When Kevin Garnett plays basketball, there is a look in his eyes, which reveals the passion in his heart, which reveals some glorious genetic defect, which brought us a basketball force who plays each game like a caged, rabid dog in heat.
Sometimes, Garnett crosses the line, or at least pushes the line to its limits. He insults players, throws elbows, and cusses in between every other word. He almost seems like a caricature, or an experiment of what happens when intensity meets Miracle-Gro.
At times, Garnett has said in the past, he doesn't even remember his on-court antics. It's as if he blacks out in a fit of competition-driven rage, and before he knows it he's crawling on all fours and clapping in somebody's face. By the time he comes to, Garnett is deflecting a pass, or hedging a ball screen, or generally wreaking havoc on his opponents' game plan.
What we fans don't see, but what we can certainly imagine, is that Garnett brings the same effort to practices.
"He's one person -- not to say I don't look up to everyone else -- but he's one person that I look at . . . he's the person that makes me want to work harder than everybody, every single day," Celtics rookie Avery Bradley told CSNNE.com. "Just to see the things that he does, he comes in every day, every single day and works hard. Our fans don't notice that, but he does it every single day. Only a few people get to see that, and I'm one of them, and I appreciate it. Me being a young guy, that's what I want to be like playing in this game. I really look up to him. He just gives his all on both ends of the floor."
Doc Rivers has said coaching Garnett, and I'm paraphrasing here, is a privilege. We've always understood why. Not only is Garnett the hardest worker on his team (and maybe in the league), but he's the most talented player (or, at this stage of his career, close to it). He's relentlessly unselfish, and dedicated entirely to winning. He's a coach's dream, a seven feet tall combination of almost every trait a coach desires in a player.
When pondering Garnett's role as a leader, I think back to something Kobe Bryant said a month or so ago, a quote that defined leadership better than I've ever heard. (Note: writing about Kobe defining the term "leadership" makes me want to run myself over with a car, if that were in any way possible.) (Yahoo!)
"How to truly make players better, what that really means," he said. "It’s not just passing to your guys and getting them shots. It’s not getting this or that many players into double figures. That’s bull[expletive]. That’s not how you win championships. You’ve got to change the culture of your team – that’s how you truly make guys better. In a way, you have to help them to get the same DNA that you have, the same focus you have, maybe even close to the same drive. That’s how you make guys better.
"I’ve never understood this stuff, where a star player sits out and a team goes into the tank. Well, they need him because he makes them better. Well, if he’s making them better, they should be able to survive without him. That’s how you lead your guys. You’ve got to be able to make guys suffice on their own, without you. If you’re there all the time and they take you away, they shouldn’t need a respirator.
"Once I understood all that, I looked at things completely different. I took my hands off. I didn’t try to control them. I let them make decisions, make their own [expletive]-ups and I was there to try and help them through it."
When Garnett went down with injury in 2009, the Celtics scrapped, clawed, and battled their way to a 7th game against the Orlando Magic. Even without Garnett, they played in his likeness. Heart, passion, and unselfishness -- Garnett wasn't on the court playing, but his traits and leadership still shaped his team's effort. He brought his teammates to a new level, a higher level, and they were able to reach that level even when Garnett wore a suit and sat on the bench.
The Celtics have a lot of great players. I wouldn't argue otherwise. Without Garnett's contagious, undying passion, the Celtics would still be a great team. But Garnett is their emotional leader, and without his attitude they wouldn't experience so much success.
I remember a story from training camp in 2007, shortly after the Big Three had been assembled. The C's were running sprints, and Paul Pierce was dogging it. Most players would have ignored Pierce's lack of effort. He was the incumbent superstar, and the captain. I don't want to say Pierce had earned the right to half-heartedly sprint, but most teammates would respect him too much to say anything.
Not Garnett. If you dog sprints, you risk damaging Garnett's chances of winning a championship. And if you risk damaging Garnett's chances of winning a championship, it doesn't matter if you're Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King -- you're going to receive an earful. Garnett chewed Pierce out, and the tone for a championship season -- the tone for the Big Three Era, really -- was set.
The Big Three Celtics have been outplayed at times, and they have lost two Game 7s. But in a few years, when Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen have retired, when we look back at the Big Three Era, I suspect we'll remember one thing more than anything else: these Celtics teams played the game the right way. The respected basketball, and they played with 'Ubuntu' and 'Celtic Pride' at all times. They didn't always win championships, and they didn't always stay healthy, but these Celtics have always been a team I am proud to root for.
Their collective mentality all started with Kevin Garnett, who never cedes an inch, who will travel to any possible length to win games. He practices like he plays, like a maniac focused only on winning and improving, and it rubs off on other players. Avery Bradley sounds in awe of Garnett's work ethic, and looks up to The Ticket, and works harder simply because he finds himself in Garnett's presence every day. I imagine the rest of Boston's players are like Bradley, taking their cue from one of the most intense competitors ever to walk planet earth.
Kevin Garnett said this is the first time in a long time he's allowed himself to enjoy his teammates. His career is almost finished, and Garnett wants to enjoy his NBA career while it lasts.
But don't let Garnett's newfound enjoyment fool you. The goal is still an NBA championship, and Garnett will still travel to any lengths to win one.
When he steps on the court, Kevin Garnett still has that look in his eyes, which reveals the passion in his heart, which reveals some glorious genetic defect, which brought us a basketball force who plays each game like a caged, rabid dog in heat.
If they're smart, his teammates, and even his opponents, are taking notes.