For Kevin Garnett, Basketball Greatness Begins in the Locker Room

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 16, 2015

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LOS ANGELES — Before Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, Kevin Garnett was in Doc Rivers' office.

They were not discussing the plan of attack for the Boston Celtics' eventual 131-92 victory over the rival Los Angeles Lakers. They were not wondering what it would be like to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy that very evening.

They certainly were not talking about what they had for lunch that day.

"I had him come in my office and sit," Rivers recalled, prior to the Los Angeles Clippers' meeting with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday. "And he’s sitting there—five, 10, 15 minutes. I don’t say a word. I just go back to work. He’s moving around and finally he says, 'I’m in timeout. I’m in timeout right now.' "

Indeed, Garnett—then 32, a grown man with 13 years of NBA experience under his belt—was being subjected to the same cooling-off method that's usually reserved for disobedient schoolchildren. Per Rivers' recollection, Garnett was too amped, even for a game with imminent championship implications. He needed to take it down a notch.

"You think about a guy that’s been in the league that long and is still that jacked-up for a game that you had to literally calm him down," Rivers said.

That kind of intensity is partly why Timberwolves head coach/team president Flip Saunders sent Thaddeus Young to Brooklyn to bring Garnett back to Minneapolis at last month's trade deadline.

"He’s still effective on the court. I’d like to play him 30 minutes," Saunders says.

But a lottery-bound squad with such a tantalizing collection of young talent (i.e. Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne) doesn't need Garnett to dominate on defense or hit 20-foot jumpers. Rather, it's asking him to set an example for all the so-called Timberpups to follow into the future.

"There’s no question that for young players or anybody, even veterans, coming in to see his preparation, his passion, his energy," Saunders said. "You think, here’s a guy with 20 years in the league, he’s 37. How he could bring that same energy every night and that same focus is pretty phenomenal."

It can be all too easy to lose that focus on a team that, at a Western Conference-worst 14-51, might otherwise be playing out the string and planning its summer vacations. Garnett, though, has infused Minnesota's locker room with his own brand of purpose and passion, according to teammates.

"It’s a way more positive atmosphere and everything," Pekovic told Bleacher Report. "He’s a guy who really supports everybody, especially the young guys, explaining to them how they should do whatever they should do."

"I feel like he changes everyone’s mindset," said Wiggins, the clear-cut choice to be Minnesota's next franchise star. "The energy he brings rubs off on all of us." 

To that end, it helps that Garnett is the sort who's ready and willing to share that spark with those around him. "He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever seen," said Rubio. 

High praise, indeed, coming as it does from a passing savant like Rubio, who's long plied his trade on the Spanish national team next to the serially unselfish Gasol brothers.

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"He’s been in this league a long time, so he knows how to approach a game," Rubio went on. "He’s bringing his experience to help us to realize how important every game is."

Nate Robinson, who played alongside Garnett in Boston during the 2009-10 campaign, recalls Garnett's leadership style vividly.

"He always wanted the young guys to be themselves, do whatever. He said, 'Be you. You’ve worked your butt off this far. Be yourself, but know what our motive is and that’s to win a championship.'"

Rivers recalls the myriad on-court and off-court wisdom Garnett would pass on to young teammates. 

"He didn’t like to do it in front of everybody, so he would bring some of the young guys in my office," Rivers recalled fondly. "One day, he brought them in, he had a tailor. The other day, they had a money manager. There was another time he brought them in, he just wanted to talk to them because he didn’t think they had the right attitude. The year after we won it, he brought them in. He basically gave them the [speech about] 'you haven’t earned anything, we earned the title, you have to earn your own.'"

"Work your butt off," said Glen Davis—who spent his first four seasons under Garnett's wing in Boston— when asked about The Big Ticket's approach to mentorship. "Don’t let them take it from you. You take it from them."

It may seem strange to imagine Garnett as a nurturing professional. After all, this is a guy who's made headlines for head butts, bites and verbal tirades of all types. His reputation precedes him, even among fellow pros like Ricky Rubio, who "was kind of scared" of Garnett when they played together during the 2011 lockout (via The Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda).

To many, though, Garnett is as great a teammate as there is in the NBA, especially for those hoping to sip from his font of hard-won wisdom.

"He made it so easy to be in the locker room. He made it so easy to be on the court," added Robinson, whom Garnett dubbed "Short Lord" during their brief time as teammates. "He’s a great mentor, great big brother, man. He’s the best. He plays hard, plays with passion, plays with grit, and that’s one thing I loved about him."

Garnett's heart and fight are evident to anyone who's watched him play. But how is it that so much of his personality remains a mystery to most after 20 years' swimming in the fish bowl of the NBA?

As colorful as KG's quotes so often are, he doesn't talk to the media a whole lot. He typically makes himself available to questions after the game, and only if the interviews pertain to that evening's events. Garnett didn't speak to Bleacher Report (or any other outlet, for that matter) on this occasion, since he didn't suit up to play.

Garnett has his reasons for avoiding media scrums. Like anyone who's been a superstar for as long as he has, he's faced more than his fair share of criticism for the things he's said and done. To some extent, his reticence can be traced back to the 2004 playoffs, when he told the media prior to a Game 7 between the Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings that he was "ready for war."

"He clearly hasn’t let any of you guys in. And it’s too bad, in my opinion, that you don’t get to know the real Kevin because he’s terrific," Rivers lamented. "He’s actually very funny, but he’s very serious about basketball. He looks at it as a job and a very serious job and there’s not a lot of guys who do this."

And even fewer who've done it as well as Garnett has, for as long as he has. He'll retire as one of the best who laced them up. Among the NBA's all-time leaders, he ranks 14th in points, eighth in rebounds and 17th in blocks.

According to Saunders—who was Garnett's first NBA coach and will likely be his last—all the stats, all the accolades, all the games won and lost haven't changed who Garnett is at heart, haven't sapped him of the essence that make him such an asset to a team sporting constituents who were toddlers when "The Kid" became "The Big Ticket" in Minnesota.

"He’s the same player," said Saunders. "He’s always been very vocal, ever since he’s been 19, 20 years old," said Saunders. "I don’t think there’s any difference in how he goes about [his business], whether it’s talking on the floor to players, whether it’s talking on the bench, whether it’s talking in the locker room, he’s always been a pretty cerebral player along those lines."

With any luck, these Timberpups will soak up those insights from Garnett while they can and take after their newest teammate and mentor.

This spring will mark the 11th straight without postseason basketball in Minnesota—the third-longest such drought in NBA history. The more Garnett can do to accelerate this squad's growth, be it by word or by deed, the sooner the T-Wolves will feel the warmth of the playoffs.

And the sooner Garnett can stir himself into another timeout-worthy lather. 

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.



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