KG settles back into life in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, perhaps this time for good. Why this homecoming is the best move he ever made.
By Andrew Pridgen
Kevin Garnett was a 6-foot-11, 210-pound 18-year-old from the deepest, poorest dead-end gravel road nothing of Greenville, South Carolina—raised in the toe-tagged hood known as Nickeltown—one guess what the white side of the tracks calls it.
Garnett had only played organized basketball for three years before becoming the first player in 20 years to be drafted out of high school into the NBA. Taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995 number 5 overall, his physical attributes were obvious if not underdeveloped. His background non-existent. His mental acuity, questionable. His jersey hung off him like a sundress on a clothesline. He didn’t even bother to speak when spoken to most of the time. He grinned a lot. He looked down a lot.
But there was a glimmer. Everything on him was sharp, pointy. Knees, shoulders, elbows, nose, ears, the crown of his head. His squint could cut through glass like they say a diamond can.
Even so, Garnett wouldn’t last long in the NBA. He wouldn’t last long in life. His father left him when he was an infant. Toward the end of high school, he was arrested for an interracial fight in a parking lot. He was accused with the crime of lynching; of being in a pack of guys beating a kid with rolled up newspapers. He should have ended up in jail serving consecutive sentences for being one of those wrong-place/wrong-time black American boys with potential; one minute sipping a Coke, the next in shackles.
But there he was, plucked from The System’s oblivion by Farragut Career Academy and stationed like a mercenary in Chicago his senior year. He excelled. He was named National High School Player of the Year. He was Most Outstanding Player at the McDonald’s All-American Game. He blocked shots. He scored from inside. He scored from outside. He showcased talents nobody, least of all him, ever knew he had.
He was drafted.
And then he got on the NBA all-rookie second team. And then his expansion team started winning. And then he became MVP. And then he signed The Biggest Contract Ever. And then he got traded. And then he became defensive player of the year. And then he won a title.
The only one from his draft class still peeling off warm-ups, he was voted to 15 All Star games and has scored 25,000 points.
When it was time to call it a career, a good career, a career far beyond anyone’s expectation, least of all his own—he went back to his adopted home.
The man who should be an orange jumpsuit talking head from a forgotten 60 Minutes segment or Matt Taibbi footnote begging for McDonald’s and alimony money like Iverson is still imposing in the lane, though not quite as tall as he seemed in his early days—youth and genetics have caught up.
The man who should have, at best, been the gentle, nimble guy darting through rows of cars at Hertz to pull around your vacation SUV and not linger too long for a tip as he slams the tailgate shut and clasps your entire forearm with his spindly fingers…still brings the sell-out crowds of a 13-win team to its feet.
…And I think I know why: Minnesota.
Garnett returned February 19 to the land of 10,000 lakes as the Miyagi of a too-young, too-talented and too-underachieving squad was no coincidence. He had the fans from moment one. He has them now. A guy who worked hard, reached out with every last millimeter of that unreal wingspan to embrace the community and, in turn, was embraced back.
My thoughts go to another Chicago import, one Anthony Kirby Puckett who led his adopted hometown Twins to a pair of unlikely world championships in 1997 and 1991. During the latter, widely considered the greatest World Series of all time, Puckett did nothing but take away the game-winner from Atlanta jumping over the Hefty bag tarp and hockey plexi-glass of the homer dome fence game 6 and then came back to earth in time to hit the game-ending homer in the 11th.
In his career cut short by glaucoma, Puckett earned six gold gloves and 10 All Star appearances. The youngest of nine born into nothing-minus-one in a Chicago housing project, Puckett was drafted by the Twins in 1982 and saw his name scribbled on the lineup card two years later. He collected four hits in his first major league start and finished with 2,304 in only a dozen seasons.
He barely survived a decade outside of baseball and a stroke felled him at 45.
Puckett’s legacy set in motion life in the Twin Cities for the likes of KG and for someone like Twins outfielder Torii Hunter. Hunter also recently unpacked his Louis V in the Keillor’s bathed in light backyard after a long, strange trip through baseball’s promised lands where the mercury said it was warmer but fans’ reactions were cool. Hunter can convalesce with conscience clear in the prefab confines of Target Field this year. He can pan across the dugout of AAAA prospects and smile—cherishing those final at-bats and teaching of what he knows and where he’s been.
I don’t see the truncated fate of Puckett for either Hunter or KG. They’re different cats entirely, and Minnesota is a different place (it’s now 17 percent minority—yes the rest of the country is 30 percent, but Minnesota is catching up faster than most.) The state’s shade may grow darker but the values don’t change.
While Hunter will most likely retire to special envoy/batting-coach-in-training for the Twins organization, Garnett has made no secret his plans for transition from courtside to the owners’ suite, to, among other things, reunite with coach, mentor and father figure Flip Saunders—now the team’s president.
With more than $300 million in the bank and none of the usual after-market extras that plague the league’s ingenues—minus the token rumored kid sired by a T-wolves song girl and the fact that his daughters party with McConaughey’s kid, Levi—KG’s life post-basketball seems aligned to go, as his career did, surprisingly long and surprisingly well.
As a 19-year-old plucked by fate from the dead-end alley of doubt, KG learned the most important thing a player can early in his career: When you shine in a region and for a fanbase who’s simply glad to see you, glad you’re you—good things can happen. Long-term things happen. Appreciation happens. Success happens. Loyalty happens.
Minnesota happened to Garnett much more than he happened to Minnesota.