Kevin Garnett's reputation around the league and in the minds of fans is starting to solidify into what will become his legacy. He's (rightly) viewed as one of the best defensive players ever, a fierce competitor and an NBA Champion, ...and a really big jerk. The only question I have is, as a fan, how much do I care about that last part?
When it boils down to it, we typically root for laundry, right? The players come and go and they mean a lot, but if they change jerseys, they become the enemy (right Eddie House?). So there is a tendency to excuse behavior from someone on your team that you would abhor if he was wearing a different jersey. Which brings us to Garnett.
KG is a really unique cat, so there's not a lot of precedent to go on here. Most sports villains are cheaters (Bonds, Clemens, Belichick) or off-court transgressors (Vick, Rothlisberger, Tiger, Kobe?). But Garnett has never been accused of either of those things.
In fact, when he's playing the game (I mean actually playing the game, not the extracurricular stuff) he absolutely plays it "the right way" as Larry Brown might say. He gives you all his effort, he's committed to defense, and he puts his team first every time. He's the kind of guy you want on your side. The problem is the extra stuff he does on the court. Kelly Dwyer summed it up well when he said (via Ball Don't Lie)
There are no shortage of articles saying essentially the same thing about Garnett. Of course, it is one thing when a sports writer says it and another thing when a player's peers say it. This year alone we've heard negative impressions about Garnett in the press from players like Joakim Noah, Charlie Villenueva, and Dwight Howard.
Suns' coach Alvin Gentry took it a step further.
"I used to be a big fan of [Kevin Garnett]," he said. "Some of the antics he's pulled lately, you don't need to do that as a star player. I've never seen Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or even a Dwyane Wade do that." "You can compete and play hard, that doesn't need to be a part of it. It really doesn't," he said. "To do that to someone you can seriously hurt him," he said. "You know the fact that all of a sudden Channing comes down on his foot twice on jump shots that's a very dangerous play. "If you're asking me, yeah, I lost a little respect for him. I love his competitive nature but there is no place for what he was doing in our game."
Stepping back for a moment, let's review some of Garnett's list of incidents and habits.
- Back in Minny, he got into fights with then-teammates Wally Sczerbiak and Rick Rickert. Not exactly team building activities.
- He's known for barking at players and crawling on all fours. A bit melodramatic but harmless unless the players are thin skinned.
- He talks trash incessantly. But so does Paul Pierce and many others. He also talks trash to himself so at least he's consistent (or consistently nuts).
- Suspended for a game in last year's Heat series for throwing a punch/elbow.
- He either called Charlie V. a "cancer patient" or said he was "a cancer" depending on who you believe. Probably offensive either way but he apologized to coach Karl and made an effort to clarify to the public and show proper respect to those suffering from it.
- He's known for "picking on lesser players." Perhaps. Though I distinctly remember him screaming at Tim Duncan a number of years back. I just don't think he cares (or even knows) who he's interacting with in the heat of the moment.
- He's known for being hyper focused on game day, refusing to give interviews before games. Again, not the first athlete to be like that. They said Roger Clemens would walk over his own mother if she was standing in his way on game days. Ok, perhaps he's not a great moral example, but you get the idea.
- He's also known for something that I'll call "baiting." Meaning, he'll brush by someone or outright check them at midcourt (like Chandler) but immediately throw his hands up in the air as if to say "I'm doing nothing, I'm helpless here, if he attacks me he's the one at fault." Pretty petty and kind of dirty but it could also give his team an edge if it gets in the head of the opponent. (personally I'm not a fan of this kind of rationalization)
- Refused to sign a basketball for a ball boy and made a comment about Bin Laden. Not exactly polite or PC behavior, but not exactly something new or unique to him either.
- Which brings us to The Groin Tap. Did he mean to hit him there? Or was he just aiming for the stomach in an attempt to distract him and just missed low? More importantly, did he mean to slide his foot under the Frye's foot (twice) or was he just trying to get close enough to make the shooter uncomfortable? Intent matters here and only KG knows his true intent.
The point I'm trying to make here is that any one or two of these things can seem pretty innocuous. But when you review the aggregate body of work, it starts to formulate an unattractive image. What once was excused as idiosyncrasies become pieces of evidence in the case against his character. So that now whenever another incident happens, it becomes magnified beyond what the actual incident calls for due to the cumulative effect of his actions.
The bottom line conclusion is that he comes across (on the court) as a really big jerk. There's just no way around that. But that doesn't mean I will stop rooting for him. It just means that I sometimes have to take him with a large grain of salt. I don't like or always support everything he does, but I admit I give him more leash than I would if he was on any other team.
I find myself thinking about my new son. When he grows up and (Lord willing) starts to play basketball, KG will long since have retired. But if he was old enough to play now, would I point to KG and tell him to model himself after him? Absolutely not. Rather, I would use him as an example of what it looks like when you allow yourself to be controlled too much by your emotion. The same passion and competitiveness that drive him are what send him over the top. It seems like he almost can't control himself after a certain point. And that's scary.
So what gives? Why is he like this? By all accounts he's a very sweet, funny, caring, and of course loyal guy to those he's close to off the court. His teammates love him and he's very charismatic when he wants to be. His story has been told (what he's allowed people to see at least) and I seem to remember there being someone that betrayed him early on, so now he doesn't trust other people and stays very private. He also was greatly impacted by losing former teammate Malik Sealy. I get that, but we all have losses in our lives. We've all been hurt or wronged in the past and I'm not judging anyone on how they cope. But just the same, we own our actions and how we react to those hurts and wrongs is on us. Same goes for Kevin.
I think he even knows that he's out of line sometimes but refuses to admit it. He's talked about the fact that he curses because that's who he is. He took it a step further this week by proclaiming that " I never apologize for my actions, as I play with passion."
I suppose we should give him some credit for being consistent. He is who he is and you know where you stand with him always. Unlike say someone like Dwight Howard who will smile and laugh and jab you with a well placed (and huge) elbow.
I get the feeling that Garnett feels like his emotions drive him to the levels he wants to be at and without them he'd fall short. Kind of a Darth Vader going to the dark side scenario if you will. In fact, he seems willing to take on the villain role in order to achieve his goals. Sort of an "ends justifies the means" scenario (again, not something I agree with at all).
Not to play pocket psychologist or anything, but perhaps he's scared. Maybe he's really afraid that if he lets up for one minute that he'll lose it all. So it is almost as if he's trying to prove that he's just as aggressive and intense as his reputation dictates so he's got to keep pushing the limit.
Like I said, I don't want to go too far down that winding road because I don't know the guy, never had a conversation with him, and could never fully understand what it is like to walk a mile (or run for miles on the beach - determined to rehab from injury) in his shoes.
What we can assume is that he wants to win. In part for himself, but also for his teammates. He would saw off his own arm for his team and he sees the other team as the enemy. That's a good thing in moderation but he just takes it too far. He's trying to do what he feels is right (and his HOF career and Championship ring are evidence to him that he's doing the right thing). That doesn't fully excuse his actions, but it does matter.
Along those lines, I think in most cases it boils down to intent. There have been recent accusations that he's intentionally trying to hurt people. That is something that I could not support or even justify in any way. However, proving that intent would be difficult at best. As a fan, I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I can understand where some would not.
All I know is that he's one of the biggest stars in the game, a certain Hall of Famer, and perhaps most importantly to me a Celtic that raised a banner for Boston and in the process of trying to raise another one. But he's starting to get a tarnished legacy because of his actions. Will he be remembered as a champion and a legend or will he be remembered as a bully? Well, it will probably be a bit of both.
I love Kevin like I love family, warts and all. I'm not going to make excuses for him or rationalize every incident away. He can be a jerk sometimes. But at the same time, I'm not going to turn on him because he sometimes (ok, often) rubs people the wrong way. To me, he's like a crazy uncle that does lots of fun stuff but occasionally goes too far and breaks things around the house.
Yes, Kevin Garnett is a jerk. But he's also a Celtic and he's our jerk.