After 21 seasons, KG is finally hanging it up.
For once, Kevin Garnett was predictable. KG’s entire career has been defined by the unexpected, the unorthodox, occasionally the unpopular. But his retirement, which followed a symbolic last go-round with the Minnesota Timberwolves, comes as no shock. The KG we’ve seen the last few years bore little resemblance to the tensile, loud-mouthed missile of a player who was the 2003-04 MVP. Garnett largely stuck around to mentor budding superstar Karl-Anthony Towns; as one of the sharpest minds in basketball, he could probably transition seamlessly to coaching.
The idea of Garnett getting old at all once seemed like an oxymoron. It wasn’t just that he made the jump from high school to the NBA in 1995, tipping off a preps-to-pro boom that would eventually lead to David Stern imposing an age limit on the draft. If Tim Duncan was a veteran even in his rookie season, Kevin Garnett’s perpetual energy had some calling him “The Kid” well after the nickname’s logical expiration date. He was a futuristic player, a seven-footer (yes, he was a seven-footer) with guard-like skills who defied easy categorization. There was no precedent for the way Kevin Garnett played. But his originality ran even deeper than that.
Garnett’s game was beyond reproach. He was a defensive terror, unselfish to a fault on offense, and the kind of effortless playmaker who unlocked opportunities for others with little fanfare. KG elevated everyone around him, either by picking up the necessary slack or putting teammates in a position to succeed. But he was also an elastic, dynamic player whose athleticism was jaw-dropping. Unlike Duncan the traditionalist, Garnett updated the game’s most basic values, putting a futuristic gloss on fundamentals in a way that was both revelatory and strangely reassuring.
While never quite reckless, KG had a wild streak to him that both defined and undermined his style of play. That such an efficient, effective player could also at times be completely and totally unhinged might seem like a paradox or a riddle. Instead, it’s the perfect summation of Kevin Garnett. Garnett was seemingly incapable of making a poor basketball decision and yet his white-hot intensity could at times be his undoing. Sometimes it seemed as if he realized that he was in uncharted territory, and that going there willingly required him, like Klaus Kinski’s character in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, to lose a little bit of his mind along the way.
Although Garnett at times could come off as a basketball savant gone haywire, he was also deceptively self-possessed and self-aware. As brash and unfiltered KG could be, you would never accuse him of arrogance or weighed down by ego. He knew exactly how good he was and could back up pretty much anything he said to opponents—no mean feat, considering that the volcanic, motor-mouthed KG was one of the NBA’s all-time great talkers. That’s why, as impenetrable as his motivations could be at times, judging him for it never made much sense. Even if it wasn’t always clear what was going through his head, it was impossible argue with the results. With Kevin Garnett, the ends always justified the means.
"As brash and unfiltered KG could be, you would never accuse him of arrogance or weighed down by ego. He knew exactly how good he was and could back up pretty much anything"
Still, while Garnett’s accomplishments may have insulated him against outright criticism, many NBA fans just couldn’t fully embrace a player this brash and strident. And yet when Garnett forced a trade to Boston in 2007, joining forces with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to form the league’s first player-engineered “super team,“ he didn’t meet with anywhere near the same backlash that greeted the Heat three years later. Garnett had simply done too much with too little in Minnesota for too long. He’d taken middling teams the playoffs for eight seasons straight, culminating in an appearance in the 2004 Western Conference Finals. (Even most NBA fans have forgotten this actually happened: yes, KG led the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. They lost in six to the Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton Lakers team.) As much as some people might have wanted to hate Kevin Garnett, it just wasn’t possible.
Garnett didn’t exactly morph into a heel in Boston. If anything, he came into his own as a vocal leader. But with more people paying attention to Garnett than ever before, it was hard to keep some of his less admirable traits from becoming widely acknowledged. In Minnesota, KG had been an avant-garde underdog with an off-kilter personality. With the Celtics, Garnett was effectively demystified, recast as a petty tyrant whose hyper-competitive nature was a symptom of instability (as opposed to the other way around). And yet when the Celtics won the championship that summer, Garnett gave a post-game interview that made him more iconic than ever. As he wept openly, screamed at the top of his lungs, shouted out his past, and dropped expletives—there was nothing staged or scripted about it. In that moment, anyone who has ever wanted anything so badly that it tormented them could relate to Kevin Garnett, no matter how screwed up or pathological they thought he was.
That title was by no means the end of Kevin Garnett’s career. He led Boston back to the Finals in 2010. And as preposterous as it seems now, when Garnett and Pierce went to Brooklyn in 2013, that overly-stacked team was expected to at least make a respectable run at a title. When Minnesota welcomed him back with open arms at the end of 2014-15, it was a mere formality. KG had been in a steady decline since his last few years in Boston; as a coda to his career, he returned to ramp it up for the Timberwolves one more time, albeit in a very different capacity. It just felt right that Garnett would not only retire with this franchise but also put in one last season of hard work for them. Anything else would’ve done a disservice to the jersey.
That Kevin Garnett has never been one for feel-good moments said more about his low tolerance for bullshit than his capacity for warmth. He’s an object lesson in the difference between sentimentality in sports and genuine emotion. And if he could sometimes be too passionate for his own good, it’s because Kevin Garnett simply couldn’t conceive of just getting the job done.