as KG whipped a towel like a helicopter and chanted his name will permanently endear Garnett to me.

So will memories of his first-ever Game 7 performance in the playoffs, when Garnett, chastised by everyone from Charles Barkley to the lowest schlub on the Wolves fan chain for supposedly not producing in the clutch, put up 32 points, 21 rebounds, 5 blocks, 4 steals and 2 assists in a series clinching win over Sacramento.

So will my remembrance of Garnett’s under-the-radar pledge to spend more than a million dollars building 24 houses — one in each month for two years — for those whose homes were decimated during Hurricane Katrina. (Actor Brad Pitt later duplicated this creative act of philanthropy.)

The legacy

As for Garnett’s legacy, there are currently three pillars.

As the first player to make the successful transition from high school to the pros since Moses Malone’s solitary example 21 years earlier, he transformed the drafting patterns, roster demographics, and career chronologies of the NBA.

By signing a whopping 6-year, $126-million contract in the minor-market outpost of Minnesota’s frozen tundra, he startled the NBA into creating a new collective bargaining agreement that implemented a salary cap and revolutionized the way players are paid.

And by bounding into the NBA as a 7-foot pogo stick with Inspector Gadget arms and the darting quickness of a jackrabbit, Garnett improved upon Magic Johnson’s nascent model for positional versatility, and established a new prototype for power forward in the modern game.

The hopeful coda is that the legacy is not finished. It is remarkable how many people disparage the value Garnett brought to the Wolves last season. They point to the $8 million salary versus the mere 556 minutes played, with no games logged the final three months of the campaign.

But Saunders brought Garnett back to set an example and to teach, and on that score, KG delivered. During his time on the court, especially in tandem with Tayshaun Prince and Ricky Rubio as the original starting lineup for the team, he demonstrated to future cornerstones Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns the value and experience of a team defensive scheme where everyone operates as if on a string.

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Off the court, Garnett’s commitment simply to get himself physically able to perform the limited time he did last season left an enormous impression on those around him. Both Mitchell and Rubio unilaterally raised the subject and gushed about KG in interviews I did with them last season.

But the real legacy builder here is Towns. Last season, Towns’ father pronounced that having KG as a teammate was the best thing that could have happened to his son. And on the day Garnett announced his retirement, Towns tweeted, “Thank you for everything my brother…We talked. I know what I must do. I’ll take it from here.”

The fourth pillar awaits.