In the NBA, there is such a fine line that athletes walk when it comes to being "tough guys."
Take Kevin Garnett, a 17-year NBA veteran who also happens to have made more money playing basketball than any other player in the history of the league. Part of that is inflation, yes, but part is also longevity. When you have been one of the league's best players for the better part of two decades, you are going to acquire serious money.
Still over the past year especially, Garnett has taken a beating from fans who think of him as a "fake tough guy."
The reasoning is pretty clear. Garnett shows you who he is every night, whether it be a December game against Charlotte or Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami. He is loudmouthed, one of the game's most notorious trash-talkers.
He is showy, displaying knuckle push-ups or hollering after a made basket to let us know "That's what I'm talking about," for the umpteenth time.
He also is a bit of a cheap-shot artist, famously giving Channing Frye something extra to think about during a three-pointer.
All of this has given Garnett a reputation around the league. Now he is called out by everyone from owners to players for being dirty. The "fake tough guy" rep translates pretty literally to someone who is all bark and no bite.
At the risk of delving too much into one player, let's try to figure out what a legitimate NBA tough guy is. To me, a player's toughness can be boiled down to two aspects. Defense is the true mark of a tough player, but more than that it is a willingness to fight. Not physically engage in fisticuffs, but fight through tough times mentally and physically. That means playing injured or avoiding injury, and never taking the easy way out.
By this method, look at LeBron James. A man that may quite literally be made of Adamantium. James never gets injured. He has missed just 32 games in a nine-year career, and a chunk of those were the final games of the regular season when seeds were locked up. When James takes the court, he automatically becomes the focal point of the offense. You don't lead the best team in the league in points, rebounds and assists, otherwise.
On top of that, he is responsible for taking away the opposition's top offensive option. He is the only player in the NBA that can reasonably guard all five positions. Basically everything that must be done to win a basketball game, James does. And he does it all while hardly missing any games. Seems to be a legitimately tough guy to me.
Still LeBron will get knocked for jumping ship from Cleveland so soon. He took the easy way out and joined up with two other young stars to win a championship. Should we label LeBron a "fake tough guy" for his decision two years ago?
It is a fine line, because a player who immediately comes to mind when you think about defensive toughness is Metta World Peace. The player formerly known as Ron Artest may be one of the toughest players to ever set foot on an NBA floor.
However, he has crossed the line too many times. World Peace is still one of the best defenders in the NBA, but his reputation goes from tough guy to out-of-control guy when he throws elbows at temples or charges into the stands.
So, I ask you. If World Peace had the same personality, but didn't do any of his overboard stunts, would we consider him a "fake tough guy?" In some fans' eyes, he would have never backed up some of his talk with action.
Much like Garnett, Artest has a repertoire of cheap-shots, but took it to another level a few times. Do fans really want players backing up their talk with physical violence? That is not good for the game at all.
How can a player be tough then? In a game that is so overflowing with alpha-male machismo, fans should want players to back up their talk with basketball actions. The game is great because of the physicality and the competitiveness of its players, but I don’t want these athletes boxing.
If a tough guy to you is one who is willing to drop the proverbial gloves and throw down, then you must relate with players like Artest. However, is Artest mentally tough? After watching him play for 13 seasons, I feel more confident saying he is mentally fragile, not tough.
So we want a player who is mentally tough, physically tough, and is an outstanding defender. It appears we have come full-circle and arrived back at Kevin Garnett.
Garnett fought through 12 seasons in Minnesota (five more than James gave Cleveland), forcing a subpar team into the playoffs year after year. When he eventually was traded, he left as a broken hearted, but confident man with a calm press conference, not with an ESPN special and an ensuing giant party. It was understood why he had to leave, like it was understood why Steve Nash just went to Los Angeles.
From 1999-2005, Garnett missed just three games for the Timberwolves. Even now, at 37 years old, he is disgusted with the idea that he is old. He just went through a 20-game postseason averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds, incredible numbers for a player his age, playing the position he does.
Calling Garnett the back-bone of the Celtics defense does not do justice. He is the Celtics defense. His plus/minus stats have proven his value, but only to a point. He is in part responsible for Kendrick Perkins' defensive reputation, and had a hand in getting both Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins new contracts.
Watching Garnett control a basketball game on the defensive end is a joy. It makes it possible to stand the barking and cursing. You know he is out there backing it up. Not with his fists (unless doing push ups), but with his game.
Garnett has been on 12 All-NBA Defensive teams. Nine of those were First Team selections, tying him for the most all-time. Can we honestly call the best defensive player of this generation a "fake tough guy?"
In the end, you can call these players whatever you want. But, we should at least make sure we think it all the way through. A tough guy doesn’t always need to be willing to take a swing at a fellow player. The toughest players are the ones who have been through it all and seen everything, yet still want to fight every day.