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Kevin Garnett Speaks on His NBA Trial by Fire, Kobe Convos and Minnesota Regret

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2021

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Kevin Garnett likes to talk. He liked to talk on the court during his Hall of Fame career, and he's clearly relishing the opportunity to tell his story in full now. These media blitzes that celebrities undertake when they have something to push can be tedious, but Garnett appears to be enjoying himself immensely.

Watching Garnett's new documentary, Anything is Possible, which premieres Friday on Showtime, the full breadth of his influence on the modern NBA comes into focus. He was the first player since the 1970s to enter the draft out of high school, paving the way for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and others. The six-year, $126 million extension he signed in 1997 set records at the time for player salaries and precipitated the 1999 lockout and the creation of the league's current salary structure. And his 2007 team-up with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in Boston was the first "superteam" under the current definition, with three stars coming together to dominate.

There are plenty of funny individual moments and interviews with Garnett and his friends and contemporaries in the film, but that wide-ranging impact on the sport in 2021 is what stands out.

Bleacher Report spoke with Garnett via Zoom this week for about 30 minutes ahead of the release of the documentary, and he reflected on his career and how he sees today's league as a continuation of his own basketball journey.

Editor's note: The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Bleacher Report: When you made the decision to enter the draft in 1995 straight out of high school, were you thinking at all about the historical aspect of it, that nobody had done that in 20 years at that point, or were you just focused on your own situation?

Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Kevin Garnett: I was really more in the moment, if I'm being honest. I wasn't thinking about the impact of what it would be 20 years, 15 years, 10 years from that time. I wouldn't call it a panic, but I was in some real situations at that time where I had to make some decisions, and I didn't have this cast of support that I could lean on and get answers from. So I had to make a decision on my own of what I was willing to commit to.

I went to go play, and after that interaction of playing for a couple hours, I played with Michael Jordan, had Scottie Pippen in the gym, and after that, Isiah Thomas had a conversation with me that really changed my mindset. I was in limbo. I didn't really have a direct plan. So after that conversation with Zeke, it gave me some real direction in which I just committed to what I was willing to do. 

 

B/R: Did you reach out at all to Moses Malone or any of the other guys from the previous generation who made the jump from high school to get their advice?

Garnett: I couldn't get Moses Malone on the phone. I couldn't get Darryl Dawkins or track him down. There wasn't the internet back then. You couldn't just DM or reach out. But I did have a long conversation on the phone with Bill Willoughby, who was the last guy to do it before me. He shared some of his experiences with me. A lot of information about the league and the business. How they do guys with injuries. It just kind of took me down an avenue of a reality check on what the real NBA is like. He played eight years, could have played more. He thought that politics came into play a little bit in some situations. Fired his agent, went through a lot of catastrophic episodes that I thought I needed to hear. 

You hear so many glamour stories and the parts of it that are so glammed up, if you will. So to have that balance, to hear some of these "reality" stories, I needed that. And I don't want to make it sound like I didn't care what he'd been through, but I was so dead-on with what I was seeing for myself that it didn't matter. I was expecting to go through something. You can't achieve something without going through something. But the talk with Bill helped me a lot.

 

B/R: What was the most eye-opening thing that he told you about what life in the NBA would be like?

Garnett: How the league perceives you when you're injured. Like a horse. You hear some of those horrific stories in horse racing when a horse can't perform like it used to. He gave me kind of the "factory" perspective of, "Next man up." This is how they do players. He was using players as an example, bringing up teammates of his. I was out here thinking, 'If you do it right, you work hard, you'll be an All-Star.' They don't tell you about these hurdles or these different what-if possibilities.

 

B/R: Once you got into the league, what was the first thing you experienced on or off the court that made you realize what you had signed up for?

Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Garnett: The league is full of layers. First off, meeting the commissioner and him talking to you right away like you're a trivial kid about to get in trouble. David Stern was very adamant about performance on and off the court. Perception. Character. The league's perception. The league's view of how they see you as a professional. I can remember David's conversation with me being like a dad or an uncle, I guess it would have been like sending you off to college. It was kind of a wake-up call of, "Don't f--k this up."

And then when I got into my first NBA practice, versus a workout. Because for a workout, you're going against coaches and working on certain things. When you get into a practice, those things you work on are actually embodied in the practice. It was a bunch of drills, a bunch of running. It was like being in a washing machine. Everything's spinning, everything's going 100 miles an hour. I remember after that first practice being like, "Oh, wow, I'm really here." Getting through picks. There was a bunch that I didn't know. They were kind of transitioning me, because I was a big in high school. Once I got to the league, they didn't think I was strong enough to be a power forward, so they started me off at small forward. That was a whole university and class within itself.

But I put the work in. I'm compulsive when it comes to getting things right. I watched the film with Kevin McHale. Every practice, we'd have a pre-practice, we'd have the practice, and then we'd have what we called "Lessons with Kevin." Those were some of the most beneficial because that's where the moves come from and the knowledge.

The other thing I didn't know about the NBA was that they had two-a-days for the whole month of October. That was new to me. All these things were presented to me as hurdles, but at the end of the day it made me who you're looking at today.

 

B/R: Do you think your coaches thinking you couldn't play certain positions might have helped you expand your game and what you were capable of as you got more established?

Garnett: If you saw me play in high school or on the blacktop or playground, outside of the professional setting, I'm playing against guards, I'm playing against shorter guys, taller guys, guys that are probably better than me, faster than me, stronger than me, jump higher. So I'm playing against a different array of players. And when you come into the league, they want you to be great at a position and play the position like "this." For me, I was able to play the position but sprinkle these little intangibles in that I had. I could handle the ball. I didn't have to bring the ball up like a point guard would, but if I had to, I could get myself out of situations. I had enough handle that if I was facing a guy who was my same makeup, he was as strong as me but not as quick as me. Playing on the playground helped me in the NBA, because if I needed to get out of a situation I could go to those different skills. 

A lot of things I did in the league, I actually think I didn't get to show my whole arsenal of handles or shooting threes or being able to be versatile. I think I showed it more in defensive situations. I kind of liked that, because the unexpected was to be expected.

 

B/R: Once you started to establish yourself as a star, were you able to mentor any of the next wave of kids coming into the league from high school like Bill Willoughby did for you? Your relationship with Kobe Bryant is covered in the documentary, but did guys like Jermaine O'Neal and Tracy McGrady reach out to you when they were weighing their decisions?

Garnett: Yeah, I tried to make myself available for those kids. I didn't talk to J.O. or Tracy, but I did talk to Kob. Kob and I had a long conversation. I could tell that he had very similar visions for himself coming out of high school to what I had. I said to him, "You've got a father who played in the league. All the stuff you're asking me, you can go ask your dad." But he wanted to hear it from me. He wanted my perspective. We remained friends after that. But when it came to Tracy and those guys, they didn't really reach out. 

Darius Miles was the one besides Kobe that I actually sat down with. I could see a lot of myself in him. He had already made up his mind of what he wanted to do and wanted some advice. We had similar paths. He was from East St. Louis, so we kind of messed on some Midwest-type ish. But he was a student. I saw a lot of myself.

 

B/R: How did your Sports Illustrated cover with Darius come together?

Photo by NBA Photos/NBAE via Getty Images

Garnett: He was coming out of high school and was a big fan of mine. They were gonna put him on the cover, and they thought it would be an inspirational piece. I thought it was pretty cool that someone was looking up to me. That was all new to me, being a role model. These were all early relationships that I started to establish with these guys that later on I was able to call them friends.

 

B/R: One of the other big ripple effects of your career that's covered in the documentary is the impact that your first big contract had on the league, being a precursor to the 1999 lockout. How do you view that looking back?

Garnett: The owners had an agenda in which they wanted to acquire more value out of their respective franchises. They didn't have the makeup or the structure set to where it is now, with all these new dollars coming in, so they put the targets on the players. The league did a really good job of changing the narrative and making that the pivotal piece of the lockout. I looked at it like I was just one of the players that was the next up.

But that taught me a lot about the business of the league. Before I got that contract, the referees were very friendly with me. I had a very cool, back-and-forth relationship with the refs. And then after I signed this contract, it felt like the play changed. When I would play people, I could feel the extra ... whatever that was. Referees were talking to me different, and I was being painted like this aggressive guy, something that wasn't me. And then I was second to Rasheed [Wallace] in techs. All this stuff that I had never experienced before, but now that I'm the top player and get paid the most money, these things are starting to come into account now. 

I started to see things a little differently after that. I started educating myself on more financial stuff, and I started participating more in some of the lockout conversations. Some of the players association meetings, I started being more of a part of it and educating myself and encouraging other players to step up and know the business of the game. I don't think that was the case before. Michael Jordan and all those guys weren't in there. They didn't think of it as a whole cohesive group. I wanted the players I was competing against, [Chris] Webber and [Tim] Duncan and Rasheed, to all be on one page. For the most part, I felt like that was the wave. And in the parts where it worked, it worked, and where it fell apart, it fell apart. 

I can see where some of the nuances were and where the standard was set for contracts. And it comes back around in cycles, so here we are today with great money and opportunities for these players. Locker rooms are not the same. Practice facilities are not the same. Rules are not the same. Some things that we were getting hit over the head for—Kinesio tape that you see everywhere now, we were getting fined for that. We didn't have rest days. We didn't have load management. You couldn't just take the f--king day off if you wanted to. The ups and downs, aches and pains that you go through, you've got to know that you're the real beneficiaries of yesteryear. It's good to see these guys having these opportunities that we worked hard for and stood on.

 

B/R: What do you think of the alternative paths that kids in your position have now coming out of high school if they don't want to go to college, like the G League Ignite and Overtime Elite? Do you have young players now reaching out to you for advice about those options?

Garnett: Believe it or not, I have a bunch of young athletes, not just in basketball, reaching out for solutions. Part of me doing this documentary was just for that. There's only one of me, and a million people ask me a million different questions, so I wanted to either do a book or put something out there that people can use as a script. 

I try to make myself available and be as transparent as I can be. I see kids with all these different opportunities. They now have a dilemma of how to do something, as opposed to which option to take. I try to individualize every situation. Parents can only help so much when it comes to this decision. I've been throwing an idea to the league of a kind of big-brother program, where young kids can actually reach out to the OGs and get some solutions or get some advice, so they can make the best decisions for themselves as opposed to going into a situation that isn't necessarily the best fit for them. I'm seeing the business of it. I see the NBA going to a baseball kind of structure where you have a minor league where you can not have so much on you to begin with. The G League is kind of a perfect portal if you're coming out of high school and don't want to jump right into the league, you have something like the G League that pays decent money to these guys starting off. It's sort of R&D to where the league is going. I'm not saying the G League is the league, but to have that kind of secondary league where you can go prep yourself before you get to the league, I'm glad these kids have that option.

B/R: What was the Rookie Transition Program like when you were coming into the league?

Garnett: We had that. You might go into it looking like it's a waste of time, but it hits you with a lot of stuff about the lifestyle of the NBA that your mother and father can't teach you. You need to have someone who's been through it give you the ins and outs of it and tell you about the pitfalls.

 

B/R: What's one decision you made during your career, on or off the court, that you wish you could have back?

Garnett: I would have gone to the Celtics a little earlier. After Sam [Cassell] and Spree [Latrell Sprewell] didn't get their extensions, I would have left Minnesota a little earlier. I told Paul [Pierce] that, and he kind of got mad at me.

 

B/R: Like, 'Why didn't you do that? We could have got two or three.'

Garnett: Facts. You sound like Paul now. [Laughs]

 

B/R: That was the other thing I wanted to ask you about. Most people think of LeBron going to Miami with Wade and Bosh as the start of the player empowerment era, but you going to Boston to team up with Pierce and Allen was the blueprint.

Garnett: It's hard to say that when you come from '80s basketball. The '80s have some of the greatest teams ever assembled, to me. Those are the teams that really built the league. Those Lakers teams, those Celtics teams, even some of those 76ers teams, Portland, Detroit, Chicago. The Jordan era did two things. You came into camp in shape, and then it was kind of built off of one superstar per team. Obviously, Mike's the exception because the growth of Scottie Pippen and some of those other guys made the Bulls one of the greatest teams ever assembled. But that was kind of the script. I think what you started to see out of that was in my years in Minnesota, it wasn't working and I wanted to change it up. And I wanted to change it up and play with players that would push me to be better and be something different. I think it was time. Minnesota was starting to get to the point where it was unappreciative of what I brought to the game. I felt like the mindset of winning wasn't the same in Minnesota. My thirst for winning and being the best in the league and to hoist the trophy was kind of psychotic, and I don't think the owner [Glen Taylor] shared that same passion with me. I don't really have too many regrets, but if we're talking about on the court, I probably would have left Minnesota a little earlier.

 

B/R: Going to Boston and immediately winning the title in year one, did you hear any of the same criticism at the time that LeBron faced in Miami or Kevin Durant did when he went to Golden State? "He couldn't do it by himself so he had to team up."

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Garnett: I kind of see myself different from the Kevin Durant situation or the LeBron situation. LeBron is and was the face of the league, whether we want to admit that or not. And that's a real thing. So for him to not be able to do it in Cleveland was a big asterisk next to his name. I felt like I had been proven up until the decision I made to go to Boston. Then, it was putting the pieces together and seeing if it worked. And we had a coach [Doc Rivers] who had been beat up over the years and questioned about if his style works. And we put all that in a pot and it worked, and now you have a new presence in the league. Now Boston is reactivated as a superpower. 

And I think LeBron going to Miami actually reactivated the East. They had a duo called Shaq and Kobe that was just stepping over people in the West. And then you had the Spurs in San Antonio who were mopping everybody up. So to have the East kind of be reactivated with teams like Indiana and Detroit and Boston, it was a good thing for the league. And then the emergence of Orlando and other teams gave it a true balance where it wasn't lopsided. 

I can say that, just like when I came out of high school and gave people a script of 'This can work if it's done like this,' I thought that decision to go to Boston had the same kind of ripple effect. It made other players go, "OK, I can do that." Because Detroit had something special on their hands, but they didn't see those five as stars. Tayshaun [Prince] had to blossom into what he was. Rip [Hamilton] wasn't known as a great mid-range shooter like he was. Chauncey [Billups] was bounced from team to team. Sheed had his own challenges. Ben Wallace wasn't drafted, wasn't a big name. And those guys came together and made something unbelievable. When those guys won how they won, Doc used that as a script for us. He wanted to build it around us three with all these great pieces around us. And then you see LeBron do the same thing. It's all history from there on out.

 

B/R: To wrap this up, what's the number one thing you want people to take away from your career and your story after watching this documentary?

Garnett: Bet on yourself. Bet on yourself and believe in yourself if everybody doesn't believe in you. F--k everybody else. What do they know? If you have a passion and you want to put the work into something, then chase it. If it means something to you, chase it. I hope this inspires people, but more importantly, I hope people are able to look at themselves in the mirror and keep doing what you want to do. That's the message of this.

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