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Kevin Garnett: The Kid who changed the game (and the Timberwolves)

In honor of Kevin Garnett's return to the Minnesota Timberwolves this week, a look back at SI's cover story from 1999 on KG as a rising star.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the May 3, 1999 edition of Sports Illustrated. The cover story was Kevin Garnett's first as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. In honor of his return to the Wolves this week, SI is re-running the feature, titled "Howlin' Wolf." To subscribe, click here.

A knock on a hotel room door at two o'clock in the morning in the first week of May 1995 was the beginning. Eric Fleisher, the sports agent, got out of bed, walked across the floor and looked through the peephole. Who could be here at two o'clock in the morning? Through the tiny opening Fleisher saw the largest kid he'd ever seen in his life.

"Kevin?" he asked.

"Yeah," the largest kid replied.

Fleisher opened the door....

Kevin Garnett entered.

He was 6'11" and a spindly 220 pounds. He had a shaved head. He was accompanied by five other kids, friends from Farragut Academy on Chicago's West Side. They all were dressed in hip-hop style, big clothes hanging from their frames. They filled the hotel room.

KG shoes

Fleisher had been scheduled to meet with Garnett at seven o'clock the previous evening. The kid was seven hours late. It was not a mistake. He hadn't overslept or been delayed or simply forgotten where he was supposed to be. Tardiness was a strategy. The kid wanted to come in "hard." His word. He wanted the upper hand, the surprise, the control. He had figured all this out for himself. He was 18 years old.

"I didn't know this guy," Garnett says now. "He didn't know me. You hear so many things about agents, about people trying to take advantage of you. I'd had a lot of agents calling me, playing these childish games. I'd play games right back on them. I won't let you take advantage of me. I'll kill you before I let you take advantage of me."

The meeting had been arranged by a Chicago high school coach, a friend of Fleisher's. Garnett was arguably the best high school player in the country, a senior at Farragut who had transferred from Mauldin, S.C., for a variety of reasons, one of them a desire for more national recognition. He was living with his younger sister in an apartment, his father not on the scene, his mother back in South Carolina. His goal was to play big-time college basketball, but so far he hadn't scored high enough on the SAT or ACT to be eligible. This had prompted speculation that he would skip college and move directly to the NBA.

Garnett's coach wanted Fleisher, the agent for 18 NBA players, to give the kid some realistic advice. Fleisher's late father, Larry, had been the first head of the National Basketball Players Association. The son had been around basketball all his life. He knew that no player had jumped directly from high school to the NBA in 20 years, not since man-child Darryl Dawkins and journeyman forward Bill (Poodle) Willoughby had. Fleisher was pretty certain that his advice would be for Garnett to go to college, even junior college if he couldn't meet the Division I SAT requirement.

"I'm not signing anything," Garnett said at the beginning of their hotel meeting. "I'm not committing to anything. I don't owe you anything."

"Fine," Fleisher said.

They talked for a long while. Fleisher explained how hard it would be to make the NBA right out of high school, how college might be the best option. Garnett talked about his life in South Carolina, his life in Chicago, his hopes, his dreams. Garnett liked Fleisher's no-nonsense style. Fleisher liked the way the kid expressed himself, the way he thought. They agreed to meet again in two weeks, when Fleisher was back in town.

From the Vault: Remembering Kevin Garnett's first stint in Minnesota

​"I'd never seen him play," Fleisher says. "I knew nothing about him. When I came back, I took him to the Lakeshore Athletic Club, this place where a lot of guys play. I wanted to put him through an NBA kind of workout to see how good he was."

The workout went badly. Fleisher ran the drills that NBA clubs run when they test potential draft choices. The kid was inexperienced, nervous. Frustrated. As he missed shot after shot, as his feet became tangled during the simplest tests, he looked toward another court, where a game was being played by college kids and men. "Look," he finally said, "just let me play in the game."

The kid joined the players on the other court, and the awkwardness disappeared. The shots went in the basket, one after another. The rebounds belonged to only one set of hands. The kid moved around the floor with the agility of someone a foot shorter. He dribbled and defended and picked and rolled. This was the dance he knew. "Ah," Fleisher said. "Yes."

You think about it now, and it's crazy. Four years ago nobody knew if this kid could play. Nobody. He has come from an uncharted nowhere to change the entire NBA, maybe change all of professional sports. A high school kid. He is the highest-paid athlete in any team sport, $126 million over six years. He will be the highest-paid player in the NBA for the foreseeable future, thanks to the new labor agreement, which came out of the lockout that delayed this season for three months and two days.

He was the final reason for the lockout. He signed a contract for so much money that the people in charge scared themselves into action. "Where will all this end?" they asked. They risked the future of the league, shut down operations. Because of him. He is the kid who broke the NBA bank.

Fleisher wanted other people to see what he had seen. He still wasn't convinced that the draft was Garnett's best option. The common guess was that some team at the bottom of the first round, top of the second round, would say, "Oh, hell, let's give the high school kid a shot." Fleisher didn't like that idea.

"If you go that low," he told the kid, "you're better off in college for a year or two. Sometimes picks that low don't even make the team. If you go to the NBA, you want to be a lottery pick."

To gauge the lottery teams' interest, the agent set up a special workout. Helped by the fact that a bunch of general managers, coaches and scouts were in Chicago to attend a predraft NBA camp, Fleisher sent invitations to the 13 teams with the highest picks. He borrowed the University of Illinois-Chicago gym and brought in Detroit Pistons assistant John Hammond to run the drills. Fleisher invented the procedure as he went along. No one ever had done anything like this.

On the day of the workout, a weekday, Garnett followed his normal schedule. He took his sister to school, then took himself to school. He went to his classes, then to basketball practice, then to his SAT cram course. Finally he went to the NBA workout, at about the time he usually took a nap.

"A guy from the neighborhood, Billy T, drove me to the gym in this old, beat-up car, this Huffymobile, whatever it was," Garnett says. "Billy T was all excited. He kept yelling at me that this was my chance, what I'd been waiting for all of my life, that I had to show these guys, that this was how I could climb out of the ghetto. It was all true. I knew it. I was so tired, though, I fell asleep on the way. I was just narked. I woke up and we were at the gym."

The general managers, coaches and scouts were sitting in the bleachers behind one basket. They formed a row of impassive famous faces.Garnett recognized Kevin McHale and Elgin Baylor and "that silver-haired guy who coached Miami before Pat Riley." (That guy would be Kevin Loughery.) There must have been 15, 20 famous people, all gathered to see him. The idea took his breath away. "A few of my boys had snuck in, too, but they were way at the top, keeping quiet so they wouldn't be thrown out," Garnett says. "Those were the only people in the gym."

KG cover

"Do you want to stretch?" Hammond asked. Garnett pulled one foot back to touch his butt. He repeated the process with the other foot. That was all. He was stretched. He felt the same nervousness that he felt before big games.

The workout seemed as confusing as Fleisher's workout had. The drills seemed to be meant for smaller men. Dribble the length of the court with the right hand. Take a jump shot. Dribble back with the left hand. Take another jump shot. Do it again. He'd spent most of his basketball time in the spot reserved for all high school big men, under the basket. Spin left. Spin right. O.K. Dribble? Crossover? Jumper from the key? From the baseline? He felt awkward. He was breathing hard when he finished.

"No one had said a word, not one of those guys from behind the basket," Garnett says. "I was just standing there when one of them—the first voice—said, 'Jump and touch the box [above the basket].' I jumped and touched the box. 'Can he touch the top of the box?' another voice said. I jumped and touched the top of the box. 'Again,' someone said. 'Left hand,' another one said. 'Right hand.' 'Again.' 'Try it with a running start.' Suddenly they all were yelling out things."

Garnett jumped and jumped and jumped some more. Somewhere in the middle of the jumping, he started shouting. Arrrrrrgh. He shouted with every jump. Arrrrrrgh and arrrrrrgh and arrrrrrgh. He jumped and shouted until the requests ended.

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​"When it was done, Kevin McHale came down to the floor and gave me a tip about my jump shot," Garnett says. "I'll always remember that. I thanked him, and then I walked back to the middle of the court while E [Fleisher] said goodbye to everyone. I lay down right in the middle of the court. I fell asleep for two hours. I was so tired." He awoke and his life had changed forever.

"I blew it," he told Fleisher, who had waited quietly in the empty, darkened gym.

"No, you didn't," the agent replied.

"I shouldn't have started shouting like that. They all think I'm a kid. Or uncontrollable. Or something. Why'd I shout? I blew it."

"You did fine," the agent said. "You did great."

He had seen the looks on the famous faces. They were impassive no more.

"We had no idea we were going to take him in the first round," McHale, vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, says. "I didn't even want to go see him. I thought it was a waste of time. Then we went, and Flip Saunders [then Minnesota's general manager] and I were in the car afterward, and we just looked at each other. I said, 'Wow, we're going to pick a high school kid in the first round.' It was that obvious.

"This was our first draft. Flip and I were both new. Our owner was also new. How do you tell him that the first thing he's going to do is sign this high school kid? I think we figured if it went bad, we'd just say, 'Hey, it was our first draft. We didn't know what we were doing.'"

The Timberwolves were a team badly in need of an image. The sixth-year expansion club never had made the playoffs. The excitement of simply being part of the NBA show was long gone. A succession of No. 1 draft choices had landed in the Twin Cities with a thud, from Pooh Richardson to Luc Longley to Christian Laettner to the latest, Donyell Marshall. McHale, the former Boston Celtics All-Star and University of Minnesota legend, had been hired to rebuild the operation.

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Taking the kid was a risk, but taking anyone in the draft is a risk. Michael Jordan wasn't taken until the third pick. McHale and Saunders, who would soon become the Timberwolves' coach, went from being skeptics about Garnett to worrying whether he would still be available when they drafted fifth. "Had everyone seen what we'd seen?" McHale says. "We didn't know. We didn't know what to do. Should we announce right away that we were going to take him? Or should we lie, say we weren't interested, so no one made a trade to draft in front of us? I can't remember what we did. I think we lied."

The draft was held at SkyDome in Toronto. Garnett did not know what McHale was planning, but he knew something good would happen. Interest had picked up the day after his workout: phone calls, visitors, people asking him to take psychological tests and be interviewed. His picture was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with the line READY OR NOT.... Garnett knew he was a hot commodity.

As he sat with family and friends, waiting to discover his fate, he felt overwhelmed. He felt as if he had stepped inside his own imagination. He had watched the draft for so many years on television, tall young men in new suits walking toward their glorious futures to standing ovations. This was where he had always wanted to be. This was where he was.

"Washington took Rasheed Wallace with the fourth pick, and then all of a sudden all these cameras were around me," Garnett says. "All these lights. I didn't know what was happening. Then I heard the announcement, 'With the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select Kevin Garnett.'"

He stood unsteadily, putting on the T-Wolves baseball cap that someone handed him. He accepted kisses, shook hands. He felt the weight of everything he ever had done in his life. He thought about the father he barely knew...about his mother cleaning lavatories, working the third shift as a domestic...about playing basketball on Beachwood Drive in Mauldin...about going across the street with a ball to pick up his best friend, Jaime (Bug) Peters, at six in the morning, ready to start, trying to beat the South Carolina heat...about playing in a neighbor's driveway until the neighbor came out, still half asleep, to stop the noise...about copying moves from Bug's Michael Jordan video, Come Fly with Me, kicking out the legs on the dunk, trying to look like the MJ silhouette on the Nike clothes...about Bug always telling him he was the best, the best on the street, in the neighborhood, the county, the state, the country...about playing against the big kids at Springfield Park...about high school in Mauldin...about high school in Chicago...about practice, practice, more practice...about work...about fate.

KG draft

Garnett noticed Corliss Williamson of Arkansas, Ed O'Bannon of UCLA, good players he had watched on television. They were still sitting, awaiting the call. He was walking past them. How had this happened? He began to pray. "You can see it if you watch a film of the draft," he says. "My head is down, and my lips are moving as I walk. I'm saying a prayer of thanksgiving. Just as I reach 'Amen,' I look up, and I'm standing next to David Stern."

A strange thing had happened at the hotel an hour before Garnett left for SkyDome. The phone rang while his girlfriend, Corliss Strong, was adjusting his tie. The caller was his coach at Farragut, William (Wolf) Nelson. The coach wished the kid well and offered encouragement. Oh, yes, one other thing: Did the kid remember that last SAT test he had taken? Somehow the letter containing the results had fallen to the bottom of a pile on Nelson's desk. He had found the letter while cleaning the day before. Guess what? The combined score was 970.

"You passed," Nelson said.

The kid was stunned by the news.

"Well, it's too late now," he said.

Garnett's transition to the NBA, to Minnesota, to the Timberwolves, was easier than anyone had thought it would be. From the first day he arrived at the Target Center and found J.R. Rider shooting jumpers—"Hey, wassup?" "Wassup with you?"—the pro life was an extension of his earlier life. This was basketball. This was something he knew.

"People will always talk about 'the things you learn in the NBA,'" McHale says. "You know what you learn in the NBA? You learn how to play basketball. That's it. The only other thing I learned in my career with the Celtics was how to follow tall men through airports. You'd get your ticket from the trainer, and you'd follow the other tall men to the gate and get on the plane. It was like a herd of camels moving through the crowd. That was when we took commercial flights. Now we charter. You don't even have to learn how to follow tall men. You just learn basketball. The other stuff...you learn that yourself. You'd have to learn it wherever you went."

The team had considered some options, such as having Garnett live with a family, but he'd already been living on his own with his sister in Chicago. How would this be different? He created his own family, bringing Bug and another kid, Jerome, from South Carolina to live with him. He brought his girlfriend from Chicago. He rented a two-bedroom apartment. He added three dogs. Was that enough of a family? It even had a name, the OBF (Official Block Family), which included all the kids from Beachwood Drive in Mauldin, even the ones still back there.

"My idea is, I shine, you shine," Garnett says. "If I'm doing well and you're with me, you do well. I don't have a lot of friends. I have a lot of acquaintances, but that's different. Friends have been with you forever."

He had a fine mixture of exuberance and common sense. He was off on a basketball adventure. The Timberwolves had extra room on their charter flights, so they sometimes let members of the OBF come along. Garnett went shopping for cars with Fleisher, and Fleisher persuaded him to turn down the beauties of a Mercedes for a more reasonable Lexus. ("That idea lasted until he went to his first practice and saw the other cars in the parking lot," Fleisher says. "What is it with guys in the NBA and cars? That got him thinking Mercedes again in a hurry.") The OBF slid around the Twin Cities in the Lexus in the snow, listening to music, or went home and played video games.

Garnett didn't know much about Minneapolis except Kirby Puckett and Prince and...oh yeah, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Grammy-winning record producers for Janet Jackson and Boyz II Men and all kinds of singers. They were big, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

"One night, we stop in this grocery store," Garnett says, the excitement of the moment in his voice. "We're walking the aisles and there are Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and their wives. We can't believe it. We're like...Jimmy Jam! Terry Lewis! Then Jimmy Jam spots us, and he says, 'Hey, Kevin, how are you?' He puts out his hand. He's a Timberwolves season-ticket holder, which I know already because I've seen him there. He's glad to meet me. He's amped. I can tell. I try to be quiet, polite. I say, 'Uh-huh, Uh-huh.' Then he gives me his card. He says to give him a call. I say, 'Uh-huh.' Then, after he leaves, we're all screaming, 'We met Jimmy Jam! He gave us his card!' Bug wanted to call him right then. I said no, we'd wait three days, until Wednesday, seven o'clock. Then I'd call."