The cruel tutelage of Kevin Garnett


Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Nov. 25, 2015. Kevin Garnett will be inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the 2020 class.

WATCHING WAS WASTEFUL, he thought, counterintuitive. Kevin Garnett loathed it. He’d spit at anyone who implored him to embrace it, even as his balky knee howled for a respite. Watching, to Garnett, implied vulnerability. It undercut his contention that he could go harder, longer, better than these fledglings who thought they knew it all.

Garnett actually knew. Greatness — the pursuit of it — was slippery, elusive, dependent on myriad variables, like health, conditioning, team chemistry, luck. But some components shouldn’t be left to chance, and preparation was one of them. “Kevin had this belief that if you were the leader, you couldn’t miss one snap of practice,” says Doc Rivers, who coached Garnett in Boston from 2007 to 2013. “But I had this belief that you are 30-whatever and I need you for the whole season.”

And so in February 2009 the coach sat down his future Hall of Famer. Not to skip a game. Rivers just wanted him to miss a practice.

“Coach, you don’t understand,” Garnett seethed. “If I’m sitting, they will see weakness.”

Relegated to the practice-facility sideline, pacing, growling and cursing to himself, Garnett pulled up suddenly, an idea churning, a maniacal grin creasing his face. He unleashed a howl; his teammates glanced in his direction. They knew something was about to happen.

This was, after all, the superstar who had once dropped to all fours and barked at Portland rookie point guard Jerryd Bayless; whose pregame ritual was a violent head-banging assault of, and concurrent conversation with, the basketball stanchion; who would years later express his umbrage at Dwight Howard’s post play by drilling him with an impromptu head-butt in the first quarter of a 2015 regular-season game against Houston.

Garnett, forbidden to take the floor by his own coach, had concocted his revenge: He would track the movements of power forward Leon Powe, the player who had replaced him in the lineup. As Powe pivoted, so did Garnett. As Powe leaped to grab a defensive rebound, Garnett launched himself to corral an imaginary ball. As Powe snapped an outlet pass, Garnett mimicked the motion, then sprinted up his slim sliver of sideline real estate as Powe filled the lane on the break. The players were mirror images: one on the court with a full complement of teammates, the other out of bounds, alone. Two men engaged in a bizarre basketball tango.

“KG,” Rivers barked, “if you keep doing this, I’m canceling practice for the whole team. That will hurt us.”

Garnett’s reverence for coaches was legendary, but still he turned his back on Rivers. He returned to his defensive stance, an isotope of intensity, crouched, palms outstretched, in complete concert with Powe. He was, in fact, becoming so adept at this warped dalliance he’d invented, he actually began to anticipate Powe’s movements, denying the entry pass to his invisible opponent before Powe thought of it.

Finally, an exasperated Rivers blew the whistle. “Go home,” Rivers instructed his team. Then he glared at Garnett. “I hope you’re happy.”

Garnett was far from happy. He was, at best, resolute. He’d told his teammates countless times that there was no such thing as a day off. Why couldn’t Doc understand that the most effective way for him to lead was to show his teammates how it’s done? “Let’s work!” he screamed to his departing teammates, pounding his chest. “Let’s work!”

Powe and the others wandered off, mystified.

“‘What is he doing?’ That’s what we were saying,” Powe recalls today. “And at that point you start wondering, Is KG maybe a little crazy after all?

WITH AS MUCH as we talk about “mentors” in sports, it’s arguable whether they even exist. The notion that veteran stars might willingly groom younger players to supplant them is naive at best, misguided at worst. Witness Carmelo Anthony welcoming a young Jeremy Lin into the Knicks’ rotation, or Kobe Bryant’s struggle to confront his own mortality while ostensibly shepherding D’Angelo Russell, or whatever it is that Michael Jordan did with (or to) Kwame Brown.

Rivers knows how rare true mentorship can be. “You have to get ones who are ready to let go of who they were and be what you need them to be now,” he says. So it is that Minnesota’s decision to entrust No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns to the tutelage of Kevin Garnett is, to put it mildly, a compelling and sizable gamble.

When the Wolves acquired Garnett this past February, before Towns had been drafted, they took on a 38-year-old with a $12 million salary and a history of knee problems. Flip Saunders was the driving force behind the decision to bring KG into the fold, citing Garnett’s ability to flourish as a rookie under the watchful eye of former teammate Sam Mitchell, who is now the Timberwolves’ interim coach. The idea was to pay that experience forward.

Garnett, who signed a new two-year, $16.5 million guaranteed deal after he arrived, is the first to concede that his value is no longer to produce on the court. The Wolves are banking on his intangibles: the work ethic, the experience, the ability to motivate. Garnett, for his part, says Towns reminds him much of himself at the same age. “His confidence might be a little higher than mine was at this point,” he says. “It’s modern day. Kids are exposed to so much more. Karl listens. He’s smart, but like so many young players, he likes to think he knows a lot. He’s got a lot of swag. So that’s what’s up. We’ll deal.”

Former teammate Chauncey Billups maintains that Garnett is the most unselfish superstar of his era and the most dynamic leader he has seen. Then again, if Towns is devoured by KG’s fire, he wouldn’t be the first. A partial list of ex-teammates who have endured the wrath of the Big Ticket includes Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Mason Plumlee, Ray Allen, Wally Szczerbiak, Rajon Rondo, Rasho Nesterovic, Patrick O’Bryant and Deron Williams. Some have survived to be welcomed into Garnett’s inner circle; others are forever dead to him. “If you don’t meet his expectations,” says Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, “he has no use for you.”

Rivers, whose eyes still water when he attempts to articulate what Garnett has meant to him, says that before he coached him, he considered Garnett’s ferocity to be contrived. Then he watched Big Baby Davis and the Celtics’ subs nearly blow a 25-point lead against the Trail Blazers on Dec. 5, 2008, their third game in five nights.

During a timeout with 6:04 remaining, with Boston’s lead whittled to 13, Rivers watched Garnett, mid-diatribe, grab Davis, who was standing with hands on his hips, head down, several feet from the huddle. He listened as Garnett undressed Davis and the reserves for blowing what should have been an insurmountable advantage, forcing the starters to return to the game. Afterward, Davis, then in his second year, retreated to the end of the bench, snapped his towel onto the floor and wept.

“You can’t teach the beast. It’s either in you or it isn’t. You can’t just go to the store and buy a six-pack of beast. It don’t work like that.”

Kevin Garnett

Nobody — not even Allen and Paul Pierce — were immune from KG’s outbursts. And although Garnett counts Rondo, whom he played with for six seasons in Boston, among his closest friends, he didn’t hesitate to boot the point guard from practice if he felt Rondo was going through the motions. According to Rivers, that happened more than once. “He’d tell Rondo, ‘Get the f— out! You’re not playing defense!'” Rivers says. “He told him the truth. Rondo needed more of that.”

That intensity followed him to the arena, where Garnett systematically ratcheted himself into a force to be reckoned with, both by the opposition and his teammates. “When Kevin came through those doors on game day, he was angry,” says Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who played with Garnett for three seasons. “We couldn’t laugh, talk, listen to music. We’d all hide in the training room or the bathroom — wherever KG wasn’t.”

Billups, who teamed with Garnett in Minnesota from 2000 to ’02, says one of his most vivid memories of Garnett is from a Timberwolves shootaround in which Saunders tried to familiarize the team with its next opponent. The coach attempted to run through that team’s offensive sets for the starters but was thwarted by Garnett, who refused to stop denying his player the ball during the walk-through. “I warned KG,” Billups says. “I told him, ‘You keep yelling this s— at people and someone is going to come back at you.'”

That guy, Billups says, was former Wolves teammate Wally Szczerbiak. “I got along with Wally just fine, but he was kind of a know-it-all,” Billups says. “I took his arrogance to be a positive all players gotta have, but KG took it a different way. It was KG’s team, his voice, his show, his everything. Anyone who differed was going to be an outcast.”

The tension boiled over during a November 2000 practice, when Szczerbiak reportedly got picked off and chided Garnett to call out the screens. KG responded curtly, “Play some defense,” the pickoff seemingly a consequence for whatever expectation Szczerbiak wasn’t meeting defensively. Szczerbiak took exception. It accelerated into a shouting match, which spilled into the training room. Punches were thrown. Ask Szczerbiak about it today and he says he was simply a young player trying to stick up for himself. “I felt like I had some leadership qualities,” he says. “I’m not a guy who will take a back seat all the time, and in certain scenarios I’m going to speak up for what’s right. At times it definitely got me in trouble.”

Worth noting: the fact that Szczerbiak and Garnett played six-plus seasons together and were teammates in the 2002 All-Star Game. “We figured it out,” Szczerbiak says.

Others weren’t so lucky.

Consider former Celtic Patrick O’Bryant, the ninth pick in the 2006 draft. Early in the 2008-09 season, O’Bryant was putting in some post work with Celtics assistant coach Clifford Ray after practice when Garnett summoned him to the other end of the floor. KG wanted to light a fire under the young center, who he felt was too placid. Garnett immediately began berating O’Bryant, criticizing him mercilessly. When O’Bryant didn’t react, KG pushed harder. Still nothing. Garnett walked off the court in disgust.

“You know how he is,” O’Bryant says. “He was yelling and screaming, trying to get me to scream back, but that’s not who I am. I don’t need to yell at someone all the way down the court after I dunk. Just because I didn’t have a mean look on my face didn’t mean I wasn’t listening.”

From that day forward, those close to the team say, Garnett would go out of his way to bully O’Bryant. Normally a pass-first player, KG would take the ball forcefully to the hole if O’Bryant was guarding him in practice. He subjected him to a nonstop stream of insults to break him. “Patrick would miss a shot, and he’d just torture him,” Powe says. “Kevin wasn’t going to forgive him. He’d talk crazy to him. We told Patrick, ‘Don’t let him get under your skin,’ but it was too late.” Twenty-six games into his Celtics career, on Feb. 19, 2009, Boston traded O’Bryant, who today maintains he learned a lot from Garnett and doesn’t remember being bullied, to Toronto for a 2014 second-round pick. He would play just 24 more games in his NBA career.

“Kevin destroyed him,” Rivers says. “It was mean-spirited.”

“Just because someone doesn’t play with the same fire as KG, it doesn’t mean they’re soft,” Billups says. “It also doesn’t mean they don’t care, but in KG’s raving, crazy mind, that’s how he sees it. If he sees something one time, that’s what he believes in, no matter what. That’s not always great for a leader, I admit that, but that’s who he is.”

It was for that reason, Ainge says, that he was careful which young players he entrusted to Garnett — and why Minnesota’s plan might be less than foolproof. Sometimes a player came in, Ainge says, “and it was a little scary to have KG around him. His work ethic was unquestioned, but he could be intimidating — and destructive — if the player didn’t respond in the right way.”

“I always say, ‘I’m not stepping on someone who doesn’t want to be stepped on,'” Garnett says. “Because this is a no-nonsense league. If you’re not in it, and I mean in it today, then they will replace you tomorrow.”

FOURTEEN GAMES INTO the career of Karl-Anthony Towns, it was clear: He is the future of the Timberwolves. The ex-Kentucky Wildcat had demonstrated the requisite skills of the prototypical modern big man: a two-way, mobile 7-footer with post skills, range that extends to the perimeter and shot-blocking ability. The Wolves were a better-than-expected 6-8 through those first 14 games, and Towns was averaging 15.3 points and 9.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting. The only rookie to eclipse those numbers over the past 30 years? David Robinson.

It’s a good thing too. Minnesota’s 2015-16 roster is a confluence of veterans who seem a tad too old (with 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince and 39-year-old Andre Miller joining KG) and a nucleus of Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, who appear a speck too young. Garnett, now 39 and in his 21st season, had returned to the franchise that drafted him in June 1995, five months before Towns was born.

Injuries limited Garnett to just 98 minutes in a Minnesota uniform last season, but the Timberwolves produced an eye-popping 93.8 defensive rating when he was on the floor. This year’s blueprint called for more of the same — for Garnett to spawn a defensive culture in a starting role alongside Towns, Wiggins and Rubio. And through those first 14 games, the results were encouraging. Minnesota’s defensive rating with Garnett on the floor was a sterling 94.8. Off the floor? A less-so 102.7.

In July, KG showed up in Las Vegas to watch the young pups in the NBA’s summer league and agreed to participate in an informal workout with Wiggins, small forward Shabazz Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng, each of whom wasn’t on the summer league roster. The players secured a gym, a bus and an 8 a.m. start time. But when the trio arrived at Bishop Gorman High, Muhammad’s alma mater, Garnett was already there, drenched in sweat, muttering to the basketball, bobbing and weaving like a championship fighter. He’d been there, according to Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, since 6 a.m.

“I thought y’all wanted to be good!” KG scolded his teammates as they filed in.

General manager Milt Newton says Garnett has created a positive tension, including for Wiggins, whose main drawback in his 2014-15 Rookie of the Year campaign was fluctuating aggression. When KG is around, Newton says, “there’s this anticipation of, ‘Are you going to get on me?'”

“As soon as he steps into the building,” Wiggins says, “everyone feels they have to play at a higher level.” For his part, Towns, from the first moment of training camp, has gleefully affixed himself to Garnett. He has delighted in sprinting the floor — full tilt — in tandem with him. Together they call out picks, swat balls into the stands and raucously celebrate breakaway jams. “Everything with Karl is high-flying, two-handed dunks and windmills,” Garnett says. “He’s hanging on the rim, swinging in the air, and I love it.”

Garnett says he likes the kid’s two-way potential, his agility as a rebounder, his passing vision, his deft touch, his big hands — and, most of all, his motor. “You can’t teach the beast,” Garnett says. “It’s either in you or it isn’t. You can’t just go to the store and buy a six-pack of beast. It don’t work like that.”

Towns, who turned 20 on Nov. 15, says he is aware that he needs to expand his range, that he’s susceptible to foul trouble — Garnett has already blistered him for biting on pump fakes and forgetting to make contact before boxing out. Garnett has also taught him how to maneuver the ball to a position that will bait the defender. He’s shown him how to use the opponent’s momentum to his advantage when setting a screen. “All the little things that can change me from a five-point to a 25-point scorer,” Towns says.

“I’m the OG, the original gangster,” Garnett explains. “Like when you go into the neighborhood and they see you and say, ‘There’s the OG.’ It’s a sign of respect, you know? The old guard. The old generation. These guys are the YG. It’s their league now. I don’t mind being the OG. It’s what I am. I’m starting to see my purpose. Every day, it’s clearer and clearer to me.”

WHEN MINNESOTA’S TRAINING camp began in September, Towns was so intent on matching Garnett’s output that by the third afternoon he could barely lift his arms. Prince pulled the rookie aside and advised him to stop trying to be KG. “You’ll kill yourself,” Prince said.

No one, Billups says, can be Kevin Garnett. Because no one is nearly that deranged.

The lunacy extends as far back as Garnett’s days at Farragut Academy in Chicago, when, an ex-teammate says, players often found him talking to the backboard.

And although Towns does not, in fact, chatter with inanimate objects, he does, like Garnett, talk to himself — and his enthusiasm and his willingness to work have endeared him to his teammates and his coaches.

“I had to pull him aside and teach him how to pick the times you explode,” Garnett says. “For example, when he runs back on defense, he’s yelling for no reason, expending unnecessary energy. By day four he’s got nothing. He’s gassed.”

The concept of KG advising anyone to conserve energy is, of course, hilarious to his basketball brothers, who for two decades have witnessed him springing up to swat away shots long after the whistle blows. Garnett lathers himself into such a volatile pregame state that Rivers refused to call the first play of the game for him because the shot was likely to shatter the backboard. Billups says KG is so invested at game time, sometimes he cries on the court. “They aren’t tears of fear or joy,” Billups explains. “They are tears of intensity.”

“I tell them there is only one thing that can mess this up: egos. I tell them because I lived it. Because that’s what messed us up with Steph.”

Kevin Garnett

Taylor, the Timberwolves’ owner, is on his second tour with KG. He knows the pairing of Towns and KG will wax and wane. “Karl is very vocal and very sure of himself, but he’s going to have tough times,” Taylor says. “Everyone’s tripping right now. Karl is happy and Kevin thinks a lot of him, but they are so competitive, they’re bound to disagree on something.”

In other words: Grizzled vets nurturing green kids is a nice storyline, but what happens when these young Timberwolves inevitably falter?

“Don’t know,” Garnett says. “We’ll see.”

ASK TOWNS WHAT he thirsts to learn most from Garnett — the man he’s coined his Jedi Master — and he says it’s what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the basketball world. The story Garnett prefers to share is one of bitter disappointment. It revolves around his early years in Minnesota, when he and point guard Stephon Marbury seemed poised to become the next John Stockton and Karl Malone. Instead, after just two seasons together, they wound up being the worst version of Kobe and Shaq.

At first, KG and Marbury became fast friends, inseparable, soaking in the adulation of a city hungry for success — a two-man team, both on and off the floor, dual faces of a growing franchise. The force behind their undoing was the same force that ruined the Lakers in the early 2000s. It’s what the Spurs, for two decades, have guarded against. Their undoing, Garnett says, was ego.

In 1997, Garnett signed a historic $126 million contract, which helped lead to an NBA lockout and restrictions on player salaries the following season. When it became Marbury’s turn for a new deal, he was limited to a $71 million payday. Marbury’s camp viewed it as an injustice, one Marbury couldn’t reconcile. At one point, VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale summoned Garnett, Marbury and forward Tom Gugliotta to his office to talk about sacrifice and sharing the ball and submerging egos. KG nodded emphatically, but the message, says former Wolves point guard Terry Porter, might have been lost on Marbury.

“There’s nothing Kevin could have done to change it,” Gugliotta says. “If you ask Steph, I’m sure he’s the one kicking himself a bit. No matter what Steph did — he could score 25, 30 points — he still wasn’t going to be the best player on our team. That was KG.” In March of 1999, just two-plus seasons into his Wolves career, Marbury, who had just turned 22 — Garnett would turn 23 that May — forced a trade to New Jersey.

Marbury would play for four NBA teams over the next decade with limited success on each, before retreating to China for the next stage of his career. (Now playing for the Beijing Ducks, he couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.) For the next eight seasons, with the exception of a Western Conference finals appearance in 2004, Garnett would flounder in Minnesota.

“Kevin didn’t mind at all deferring to Stephon or Googs late in the game,” Porter says. “He just wanted to win, to create a great environment. It scarred him for a long time, how that all played out.”

Says Garnett: “I’m very real with these guys now. I tell them straight up how it is. I tell them there is only one thing that can mess this up: egos. I tell them because I lived it. Because that’s what messed us up with Steph.”

GARNETT’S SELF-DESCRIBED fairy-tale ending in Minnesota was rooted in his reunion with Flip Saunders, his longtime NBA coach and trusted friend. It was Flip who coaxed him back to the Timberwolves and helped smooth over lingering tensions between Garnett and Taylor over KG’s initial departure from the team.

After the Wolves acquired Garnett last season, Saunders had numerous conversations with Garnett about his role as a leader and how that could be accomplished from the sideline. Then, in June, Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and was forced to take a leave of absence. As his condition grew more dire, Garnett says he made a point of gathering his Timberwolves teammates each day before practice to pay homage to the architect of this dream.

When the team learned of Saunders’ death during practice on Oct. 25, just three days before the start of the regular season, Garnett immediately beelined to the team’s parking lot in downtown Minneapolis. Later that night he’d post a photo of himself sitting there, in the dark and alone, facing Saunders’ nameplate. The tagline read: “Forever in my heart …”

If the void that Saunders left is palpable for Garnett, he says he fully endorses Mitchell, the team’s interim coach; Garnett says he can only hope to be half the mentor to Towns that Mitchell was to him. “Sam taught me how to channel my energy and to be professional and how to always be in love with my craft,” KG says. “You have to love it if it’s gonna work.”

Garnett won’t predict how his team will fare. It is, he says, a work in progress. But so is he, in a role that could well define his post-NBA career. “I like these kids,” Garnett says. “I’m going to enjoy watching them grow up.”

IT IS A late afternoon in November, and the Timberwolves’ workout has long since ended, but two solitary figures occupy the basket at the far end of the team’s practice facility. They are KG and KAT, as Towns is now affectionately called.

They linger most days after practice, because there is still so much to be done, so much to learn. One day the focus is on honing the prized elbow jumper; Garnett implores the rookie to take hundreds — no, thousands — of shots until it becomes second nature. The next day, it’s pump fakes and misdirections that will provide Towns with a straight line to the basket. There are countless drills for footwork, including one Garnett invented that requires players to maneuver around shoes pointed at various angles to mimic the opponent’s defensive position. “Attack the feet!” KG bellows, the line between mentor and coach graying by the instruction. “Attack the feet!” When Newton peeks in on these post-practice tutorials, he smiles. “School’s in session,” he says.

Sometimes the other players hang around, watching Towns perfect a drop-step that will emerge in the next scrimmage. “Whatever KG tells me to do,” Towns says, “I’m going to do it.”

Kevin Garnett’s time as an NBA superstar is all but over. He says he’s finally content with that. After 39 years, he might well have discovered a way to channel his knowledge and white-hot ferocity — here, in the gym, his boundless energy matched only by a 20-year-old phenom mirroring his every move.

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