There are heroes, and there are legends. And then, there is Michele Tafoya, then the NBA sideline reporter for the NBA on ABC who on June 16, 2008, was tasked with navigating a mob that engulfed the parquet floor of TD Garden in an effort to find Kevin Garnett. Of course, that’s not too tall an order, given that Garnett stands tall and distinctive, a 6-foot-11 behemoth of a man overwhelmed with joy. Corralling him was one thing. Interviewing him, at that moment? Another animal entirely.
But Tafoya did it, as if there was ever any doubt she would. With microphone in hand, voice turned up to 11 in an effort to drown out the swarm of bodies surrounding them and the long-clichéd Queen songs blaring over the arena speakers, she grabbed the newly-minted champion and began perhaps the most infamous postgame interview in NBA history.
“Kevin: 11-time All-Star, league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year,” she declared. “Now, it’s time to add to your resume: NBA champion. How does that sound?”
You know the rest.
Garnett, undoubtedly adrift in the moment, neglected the bounds of emotion and expression and shouted from the top of the world a message for anyone and everyone to hear. The idea that “anything is possible” had somewhat evaded Garnett for the first 12 years of his career, those spent in Minnesota. That was where he began to write the story of his legacy but was never able to reach the summit. For it to come in 2008, his first year as a Boston Celtic, was understandably cause for elation. In a way, the championship broke Garnett. His hard exterior, that is; the preserved shell of a torturous basketball force.
Part villain, total warrior, the terms no longer mattered. He was a champion. Everybody would know it, too.
“This for everybody in ‘Sota. This for everybody in Chicago... On my mama. On my ma- I made it, ma! Top of the world! Top of the world!”
Tafoya did continue her interview that day, getting in a few more questions regarding the significance of winning this long-elusive title with such a storied franchise — “It’s a lot of responsibility that comes with putting this great jersey on. I’m just happy that we carried out tradition,” he replied. But the constraints of an interview had no business on that day and on that floor in TD Garden. Garnett did his best — the best an interviewer could have ever dreamt of — still swearing periodically, as he does, but always subsequently apologizing.
To close, he looked into ESPN’s camera once more. “Whatchu gon’ say now? What can you say now? Made it, ma!” He turned, hugging anyone he could find, saving his biggest embrace for Celtics legend Bill Russell, whom he grabbed with such force it was fair to worry about the duo toppling over. Microphones captured some of KG’s sentiments, those he bellowed into Russell’s ear as they shared the greatest moment of the greatest year, during which they had not merely built a bond between teacher and student, but a real friendship. “I got my own, man,” Garnett told Russell, the two rocking back and forth. “I got my own.
“I hope we made you proud, man,” KG said. “You did,” Russell replied.
Two champions, sharing a moment together. Untouchable on top of the world.
Kevin Garnett, the champion and legend by way of Chicago, Minnesota, then Boston, Brooklyn, and Minnesota again, will have his name cemented in the ranks of basketball immortality on Saturday. When he is presented by Detroit Pistons and Chicago great Isiah Thomas, Garnett will be enshrined in the James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where the best belong and remain forever. Joining him in the 2020 class is a murderer’s row of talent and iconic figures in the sport: Tim Duncan, Tamika Catchings, Rudy Tomjanovich, Kim Mulkey, Barbara Stevens, Eddie Sutton, Patrick Baumann, and of course, the late, great Kobe Bryant. Garnett dueled with some of them and merely shared a similar magnitude with others. They were all bound to be remembered before; Saturday’s events will just write their names, and therefore accomplishments, into stone.
But you could argue that the beauty of basketball, and of sport in general, is that one’s lasting impact is written in real time. Tim Duncan’s story began back when he allegedly played — and hung with — Alonzo Mourning in a five-on-five scrimmage... at age 16. It then continued at Wake Forest and when he hung with — nay, dominated David Robinson at Spurs training camp as a rookie. Kobe Bryant’s legend opened on him dominated Summer League having just graduated high school; he “struggled” in his first game, scoring 27 points on 4-for-10 shooting from the field and 18-for-20 from the free-throw line, with two rebounds and no assists on the side.
Garnett’s didn’t necessarily begin with the flare nor pomp of some contemporaries, though in its way, it was unique. He entered the NBA Draft in 1995 as a high schooler — which the league was allowing, at the time, for the first time since 1975 — at the behest of Thomas, his fellow Chicagoan. He told KG that he need not attend college and spend another few years refining his game; Thomas watched him play against Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and figured he was ready. Garnett has called Thomas’ assurance a “prophecy” and a “blessing... a benediction.”
He wasn’t selected first overall in ‘95 — that was Maryland’s Joe Smith, to the Golden State Warriors. At pick two, three, and four went Antonio McDyess (Los Angeles Clippers), Jerry Stackhouse (Philadelphia 76ers), and Rasheed Wallace (Washington Bullets). Those are names you know, but none can possibly stand as tall as Garnett, who went fifth to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He rewarded their “risk” of drafting the first prep player in 25 years by helping an expansion franchise go from dump to damage-doer. They made the playoffs eight straight years starting in 1996, Garnett’s second year, and made it as far as the Western Conference Finals (in 2003-04, Garnett’s MVP season and the best season in Timberwolves history).
How he really broke the mold was by, in essence, breaking the bank. Minnesota owner Glen Taylor signed Garnett to a six-year, $126 million contract in 1997, before his rookie deal expired. It was then the richest contract in team sports, and it caused owners across the NBA to spiral to the point of igniting the 1998-99 lockout. Just by being paid, far more than anyone else had ever been paid but certainly not undeservingly, Garnett shut down the NBA and reshaped its financial structure. Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals — the one where Michael Jordan may or may not have pushed off of Bryon Russell and nailed the clinching jumper to cause any and all hope in Utah to dissipate — was the last game to be played for more than six months. The owners wouldn’t reopen the league to players until an agreement to a set salary cap on individual and team salaries was in place, one that was far less than what Garnett was being paid.
Did Taylor or a then 22-year-old Garnett intend to effectively shut down the NBA? Of course not. But perhaps this bump in Garnett’s long and storied road set the course for his domination. For a split second, he was richer than rich, King Midas with a jump shot. From then on, he’d remain the basketball version of King Midas, as threatening a paint and elbow presence as the game ever saw. Offensively, he was a team’s dream, a career 50-percent shooter, and a prolific inside-out scorer. He had the release akin to someone hurling a medicine ball forward, though his movement was far more graceful. He was a transformative talent, one whose jab step-jumper combo was lethal against even the largest defenders. The NBA has certainly seen better scorers, but at the time, there might not have been one as versatile at the big position as Garnett.
Defensively, he was the stuff of nightmares, torturing any and all who bothered entering the lane and even those attempting to create outside of it. The Celtics 2008 commemorative championship season DVD does its duties in introducing viewers to its new players via slow-motion clips of them doing what they do best. Many clips of Ray Allen show him draining corner triples, the ball cascading off of his hands as smooth as butter to a hot biscuit. A series of clips of Garnett, Boston’s second trade acquisition of the 2007 offseason, show him being just as graceful, depending on who you ask: KG is often seen diving on the floor for loose balls, falling under and on top of his opponents, being billed as a defensive fiend. He sneers and grins, winning the battle, knowing he’ll win the war.
Fittingly, Garnett concluded that championship season both an NBA champion and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Naturally, he and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players ranked in the NBA’s all-time top 20 in both blocks and steals. He had every single defensive ability one could ask for in a basketball player, the “Holy Trinity,” as Brian Scalabrine calls it — the length and ability, the will and determination, as well as the intelligence. That might be five things, therefore not so much a trinity as it is... well, something else, but for Garnett to be boxed into any sort of definition, whether as a defender or a player or a man, is unfair.
To remember Kevin Garnett as a Celtic is to misremember his career, but so is to remember it as any one thing. If you’re to remember his career as one thing, gun to your head, time running down, dominance might be your safest bet. Perhaps even that is arbitrary, for yes, he dominated, but that was only one small part of his overall impact. You have to include amongst 913 other attributes, those that make up the character of the now Hall-of-Famer, those that continue to fortify the psyche that made him so memorable.
As a player, Garnett had no fear. He had a mouth — plenty of clips you’ll best remember from Garnett’s career, whether on the floor or the sideline, involve f-bombs and calling a variety of NBA stars “clown-a**” expletives. Did it matter how old Garnett was, that people may not have considered him as revered as he once was in some of his “most savage” moments, as the YouTube compilations love to dub them? In Garnett’s words, “Hell nah.” David West, Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, Carmelo Anthony; messing with Garnett was to mess with the boy who yanked pigtails in grade school, only this particular bully always had your number, was a skyscraper, and would berate you to the point of having to change your identity, not just your hair.
For some time, I admittedly feared that Garnett would be misremembered due to his assigned role in the NBA. He was a trash-talker, sure, but he was also the voice that broadcast microphones would most often pick up shouting obscenities as he bullied smaller forwards for rebounds, even at age 35. I loved that about KG, but I would hate for that to be the thing he went down in history best-known for. Before writing this story, I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of Garnett’s highlight plays and memorable moments over the course of his career. Far too often did clips of him chucking a ball at the back of Howard’s head, or tussling with the aforementioned McDyess appear. I was hoping to watch his finest second jumps in the low post, clips of him outrebounding Pau Gasol and Amar’e Stoudemire, or his silky jumpers from the free-throw line extended. I’m the exact definition of naivety, it appears.
Sure, his vocal jabs are an aspect of his game — an extremely memorable one — but you don’t become enshrined in the Hall of Fame just by winning mental battles. Most of the stories Garnett loves to tell tend to be in that vein. He’s fond of noting that the Celtics teams he played for “broke” LeBron James, and “didn’t give a f—k about” him, and that they were the ones who sent him jetting to Miami for pastures boasting palm trees and brighter title hopes. Was that the primary reason TNT briefly brought him aboard to host his own NBA segment, “Area 21,” on “Inside the NBA”? To press the cuss button and talk trash while reminiscing with other former players? Perhaps it was silly, but I feared that one of my favorite players would see his game forgotten, and his television caricature bolstered. Charles Barkley was a forceful NBA forward for the better part of 16 years, and now he’s the guy who can’t remember what teams players play for and has a funky golf swing. Young Will couldn’t stand the idea of that “happening” to KG.
But with time, I was brought back to the fact that Garnett’s career and psyche contain multitudes — that he’d never just been one thing, nor would he ever be remembered as such. So what if people remember him as a trash talker? If they dare to say that’s all he was, the Basketball References and Cleaning the Glass’s of the world are here to remind any and all who have doubts.
Not only could Garnett reduce your dignity to rubble mentally, but he’d do it on the low block, too. He can also entertain — basketball players aren’t merely athletes, but producers, content creators, and performers in their own, non-sport right. He’s written a book, started a production company, produced a Showtime documentary, and starred in a movie.
In Uncut Gems, the 2019 thriller starring Adam Sandler and Garnett as a fictionalized version of himself, he delivered one of the single best performances by an athlete in a movie, arguably ever. His line deliveries seem as seasoned and fine-tuned as his hook shots and post moves. Him deriding Sandler’s skeevy jeweler Howard Ratner for showing him an Ethiopian Opal, one that Garnett feels a spiritual connection to in the film, but not letting him have it is meme-worthy, sure, but I’d venture to say it’s Academy Award-worthy. Seriously.
In everything, Garnett harnessed a fury and passion, whether in front of a director’s camera or that of an NBA broadcast. In the preface to his book, he wrote, “he who angers you, owns you.” So he never let anyone anger him, not to the point of ownership, certainly not mentally nor emotionally. And he never ceased pouring out passion into his work. Doc Rivers called Garnett the “best you can have in your locker room,” and receipts tend to prove that. Yes, he once punched two of his teammates, Wally Szczerbiak and Rick Rickert, a lower moment than most others on his resume. But he also lifted up many others, taking to a role player fit in his later years in Brooklyn, and a professorial role in his final years in Minnesota.
What he did over the course of his year can’t be misremembered, no matter how many cuss buttons he may have to press in order to clean up bits of his story. That’s because there are plenty of ways to remember it, and time aplenty for his legacy to continue playing out, however he elects for it to do so. Legends have their stories written in real time, particularly in sport, and Garnett is hardly close to done telling his. The Hall of Fame is merely another chapter, a significant one at that, but not entirely defining nor limiting. He’s reached the top of the world before; there’s no telling how many times he’ll do it again.
Anything is possible. In this case, it’s fitting that we don’t yet know the rest.