The first player I ever created in a basketball video game was named Cowboy Jim, and he played for the Sixers. This was in a simpler time, when games didn’t put rigid caps on how fast a big man could run, on how well a short guy could block shots. So Jim was seven feet tall, had a 100 speed rating, and flew all over the court. He beat his man down the court on the break, he leapt out on switches and still got back in time for weakside blocks. He probably would have shot a Steph Curry-esque percentage from downtown if I had bothered to take those shots. But he was so dominant inside the arc that it hardly seemed necessary.
When I discovered the existence of Kevin Garnett the next year, though, Cowboy Jim seemed redundant.
Raw numbers are often misleading without context, but Garnett is retiring as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks and assists. He leads them in other categories as well, but to lead a franchise in all five of the major box score stats speaks to more than just being a complete player. A complete player checks all the boxes. Garnett blacked them out, then blacked out the entire sheet, then ripped the sheet up and ate it.
The box score, simply put, could not contain all the things that he was. Although players in the upper echelon that Garnett inhabited each have phenomenal individual talents, those talents are so exceptional that we begin to think of them more in terms of their temperament. Kobe and Jordan are cold-blooded, ruthless. LeBron and Duncan are calculating. Shaq is a lovable goofball.
Garnett is a rusty tire iron heated in a furnace until white-hot. In an era where players like LeBron, Durant and Curry seem more focused on letting their play do the talking, where social media means brand awareness, where the role of antagonist falls more on role players like Matt Barnes, it’s conceivable that Garnett will be the last superstar trash-talker. And he went hard.
“If you’re not stepping on,” he told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes in 2014, “then you’re the one being stepped on. The younger generation, I think they look for a lot more approval from their peers and satisfaction and the comments that people make and [from] articles. But when it comes to the game, you don’t need to get anybody’s approval.”
He was, in short, an asshole. But he was – especially to the fans in Minnesota and Boston – our asshole. It’d be easy to dismiss Garnett’s comments as an older generation carping on what’s wrong with the youth of today, but if you look closer, you’ll see he isn’t saying he was tougher. He’s saying in a game that demands the utmost of those who get to play it, you always have to strive to be tougher, to hone your edge. It wasn’t about showing how hard he was out of personal vanity, but for the good of the collective to which he belonged.
“I’m not saying you’ve got to hate a guy,” he continued to Holmes, “but if you do, I understand when you’re between the lines. And ‘hate’ is a very strong word, so I would use the word ‘dislike.’ I get it. To me, that’s alpha. That’s leadership.”
On the court, that leadership was in evidence time and again throughout his career. In Minnesota, he was loyal to the organization – likely to a fault – throwing the team and an entire fanbase on his back over and over. Although at the time there was plenty of blame thrown at Garnett for the Timberwolves’ inability to break through the first round year after year until they finally made the Western Conference Finals in 2004, hindsight shows that responsibility for that futility lies far more with an organization that didn’t understand how to build a proper team around him.
Much of that perspective came courtesy of Garnett’s immediate impact on a woebegone Celtics franchise when he arrived in 2007. He might have been the last piece to fall into place of the Big 3, but he was the most integral to Boston’s eventual championship, knitting the team together as a terrifying defensive force under the banner of ubuntu.
That philosophy’s one-for-all-all-for-one ethos got a lot of media attention in the wake of the Celtics’ 2008 championship – a feel good story about coming together for a greater goal. But there was a lot of sacrifice involved, a lot of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen making room for each other.
“There’s an amazing amount of hurt that goes with that,” coach Doc Rivers said at the time. “The only way you’re going to win is that you’ve got to open yourself up to hurt. You’ve got to open yourself up and go for it.”
Opening himself up was one of Garnett’s greatest and most underrated skills, falling far behind his defensive prowess and his gritty on-court intensity. It was on public display most strikingly in a 2005 interview with John Thompson during the swoon that followed the Wolves’ defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
But his greatest act of opening up, of being that leader who shapes a team, might be his most private. There’s little doubt that on the court, his return to Minnesota toward the end of the 2015 season was less than a success. After coming back to the Wolves from the Brooklyn Nets in return for Thaddeus Young (who was himself acquired for a first round pick), he played just five games that season, then just 38 the next, averaging less than 15 minutes a night. It seemed his return was likely just a prelude to a different role with the organization under the wing of then-coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders. With Saunders’ passing, Garnett’s role with the organization post-retirement is in limbo, but his impact on the team has been unmistakable.
Following the announcement of Garnett’s official retirement last Friday, the Wolves’ new franchise big man, Karl-Anthony Towns, tweeted a simple message: a double ellipsis, six dots. He changed his profile picture to a shot of he and Garnett. Then a few hours later he posted a thoughtful note to Instagram: “Thank you for everything my brother. … I know what I must do. I’ll take it from here.”
Could Garnett come off like a bully? Yes. Did he seem to often pick on the most unworthy opponents? Sometimes. Will his legacy ultimately be a mixed bag of triumphs and disappointments, of heartwarming and cringe-worthy moments, of things we want to remember and things we wish we could forget? Oh for sure.
But all of that – the valorous and the inglorious – is what made and makes him more than a collection of basketball skills and ratings. More than a list of All-Star Game appearances, of All-Defensive team honors, more than his MVP, his championship. More than Cowboy Jim.
We dream basketball. We dream up players who embody basketball perfection and we dream of them leading our teams to victory. Garnett in all his raw potential was one of those dreams. He lived up to that on the court with rare intensity. But he also laid bare a vein: for teammates, for fans, for the next generation. As much as his defensive footwork, his communication on the court, his shooting touch, this was his signature skill.