Kevin Garnett Leaves Behind Legacy as NBA's Most Beloved Bully

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 17: Kevin Garnett #21 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on during the game against the Phoenix Suns on January 17, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Sherman/Getty Images

Kevin Garnett is leaving the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA relatively quietly, and that's a little weird for a player whose career has been defined by high volume and confrontation.

Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune reported the iconic forward won't play for the Wolves this season after Garnett and the team agreed to a buyout Friday. Garnett announced his retirement on Instagram shortly thereafter.

A genuine game-changer and indisputably one of the best players the league has ever known, Garnett leaves behind a complicated legacy. Underlying his competitive greatness was a sort of selective ferocity. Wildly intense and devoted to winning, KG will be remembered nearly as much for his mold-busting game as his countless episodes of chippy on-court barking.

It's just that the targets of his intensity were often soft ones, and his willingness to follow through on all that scowling chatter seemed to often depend on the readiness of the victim to fight back.

This is how you describe a bully—albeit one more widely revered and generally celebrated than most.

Because bullies take cheap shots that inspire responses like this from Charlie Villanueva (via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports): "K.G. called me a cancer patient. K.G. talks a lot of crap. He's [probably] never been in a fight. I would love to get in a ring with him. I will expose him."

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There was also the time he bonked the mighty Andrea Bargnani and then threw his hands to the sky proclaiming innocence:

And he was especially confrontational with noted tough guy Jose Calderon:

In contrast, Garnett was decidedly less willing to push the envelope with more formidable figures such as Carmelo Anthony and Metta World Peace—players with actual track records of on-court fighting.

Perhaps to his credit, an older Garnett eventually began picking on guys his own size. Though Dwight Howard's reputation for silliness doesn't exactly make him a high-risk target.

Chances are, if you've got a favorite KG memory, it involves him yelling like a man possessed or verbally tearing into a foe. Even if the moment that sticks in your mind is an actual basketball play (and Garnett had plenty of terrific ones), the odds are good he does some post-highlight shouting, or at least frowns a little.

And it's telling that one of the most seared-in images from a surefire Hall of Fame career involves a hit...that Garnett received and didn't return:

Anthony Peeler wasn't even slightly intimidated by Garnett's prodding. The thing is, after Peeler decked Garnett in Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals, KG obliterated the Sacramento Kings with 32 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks and four steals in a Game 7 win.

This is an important distinction to make: The complicated or selective nature of his non-basketball intensity never applied to Garnett's play. He was uniformly monstrous in that regard.

Which is partly why we'll also never forget when it led to ultimate success:

And more yelling.

In the end, we need to be careful about this discussion because we can't very well fault Garnett for being less physically violent than he otherwise might have been. Nobody's saying he should have fought everyone who took issue with his needling. That's ridiculous.

This is all just to say that the complete picture of KG has always featured two sides—even for his teammates.

Here's Jackie MacMullan on that point from her 2015 ESPN The Magazine feature:

Former teammate Chauncey Billups maintains that Garnett is the most unselfish superstar of his era and the most dynamic leader he has seen. Then again, if Towns is devoured by KG's fire, he wouldn't be the first. A partial list of ex-teammates who have endured the wrath of the Big Ticket includes Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Mason Plumlee, Ray Allen, Wally Szczerbiak, Rajon Rondo, Rasho Nesterovic, Patrick O'Bryant and Deron Williams. Some have survived to be welcomed into Garnett's inner circle; others are forever dead to him. 'If you don't meet his expectations," says Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, "he has no use for you.'

It's encouraging that Garnett's final mentorship role seems to have gone well. Whatever tough love he gave Karl-Anthony Towns seems to have built a bond.

Just look how KAT reacts to KG's turn-back-the-clock slam here:

And then note the more somber tone of a tweet he posted just minutes after the retirement news broke:

Karl-Anthony Towns @KarlTowns


Without question, Garnett is one of the best players we'll ever see. He changed the NBA in more ways than one, repopularizing the prep-to-pro leap and establishing the template for the modern multiskilled big man. In many ways, he was a perfect basketball player. But there's also this strange wrinkle to his legacy where the one trait that came to define him, intensity, was so obviously flawed.

Consider it an overarching example of the type-defying versatility and uniqueness we'll remember him for.


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