Larger Than Life: Kevin Garnett’s oversized mark on the NBA

They’re a Who’s Who of Screw You, the many objects of Kevin Garnett’s scorn. Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon and Tim Duncan all famously felt the bite of his trash talk, and Joakim Noah very nearly felt the bite of his incisors. No one escaped Garnett’s withering gaze, not even teammates—who can forget the time, in 2008, when KG nearly made Glen (Big Baby) Davis weep during a Celtics timeout?

Garnett, the Timberwolves’ forward who announced his retirement last week after 21 NBA seasons, was larger than life, except in game programs. He was 7′ 1″ in sneakers but insisted on being listed as 6’11”. In conversation, he liked to say he was 6’13”. This wasn’t done out of Minnesota modesty, though Minneapolis did build a skyscraper, the former First Bank Place, to be a few feet shorter than its tallest extant building, the IDS Tower, so as not to eclipse it.

On the contrary, Garnett was all about eclipsing things: NBA records, opponents and their bank accounts. No one in two decades had gone straight to the NBA from high school before the Kid did so in 1995. No one in league history made more money than Big Ticket. No one talked more trash than KG. (And no one had more nicknames.) Most significantly, no one ever played longer than Garnett, who signed with the Timberwolves on Oct. 2, 1995, the day before O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder. Last week he retired at age 40, having played against Magic Johnson and with Karl-Anthony Towns, who was not yet born when Garnett made his NBA debut.

He was by many measures the most influential player in the geological epoch between Michael Jordan and LeBron James, covering those eras in a cloud of chalk, which he clapped in homage to Jordan. Garnett’s was the Plastercene era, for he was 6’13” of modeling clay, seemingly elastic in his wingspan and leaping ability, and so pigheaded he insisted on blocking shots taken after the whistle.

That’s why he wanted to be 6’11”, so as not to be labeled a lumbering leviathan, a stationary 7-footer. Garnett more or less invented his position, facing the basket, capable of guarding anyone, running the floor, moving the ball, playing both ends, winning an MVP (in 2003–04) and a Defensive Player of the Year award (in 2007–08). It is a straight line from Kevin Garnett to Kevin Durant, from KG to KD.

For these remarkable services, Garnett earned a considerable fortune. When he turned down a $103.5 million offer by the Timberwolves before his third season, in ’97, and then signed for $126 million over six years, he became the highest-paid athlete in any team sport, but also endured the vitriol of fans and media. Waiters told newspapers he was a poor tipper.

Nearly 20 years later he has long since won over most everyone in Minnesota, where he is perhaps best remembered for crossing up Sacramento’s Chris Webber while winning Game 7 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals, asserting his will with 32 points, 21 rebounds and five blocks. He played with joy and rage, howling like a wolf and hissing like a cobra, a self—declared “alpha dog” who shed tears himself.

When Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma last fall, after bringing KG back to Minneapolis from an uneasy exile in Brooklyn, Garnett sat forlornly in Saunders’s empty Target Center parking space. It was easy to misread his South Carolina hometown of Mauldin as Maudlin, except that Garnett—in year after year of futility in Minnesota—was never self-pitying, always insisting on accountability from himself and his teammates.

It wasn’t until he was traded from the T-Wolves to the Celtics in July 2007 that Garnett finally had the teammates he deserved. He never carried Minnesota beyond the Western Conference finals, but in Boston, KG immediately won his only title, playing with fellow future Hall of Famers Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, who announced his own retirement on Monday, pending one more season with the Clippers. Garnett’s one ring may not have been enough for a man who has earned a record $334 million, but that championship seemed to count for more, restoring as it did the Celtics to their rightful place in the basketball firmament.

Superlatives accrued with longevity. Garnett is the only player in NBA history with 25,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals and 1,500 blocks. It is the ultimate eclipse, shaming the triple double. Call it a quintuple quintuple/quadruple.

I first met Garnett on Nov. 1, 1997, exactly one month after he signed his monster deal. “Smile, people, it’s another beautiful night in Minnesota!” he shouted in the locker room after a win over Charlotte. “It’s not even snowing yet!” Told that it was, in fact, snowing, Garnett pulled a long face. After 21 winters in northern climes, he will sensibly retire to his home in Malibu, to an endless string of beautiful nights. And so one more superlative awaits: No athlete has ever ridden off into a more spectacular sunset.

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