The $126 million man

What did it take for Kevin Garnett to become the young darling of the NBA? Arms and legs that go on for days and standards that are very, very high.

Topics: Basketball,

The $126 million man

Kevin Garnett has an old face. Not that at 23 he looks 30, but old, like Egyptian old. It’s the kind of face you’d see in a Pharaoh’s tomb; head shaved smooth, high cheek bones, prominent nose and wide-set almandine eyes — vivid as lamps against his dark brown skin. When he smiles and those lamps light up, you get a sense of the big fun involved in being the young darling of professional sports: the fine body, the great moves, the clothes, the cars, the casual abundance of diamonds.

But when he is not smiling (and this can last for days) — when he is tired after a game (dead tired after losing), tired of answering questions, tired, just a bit, of the continuous multi-tasking that is just being Kevin Garnett — then his eyes go soft, his mouth seems to vanish altogether and his nearly 7-foot frame finally allows him the distance he needs from the world. Then it’s his turn to watch and question. And if that old Pharaoh’s face tells you one thing, Dog, it’s that his standards are very, very high.

They have to be. In 1995, one month after turning 19, Garnett agreed to play pro basketball without having gone to college. He was the first player in 20 years to do so. At 22, he signed (with his team, the Minnesota Timberwolves) the biggest sports contract in history: six years for $126 million.

The contract gave team owners nosebleeds. It also quickly precipitated last season’s lockout and a new labor agreement that mainly guaranteed that, for decades to come, no one will get as rich playing basketball as has Kevin Garnett. Happily, in the two half-seasons since competition resumed, Garnett has impressed anyone who’s paid attention; neutralizing the slightest trace of criticism for not performing to the breathtaking dimensions of his paycheck. “He is,” team owner Glen Taylor said at the start of this season, “worth every penny.”

Still, both deals galled more than a few observers. Having Garnett forsake college for the pros was regarded as both mercenary and potentially tragic for the young player. Three years later, when Garnett turned down his team’s first offer of $103 million, the highest ever made to a professional athlete, general concern vanished. Garnett was regarded as the quintessential arrogant player — Exhibit A on how big money ruined professional sports.



When he was drafted, the Timberwolves were the doormat of the NBA. Since their founding in 1989, they had had a history of wasted talent, missed opportunities and woeful play. Not only had Garnett joined the worst team in the league, but also one that was completely off the sports media map. The Wolves had neither star players nor nationally televised games. And Garnett, the third-youngest player ever to start in an NBA game, brought excitement almost immediately. Two years after signing, at 21, he appeared in his first All-Star Game and helped guide his team to its first post-season appearance. The national cameras began coming around.

This season began unevenly. During a promotional kickoff tour in Japan, the Wolves split two games in Tokyo with the Sacramento Kings. Still jet-lagged for their home opener, they scored a spectacular come-from-behind win over the New York Knicks, which was keyed by Garnett’s steadfast refusal to give up the game. Then the wheels came off the car. The team lost eight games in a row, including a humiliating home loss to the lowly Golden State Warriors.

And then, finally, everything clicked. Even after consecutive losses Wednesday and Thursday, the Timberwolves have gone 20-7 in the seven weeks since. Garnett earned player-of-the-month honors for January and is headed for his second All-Star Game start on Sunday. Despite their loss to the Lakers Wednesday (a game in which Garnett played spectacularly well) and to the Suns Thursday (in which he did not), the overachieving Wolves are one of the hottest teams in basketball.

Garnett is also one of the better-recognized men on the planet, a tribute not only to his skills on the court but his demonstrated telegenic qualities. His “Fun Police” commercials for Nike (including the memorable spot in which a trench-coated Garnett gives a teammate the third degree for playing with bland facial expressions) may be the most popular the company’s run.

In one Nike ad last summer, Garnett and soccer player Brandi Chastain (famous for whipping off her jersey to celebrate her Women’s World Cup-winning goal) play a game of foosball. After Chasten scores a point and throws up her arms in triumph, Garnett and two buddies look on raptly as she, alas, stays dressed. “So,” goes Garnett’s voice-over as the famous logo appears on-screen, “what’s the deal with the shirt?”

Not so very long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a major corporation to run a commercial depicting three black men waiting confidently for a young white woman to disrobe. And it’s still doubtful that this is the beginning of a trend toward interracial openness in the broadcast media. Something unique about Garnett made the spot work, a combination of his youth, obvious self-confidence and expressive features. With his graceful ability to balance joshing and seriousness, desire and cool all at the same time, Garnett might be the first athlete whose on-camera chops are on par with his game.

Garnett grew up in a devout Jehovah’s Witness household in Mauldin, S.C., a middle-class bedroom community outside of Greenville. From the start, his mother, Shirley Irby, knew her second child was special. “It took me 26 hours to deliver him,” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He was so long. Twenty-three inches.”

Garnett, in fact, is Irby’s maiden name. Though his father paid child support, Garnett had little contact with him growing up. He was emotionally removed from his stepfather as well. By all accounts, even before he started growing, basketball was his means of escape. “Me and my stepfather didn’t get along,” he told the Star Tribune, “I’d say, ‘Why don’t you put a goal [hoop] up?’ He’d say, ‘You don’t need no goal.’ My mom was easily influenced. After a while, I just had to be disobedient.”

Garnett grew up, he says, “buck wild.” By age 14 he had developed his long arms and legs, as well as a flair for getting along with people and a fondness for work. He earned money bagging groceries and cleaning restaurant bathrooms. He spent long days every summer playing ball in the park against bigger opponents; getting exponentially better and growing so fast his bones ached. His idols were Magic Johnson, Malik Sealey (a star player at St. John’s University at the time) and, of course, Michael Jordan.

When Garnett entered Mauldin High School he was 6-foot-7. In an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, his coach, James Fisher, recalled noting more than just his height, however. “I knew he was gifted the first time I saw him on the court.” Good hands, good footwork, stuff no one can teach. “God-given.” Fisher, who’d played freshman ball at North Carolina, sent out the word and worked the kid hard.

“I’d bust him at basketball practice, I mean really bust him. And then he’d go to the park and play basketball there. He’d leave one practice and go practice again. I never saw someone so obsessed.”

By Garnett’s sophomore season, far-flung scouts were showing up for games. Even in high school, where someone Garnett’s size is likely to develop in the center position, he demonstrated eye-popping all-around skills.

When the school season ended, Garnett continued to play basketball in the state’s Amateur Athletic Union and at Nike summer camps in Indiana, Oregon and Illinois. Fisher was confident Mauldin could win the state championship in Garnett’s senior year.

But late into junior year, reality intervened. Garnett was involved at school in what has been variously described as a racial incident or hazing gone wrong. The exact details are a mystery to this day. (He refused to discuss it with even his closest friends.) A white student had a broken ankle and Garnett and four other black students were arrested in connection with it. They were handcuffed and hauled away in squad cars to Greenville for arraignment on charges of second-degree lynching (a standard assault citation in South Carolina). Bail was set at $10,000. The story made big news. Friends say Garnett was terrified.

Though the boys were released through a program for first-time offenders, Garnett faced expulsion from school. Irby had seen enough. Leaving her husband (they have since divorced), she moved Garnett and his younger sister to the West Side of Chicago. Her son was enrolled at Farragut Academy, a tough city high school with an overwhelmingly Hispanic student body. Farragut’s predominantly black basketball team was coached by William Nelson, who had first met Garnett at a Nike camp two summers earlier.

High school sports are big news in Chicago, and Garnett’s enrollment at Farragut provided additional grist for the mill. It was rumored that Garnett had been recruited out of camp, that Nelson had accepted money from Nike and that Farragut was a basketball “factory.”

Nelson hotly denied the charges. As he told the Pioneer Press a year later, “I don’t have a state title, a section title. There are other high schools in Chicago that are national powerhouses.” As for accepting money: “Why am I still driving in this beat-up-ass car?”

Some also alleged that Nike had paid for the family’s move and provided living expenses for a year. These rumors seem less credible now that it’s known that Irby worked two jobs to make ends meet.

The family shared a one-bedroom apartment in the same concrete tower block near Farragut as Nelson. Everything was harder in Chicago, including the walk from school. Garnett told a writer: “You could have 15 Mexicans chasing you, throwing rocks, throwing bottles. The leader of the crew, they call him Seven-Gun Marcello. I’d say, ‘Marcello, man, tell ‘em to chill out. I’m walking my crew home.’ Pretty soon, there’d be a crowd of people waitin’ on me to walk (with them).”

After Farragut won the city championship that spring, the 6-foot-11 Garnett probably saw more scouts than birds. Then fate intervened again. His ACT scores were too low for NCAA eligibility. (The current college system is so venal it’s hard to believe that there are minimum academic requirements for athletes. There are.) Any college he entered would not be allowed to play him on its team. Garnett declined to retake the exam and committed instead to the NBA draft.

Kevin McHale and “Flip” Saunders came down from Minneapolis to take a look. The two were friends from their days as teammates for the University of Minnesota. Both have been in basketball ever since, though on wildly divergent paths. After graduation, McHale spent 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, and was a key player on their championship ’80s squads. Saunders’ path was far less glamorous. He coached at several colleges before moving to the CBA, the minor professional league.

When McHale retired from playing he took a broadcasting and special coaching position with the Timberwolves. A year later, as the team’s fortunes stagnated, he accepted the job of assistant general manager. The following season, McHale was made VP, Saunders came on as general manager, and the two conspired to rebuild the team.

They first considered using Garnett to sandbag the four teams with first-round draft picks ahead of them. “We were gonna say how much we liked him after we watched him work out,” Saunders says, hoping one of the other teams would take him first, leaving another, putatively better, player for the Wolves to nab. But, after the two saw Garnett drill for five minutes, “I turned to McHale and said, ‘We ain’t tellin’ anybody anything.”

In his first pro season, Garnett seemed to blossom further with each game, guarding small opponents, running the court, blocking shots, inciting the crowd, sending down roaring, jaw-dropping jams while exhibiting a refreshing youthfulness. Once, angry at a call, he threw a wad of chewing gum at the scorer’s table. He came into another game having forgotten he wasn’t wearing a jersey under his warm-up jacket. Mad about missing foul shots, he would pound the ball vigorously several times against his forehead, something he still does occasionally. Minnesota’s quiet, introverted fans — who to this day are reluctant to distract rival players at the free-throw line — fell madly in love. Teammates quickly nicknamed him “Da Kid.”

To imply that Garnett’s accomplishments, as this story has done so far, are single-handed is to slight his work and disrespect the game. Basketball is a team sport, and Garnett’s genius has revealed itself at each level alongside as well as against other excellent players. At Farragut he paired-up with Ronnie Fields, a dazzling 6-3 guard with a 47-inch vertical leap who now plays in the CBA. In Mauldin, it was Eldrick Leamon, a left-handed power forward and Amateur Athletic Union teammate, who died in a traffic accident and was buried with a basketball six years ago.

Garnett still honors Leamon before every game. As the team is introduced in the darkened arena, he sits to the right of an empty chair at the end of the team’s bench. At the center of the cheering crowd, he keeps his elbows on his knees, with his hands clasped and head bowed, remembering, he says, his late friend. “I always envision him sitting right there next to me. That’s why I keep the last seat open,” Garnett told the Star Tribune. “I get into this mode that I can’t even explain because when I get into it, I don’t see anything. I’m in my own little world. The only time I come out of it is when the game is over.”

Standing next to him is Sam Mitchell, a no-nonsense 36-year-old NBA vet, hired to act as a steadying influence on the young man. On Garnett’s right lounges his junior high idol, Malik Sealy, who joined the team last year. And just before the announcer calls Garnett’s name, before every game, coach Saunders comes over and gently pats him on the back.

Saunders took over as coach early in Garnett’s first season to stabilize a bickering, unraveling squad. Traded away were bad boys Isaiah Rider and Christian Laettner. The team picked up the phenomenal young point guard Stephon Marbury, and, with Tom Gugliotta, a fine forward then coming into his own, seemed to have a young dynasty in place.

The bickering didn’t stop, however, and after the lockout, Gugliotta (who was reportedly unhappy about working with Marbury) signed with another team. Marbury, miffed at Garnett’s marquee status, forced a trade soon after. Last year, McHale pulled quick deals for Sealy and Terrell Brandon, one of the game’s elite point guards. With promising young players Joe Smith, Bobby Jackson, Wally Szczerbiak and Radoslav Nesterovic, the team has started all over again.

Through it all, Garnett has kept the faith and his head. In December, after the team lost its eighth game in a row — the longest skid since he joined — in a hard-fought home game against the Lakers, Garnett was asked if it was the hardest time he’d known as a player.

“My first year was tremendously tough.” His voice is deep but soft, with a supple drawl that ignores many consonants and airs out most vowels. “I’m someone who loves-loves-loves to be winning. I always came from the bottom up. Nothin’ was ever given to me. Now I’m tryin’ to get the guys on the same page.” Two nights later, in Dallas, the Wolves’ winning ways began.

But that night, as Garnett dressed slowly in a subdued locker room, McHale brought over an old pal eager to meet him, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, the marvelous Celtics point guard of the 1980 championship team. Garnett stared and blinked at the much smaller man — now acknowledged, like McHale, as one of the 50 greatest players of all time — and then, with the growing joy of a child meeting the genuine Santa Claus, his smile got bigger and bigger. The long pumping handshake would not end. “Man, you the man,” he said laughing and rocking from side to side with bashful pleasure. After the old Celtics left, Garnett finished dressing while speaking softly, in amazement, to himself: “Tiny Archibald, goddamn! That’s a legend, boy.”

It is tempting to say Garnett was lucky ending up in Minnesota, where he has been able to develop a safe distance from media blow holes. The bleak winters there, he says, help him concentrate on his game. Friends from Mauldin live with him. And though he has said he does not trust most people, he is unfailingly courteous to all, going so far as to say “bless you” to reporters who sneeze.

Garnett has fit seamlessly into McHale’s design. The old Boston Celtics virtues of selfless team play, superior passing and sharp shooting are drilled endlessly. Saunders calls Garnett “a sponge” for learning the game. After watching him closely for five years, Sam Mitchell is still mildly astonished: “He doesn’t make the same mistakes over and over. You tell him one time, he gets it.” Says McHale, “The amazing thing is that he’s made really nice strides in all areas of the game. And that’s  that’s a helluva compliment.”

In a competition where accomplishment is bound so closely to endurance, and endurance means little without style, Kevin Garnett is a complete player. More than simply playing, Garnett, one suspects, draws his deepest satisfaction from belonging to a certain perfect family, one united by the truest love and desire; a love of the game and desire to win.

Asked about meeting Archibald, Garnett fairly purrs: “Awww man, who gets to meet legends, really? I mean, these kids stand outside just to meet players who don’t even play sometimes. I get to meet legends.

“Isn’t the NBA great?”

Joe Gioia has been a senior editor at Modern Photography, a contributing editor at American Photo and a Camera columnist for the New York Times.

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