- Kevin Garnett was the NBA's most revolutionary player since Michael Jordan, changing the league both on and off the court.
Years from now, when basketball fans look back, Kevin Garnett will be remembered as an extremely high-functioning crazy person. This is the correct historical reading. His relentless approach to everything was every bit as ridiculous as his talent. It's what set him apart from everyone else. His stat lines rivaled those of Tim Duncan, but KG's numbers came with chest pounding, trash talk, laughing, dunking, and more trash talk. He was as loud as Duncan was quiet. Nobody who watched this will ever forget it.
After they remember his persona, people will obviously talk about his game. His skills were probably 10 or 15 years ahead of his time, but he was so good that he dominated the 2000s anyway. Imagine Draymond Green, but five inches taller, and better at every phase of the game. That was KG.
I'll remember his commercials. My top five: 5) The Celtics and SportsCenter, 4) Foosball with Brandi Chastain, 3) Carrying the whole world on his back, 2) Interrogating Cherokee Parks with the Fun Police, 1) Tastefully Done.
While we're talking old YouTube videos ... Garnett also gave us the greatest post-championship interview ever, the greatest sideline interview ever, and an interview before Game 7 that made the entire country uncomfortable. It was all part of the experience.
Some athletes mesmerize you with numbers or highlights, but with KG, it was more amazing that he could exist at all. That much height with that much skill... It didn't seem like his skillset should be possible, and there was no way playing that hard could ever be sustainable. But it was. Garnett played 21 years, scored 25,000 points, got his ring, and finished his career where he started, mentoring a superstar who wasn't even born during KG's rookie year.
If he's really retiring now, there's just one more thing to say: Garnett was the most influential NBA player since Michael Jordan. He leaves basketball with the highest career earnings of all time, and historians would have an easier time cataloging the crucial elements of the basketball business KG didn't upend.
Start with the draft. Garnett was the first high school player to enter the NBA in decades, but that's only the beginning. Even after the NBA closed the preps-to-pros door that Garnett opened, his impact remains. Every time an NBA team drafts a spindly teenager who's nowhere near ready to play in the NBA, that's KG. Anytime you hear analysts talking themselves into a 7'1 kid with the rough outlines of perimeter skills and a theoretical place in the paint, again, that's a Big Ticket tribute.
There have been dozens of mysterious lottery picks over the years—from Jonathan Bender to Dragan —that happened basically because teams were terrified of passing on another Kevin Garnett. And for every teenage bust, there have been stories like LeBron, or Carmelo, or Anthony Davis, or Karl-Anthony Towns, all players who changed entire franchises. KG showed the league the power of potential.
Then, the contract. This Sports Illustrated cover speaks to the shockwaves that KG's first Wolves extension sent through the league. He signed for six years and $126 million, a record at the time that ultimately spearheaded the NBA lockout. "I'll kill you before I let you take of advantage of me," he told SI's Leigh Montville at the time in 1999. He was talking about signing an agent in that case, but his negotiating philosophy clearly extended to the Wolves as well.
He's often credited with forcing the NBA to adopt the max contract system, but that's not quite it. The NBA would've pushed for that regardless. It was bigger than a max deal. KG didn't only show teams that potential has value in the draft; he also showed future young players that their potential has superstar value on the open market. It was deeply polarizing at the time. Now, the Pelicans commit $127 million to Anthony Davis and nobody bats an eye.
There was his actual game, too. Everything that "superstar power forward" would come to mean in the modern era—including the ability to play as the lone big man in small lineups—Garnett was doing 15 years ago (The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote about this over the summer). He showed that a big man who could excel in space could be twice as dangerous as one who lived in the post. When future fours followed his lead, it opened up offenses all over the league. The entire sport is played differently thanks in large part to players who grew up watching KG and mimicked his skills.
His defense was so legendary and relentless that it didn't actually revolutionize much—it's hard to replicate Hall of Fame talent—but his combinaition of skills and size was everything. He became a prototype that teams have been chasing for the past 20 years.
And superteams. KG's most recent impact on the league is probably his most notable at this point. The rise of the '08 Celtics established a new blueprint for superstars who'd been stranded in dysfunctional organizations across the league. KG waited longer than most others have—he was in Minnesota 12 years before he left—but still, the success of Ubuntu clearly laid the foundation for everything we've seen since. There were two elements to the shift across the league. One was philosophical—players realized it wasn't a crime to seek out great players as teammates—and the other was practical—those Celtics teams (and eventually the Heat, now the Cavs and Warriors) were so good that other players realized they'd need help to have a shot at competing.
Having said all this, most basketball fans probably won't remember Kevin Garnett for revolutionizing the NBA, partly because he's never played that part in public. Through everything, he's never claimed to care about anything more than destroying people on the basketball court. Plus, as legacy discussions go, it's more fun to remember him screaming his way through the NBA for the past 20 years.
This is fine. LeBron can be the revolutionary everyone celebrates. He's courted that reputation, and he deserves it. But what happened with KG might be more remarkable.
He first considered the NBA out of high school because his college eligibility was in doubt (his SAT scores would've qualified, but he didn't find out until after the draft). He asked for $126 million because the Wolves had no choice but to pay him. He played power forward the way he did only because his freakish frame and skills made it possible, and he was too skinny to spend his whole career banging with Shaq. He went to the Celtics not to spawn a new NBA era, but because he desperately wanted a real chance at a title. It was all the happiest, craziest accident.
LeBron and Jordan have been incredible because they each knew exactly what they were doing as they reshaped the NBA universe. KG was incredible because he remained indifferent to revolutions for his entire career, and he changed everything anyway.
* Editor’s Note: Kevin Garnett announced his retirement from the NBA after 21 seasons on Friday. You can read more about his storied NBA career in the SI Vault and his unbreakable bond with Kendrick Perkins.
Kevin Garnett retired Kevin Garnett's 2015 return to the Minnesota Timberwolves was an effort to rectify a strained relationship. The best player in franchise history had left on complicated terms after a trying, 12-year stay culminated in anger and frustration. Some tellings of his exit point to team owner Glen Taylor's refusal to give Garnett, then 31, the three-year, $60 million extension he had pushed for. “If he wanted $12 million, $12 million and $12 million instead, I would have signed him," Taylor said then.
Garnett received just such an extension from the Celtics after being traded in 2007. At his introductory press conference, Garnett was quick to characterize his ideological rift with Wolves' ownership and management. "The more I continued to talk to Minnesota about the future ... it contradicted how I saw it, or what I thought was best for making the team better," Garnett said. KG may never have wanted to leave Minneapolis in the first place. And while he wanted to stay on his own terms with the full clout of a superstar, it was made clear that he didn't have much interest in playing for the kind of developing outfit the Timberwolves were looking to build. "At this point in my career," Garnett said, "I can't do young."
For years Garnett drew a hard distinction in his Minnesota associations. "It's always special to come back to true fans and sort of your foundation," Garnett said in 2012. "But as far as that franchise, I have nothing positive to say." Every passing season brought more return visits, more questions, and no closure. Then, in 2014, Garnett's resentment began to thaw enough that he publicly considered a return—perhaps as an eventual minority owner.
One specific factor made it all possible. "I have ties there," Garnett said. "Flip's there."
Flip Saunders was the only lasting bridge between Garnett and the Timberwolves. Their bond was strong enough that Saunders convinced the infamous competitor to waive his no-trade clause and return to a team with little chance of winning. It was Saunders who then sold Garnett on returning for two more years and $16.5 million as a champion of internal development for Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, and Gorgui Dieng. Theirs was an agreement made from nearly 20 years of friendship.
Saunders passed away on October 25, 2015, taken far too early by Hodgkin's lymphoma. A franchise was left in limbo. Everyone that Minnesota had hired had been brought in to work with Flip and every player the Wolves had drafted or signed had been hand-picked by him. Garnett, at long last, had come home. That home was hollowed by Saunders's passing, no matter the mourning and dedications. The Timberwolves even kept Saunders's office in the Timberwolves' practice facility intact. Memory alone could not fill it.
This summer has brought Minnesota's first formal attempts to move on. Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden are the stewards of the franchise now, and with that comes changes across all levels of operations. Sam Mitchell, a friend and former teammate of Garnett's who coached the Wolves last season, was dismissed under regrettable circumstances. Until Friday, Garnett had since kept quiet— even with regard to conveying his intentions for this season to the team, according to Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press.
All that has taken place in the last year (along with Garnett's characteristic resistance to change) pointed to this particular outcome. Injuries limited the 40-year-old legend to just 38 games last season. His presence was of value as a leader and luminary, but KG signed up to work in partnership with Saunders. The bond he shares with Thibodeau, healthy though it may be after working together so swimmingly in Boston, cannot help but be different.
Only Garnett can parse just how much that matters—and what it would mean to be a Timberwolf now that his very reason for returning is gone.
His gruff voice crackled through the speaker. It’s the only phone interview request that Kevin Garnett granted during his 21st NBA season. Later-stage Garnett has developed the media presence of a mangy house cat; mostly disregarding unfamiliar folk trying to tickle his opinionated thoughts while he primarily cuddles up to cozy storylines. Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan’s retirements warranted responses, but why should a 40-year-old, world champion, league MVP get tangled in discussing the minutiae of each game, each practice?
He frequently changed his cell phone number to avoid unprompted calls. He enjoyed prolonged soaks in the shower to escape postgame media availability. This, however, was a special exception. “Anything for Perk, man,” Garnett says in April of his final NBA season after announcing his retirement Friday.
In 2007, 22-year-old Kendrick Perkins repeatedly slammed his 6' 10", 270 pound frame against Garnett. The clash on the block—elbows and muscle and ear-searing trash talk—endured all evening during the Celtics’ visit to Minnesota that Feb. 11, Garnett’s Hall of Fame resume be damned. “Perk wasn’t afraid of no one,” says former Celtics guard Mike James. “He always made the comment,” says then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers, “‘You may be great, but not tonight.’” Somewhere between their box outs and rim runs, a competitive hatred brewed. “We didn’t really like each other,” Garnett says. “We had a little history.”
After Minnesota narrowly emerged victorious, the two towering brutes sought each other outside the Target Center locker rooms. They had to be separated. “There wasn’t any physical altercation, but there was some verbal altercation between the two,” says longtime Celtics assistant Jamie Young. Perkins’s barking still rang in Garnett’s ears when Minnesota and Boston discussed their blockbuster trade on draft night that June. The Celtics remained firm: Boston would only exchange the promising Al Jefferson and a hoard of other assets if Garnett agreed to a contract extension.
Talks regained steam in July, with Boston having already acquired sharpshooting, All-Star guard Ray Allen. This time, before making his final decision, Garnett phoned Paul Pierce, having harbored a relationship with the Celtics’ star from previous All-Star weekends and Team USA events, seeking conscience on if Perkins’s character would stand in the way of their championship aspirations. “Kevin was like, ‘What’s up with Perk? Is he gonna want to fight me when I come to the team?’” Pierce says. “I was like, ‘Man, you don’t even know how much he look up to you.’ Kevin inspired a lot of the kids that you see in the league that came out of high school.”
On the other line, Garnett smiled that toothy, often sadistic smile. He always relished battling younger players, channeling the competition as fuel. “When you’re older and the big dog, you got little pups and stuff wanting to come at you night in and night out,” Garnett says. The true motivation for Perkins’s physicality passed Garnett’s first test, although the frontcourt duo’s first day in Boston was still tense. “He was still trying to feel me out, see if he liked me or not, if I liked him,” Perkins says. Unbeknownst to the youngster, Garnett was still evaluating Perkins’s potential as a pupil.
“I wanted to make sure that he was worthy. I’m not gonna take anybody that doesn’t want to work. I don’t like people who complained. I don’t like people who don’t have a work ethic. I don’t do quitters. I wanted to see how he worked on his own,” Garnett says. “He was real receptive to it. Then him and I quickly grabbed the chemistry on the court. Perk was just similar to me. We were grinders, kind of physical specimens. Once I got to Boston, in the East Coast, I knew it was gonna be more of a physical game. But he and I communicated and fed off each other really well. I looked for him a lot. We were both decent passers. Him and I, we gelled quicker on the court, as far as basketball, more than anybody else. Just because we was the two bigs and we was responsible for talking, if not calling out defenses as far as strategies, coverages and stuff like that. That was all on us. Doc put that responsibility on us.”
Rivers remembers his defensive anchors constantly buzzing over rotations and close-outs and pick-and-roll coverages in the locker room before games and even while one sat on the bench while the other manned the paint. While many teams implemented a static defense for high ball-screen actions, Boston allowed Garnett and Perkins to evaluate each opponent on their own. “They believed the five and the four held down the fort and they talked it up in shootaround and in practice and it was pretty interesting,” Rivers says. During the team’s very first practice that fall, Rivers had to whistle live ball action dead on multiple occasions as Perkins matched Garnett’s deafening roars at the second unit. “I don’t think it took Perk very long at all before he had KG’s respect,” Celtics general manager Danny Ainge says.
A big brother-little brother relationship quickly spawned. Perkins embraced his apprenticeship. “I just followed him, I observed him, I watched a future Hall of Famer,” he says. “I watched how he worked, I watched how he operated, I watched his leadership skills.” Perkins mimicked Garnett’s moves in the post. He started arriving at the practice facility earlier, changed his eating habits and, in turn, dropped weight. “He started emulating what KG was,” says Allen.
They spent every waking basketball second together. “It was like seeing a big brother look out for his little brother, take him out to the backyard, let’s go play catch, it looked like that,” Pierce says. Garnett had finally found a disciple with the perfect mental makeup to simultaneously match his manic intensity and high performance level. “They both was crazy,” says former teammate Marquis Daniels. “They fueled each other’s fire.” Perkins’s omnipresence at the back line of Boston’s defense allowed Garnett to jump 12-foot face-ups and switch onto speedy ball-handlers at the perimeter. If he somehow got beat, Perkins was waiting. “I always thought Perk was kind of the man behind the myth there,” says longtime Celtics broadcaster Mike Gorman. “[Garnett] had a cop standing right behind him to take care of business if things didn’t work out.”
With Boston’s “Big Three” of Garnett, Pierce and Allen, complemented by Perkins and point guard Rajon Rondo, the Celtics raced out to a 29–3 start in 2007–08 and firmly grasped first place in the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season. After opening round playoff battles with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics captured the franchise’s 17th championship in six games over their rival Los Angeles Lakers.
As champagne flowed in the TD Garden home locker room, longtime Celtics vice president of media services Jeff Twiss couldn’t sway any of the key contributors to complete Boston’s mandatory podium availability. Nobody wanted to leave the party. “We got into arguments, we got into fights, we wrestled,” Garnett says. “We was young barbarians, man. We was a team full of barbarians. That’s how I always like to explain it. We was like 300. It was us against the world straight out. If you ask anybody from that team, we felt like we was straight up warriors and straight up Greek gods and goddesses and all this other s---.”
Garnett announced his retirement on Friday, likely to fade into obscurity just as the Timberwolves re-ascend on the broad shoulders of another generationally gifted, young 7-footer. If Kendrick Perkins’s development is any indication, Karl-Anthony Towns is destined to defensively stalk the paint for the next decade with a snarl, revving a perpetual motor his teammates will only attempt to equal and Garnett’s pawprints covering his fated accolades.
Kevin Garnett, who announced his retirement on Friday, won’t ever be forgotten. He had spectacular playing career, scoring over 1,400 points and making 15 All-tar teams, and was also one of the most outspoken and physical players in league history.
During his time in the NBA, Garnett started many on-court shoving matches, scuffles and a few brawls. In honor of his retirement, we’re taking a look back at the five most memorable times he was thrown out of a game, from smacking a basketball, to clocking Tyler Hansbrough across the face.
Enjoy these, then go re-live the top moments in his career.
5. Tossed in his second game back in Minnesota for spiking ball
4. Elbows Quentin Richardson in 2010 playoffs
3. Taps Channing Frye below the belt after a three
2. Clubs Tyler Hansbrough in the face
1. Throws ball at Dwight Howard, headbutts him
Hard to top that one.