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Either With Him or Against Him
Kevin Garnett Is an Unpredictable Force for the Celtics
By HARVEY ARATON
Published: January 23, 2013
Nobody knows what Kevin Garnett will say or do when Carmelo Anthony steps onto the floor in Boston on Thursday night, when the Knicks and the Celtics meet for the first time since Garnett’s on-court posturing turned Anthony into a backstage vigilante early this month in New York.
Kevin Garnett is “off-the-charts people” if you’re on his team, said Terry Porter, an ex-teammate.
Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony were involved in a dispute during and after an early January game.
That is the point. Garnett is as unpredictable as he is emotional. He is as calculating as he is quick-witted. If that sounds contradictory, Garnett has always come across as a little stranger than the average professional basketball player, and at least that much sharper.
When he announced at a Chicago pizza restaurant in May 1995 his intention to join the N.B.A. right out of high school, he was asked if he had consulted with Moses Malone or Shawn Kemp, who had successfully made the leap without playing in college.
No, Garnett said, he had called Bill Willoughby, who had not lasted long as a pro, to determine what pitfalls to avoid.
When he attended the league’s rookie transition program the following September, he, alone, spoke out when an acting troupe staged a hypothetical situation in which a player would have to decide whether to give money to his own brother because he was in debt to drug dealers.
“He’s a junkie,” Garnett, then 19, said. If he handed over the cash, Garnett added, the brother would “still be a junkie.”
As a rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he invited a couple of friends from his childhood home in Mauldin, S.C., to share an apartment with him, provided they got jobs or went to school.
“It was not the typical entourage thing, and Kevin was never your typical N.B.A. star,” said Flip Saunders, who became Minnesota’s coach during that season and remained there with Garnett for almost a decade. “For him, the team was like a family, and if you’re part of it, there’s nothing he won’t do for you.”
Over the years, Garnett has bought suits for younger teammates, even a car in one case. When his teammate and close friend Malik Sealy was killed in an early-morning crash by a drunken driver on the way home from Garnett’s 24th birthday bash, he paid for the funeral and wrote Sealy’s widow a check in the tens of thousands.
In or out has always been the determining factor in which Garnett — Jekyll or Hyde, tender spirit or trash-talker — a person might see. Ray Allen was a beloved teammate in Boston until he signed with the Heat. Garnett ignored him when the Celtics opened the season in Miami.
“Classic Kevin,” said Terry Porter, who played three seasons with Garnett in Minnesota in the mid-1990s and is now the acting coach of the Timberwolves. “If you play with him, he’s good people, great people, off-the-charts people. Other guys, yeah, he’ll rub them the wrong way.”
Anthony may be another member of the N.B.A. superstar fraternity, a fellow All-Star starter for the Eastern Conference for the annual dunk-and-pony show next month in Houston. But he is a Knick and, more important, the key to defeating the Knicks.
With the Celtics struggling to qualify for a low playoff spot in the East, Porter speculated that Garnett might have already have been envisioning a first-round series, trying to attach figurative puppet strings onto Anthony, the Knicks’ best player, when he incited him. Or, Porter conceded, Garnett might have merely been conniving in the moment.
“Always hard to know with Kevin,” he said, laughing.
While Garnett and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers have denied that Garnett went so far as to comment on Anthony’s wife, Porter said Garnett was old school enough — in the manner of notorious trash-talkers like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird — to believe that nothing was off-limits.
“I just assumed based on Melo’s reaction that maybe Kevin went there,” Porter said. “Because when you see someone go after a guy after the game — and Melo obviously lost it — you have to wonder if he did cross a line.”
Saunders, too, acknowledged that Garnett’s intensity and team loyalty had always been a combustible mix, even in practice with teammates and coaches. But typically with purpose.
“He would try to get guys off their game however he could,” said Saunders, currently an ESPN analyst. “A guy like Tim Duncan would just look at him like he was crazy and laugh. Other guys would get upset. I don’t know what was said with Carmelo, but I do know that Kevin will do what he thinks he needs to do for his team. And if you let him get into you, he’ll just keep going if he thinks it’ll help.”
Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls has called Garnett “mean, ugly, a dirty player,” but regarding his own reputation, Garnett seems to care only about what his teammates and coaches believe. He has made little effort in his career to cultivate close relationships with reporters.
During his years in Minnesota, Saunders said, Garnett frustrated team officials by refusing to let them record and publicize charitable acts for children behind closed doors.
A decade ago, the teenage import Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who had posters of Garnett on his bedroom wall in the Republic of Georgia, was left dazed and confused when the big, bad Timberwolf greeted the rookie in his first N.B.A. game with a profane rant.
“How can you say such thing?” Tskitishvili said afterward. “You are All-Star, and I am just kid.” But when Garnett and the Timberwolves played in Denver weeks later, he invited Tskitishvili’s younger half-brother, George Kipiani, to visit in the locker room.
“I thought he was going to be rude, but it was the opposite,” Kipiani, who plays basketball at Menlo College in California, wrote in a Facebook message. “He was really cool.”
In Saunders’s opinion, Garnett’s unwavering insularity can be attributed to an incident during his junior year of high school. He was arrested in a fight that reflected racial tensions. Garnett insisted that he was not involved and that he was implicated because of his size and celebrity. He relocated from Mauldin to Chicago for his senior season.
“He kind of circled the wagons after that, and that’s how he’s been ever since,” Saunders said.
Within the circle, Porter said, Garnett was one of the guys, no matter how much better a player he was or how much more money he made. In the back of buses and airplanes, the young Garnett would pepper veterans like Porter with questions:
What made Jordan so great beyond his obvious skills? What were Detroit’s title teams of 1989 and 1990 — nicknamed the Bad Boys — like to compete against?
Garnett soon came to believe that the N.B.A.’s greats were separated by attitude, an all-or-nothing mentality that left no room for fraternal niceties outside the core.
“A little bit like Bill Laimbeer, I suppose,” said Porter, referring to the biggest and perhaps most loathsome of the Bad Boys.
Laimbeer was antagonizing to the point that a teammate, Isiah Thomas, once attacked him from behind during practice. Garnett would seem to have no such worries, unless the slumping and fading Celtics should happen to trade any of his teammates — or him — to one of the N.B.A.’s 29 enemy outposts anytime soon.
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