Kevin Garnett changed professional basketball. During his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, he helped the N.B.A. game evolve from one dominated by rigid positional play to today’s more fluid, diversely skilled style. But it wasn’t just what Garnett did — the ease with which, at 6-foot-11, he combined size and rugged defense with an offensive versatility typically the province of smaller players — it was how he did it. Garnett, known as the Big Ticket, exhibited a charismatic, almost lunatic intensity that could make even fellow perennial All-Stars look like weekend rec-leaguers. His successful transition to the N.B.A. from high school in 1995 spurred a wave of prep-to-pro players, one that included Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, as well as plenty of kids who couldn’t cut it, leading the risk-averse league to close that pipeline in 2006 when it required that players be at least 19. Furthermore, the contract Garnett signed with the Timberwolves in 1998 for $126 million, a record amount at the time, was widely understood as the deal that compelled team owners to restructure the salary cap. The Hall of Famer offers his account of all this and more in his upcoming memoir, “KG A to Z.” “I didn’t want to be something cool,” Garnett, who is 44, says about his playing days. “I didn’t want to be calm. I wanted to be a player that made you say, ‘Did you see that?’ ”
In your book, you write — and I know I sound dorky using your terminology — that “they [the league] don’t want the OGs around the rooks. Because they know the OGs will school ’em in the more treacherous and devious ways of the league.” What exactly are the treacherous ways of the league? What I meant was, when it comes to off-the-court stuff and dealing with family and finances and the lifestyle of the league, you need veterans. Veterans sit around during dinners and plane rides and talk about people who have come before you: players that fought for
The franchise is not going to teach the players this. The players are exchanging the information you need to go up against a machine like the league.
Kevin Garnett with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2000.
Do players generally see themselves and the league as adversaries? Well,
has done a great job of bringing the partnership to a nice balance. Adam is my homie. With him, players feel like they have a voice. I don’t know how the owners feel about players having such a voice, but everybody has to be happy.
Is the players’ view of the league as being in partnership with them different from how it was under
Absolutely. The man was a visionary, but he was a beast. If you didn’t have a backbone and have your facts together, he would eat you.
You know, I’ve seen you talk with other players, and you were more specific and
What if I told you that I was the 12th man for the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1998?5 Can we take it from there? [Laughs.] I didn’t see you! I would have needed to see you on that bench for us to be comfortable. You have to go get your jersey and show me your [expletive], you know what I’m saying?
Garnett with David Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner, at the 1995 N.B.A. draft.
It’s in the laundry. Anyway, in the book, you call Stern an autocrat who would make belittling remarks in discussions with players, which makes him sound at least paternalistic if not something worse. Did you ever interpret a racial aspect to the commissioner’s attitude? I would say inadvertently. Like, you would come into a room for a meeting, and you would have a stage where there were tables and chairs. And David and all the owners would sit in those chairs, and the players had to look up at them. So I used to stand up. I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to stand so that we were even. Eye to eye. And the league was so combative in trying to get us to fit into a box that we didn’t necessarily fit into. We were the players whose families were affected through crack and cocaine in the ’80s and had dads locked up and killed and moms being taken away from their homes. So we had a different energy coming into the league. You had us swinging on the rim, bald heads, black socks, long shorts. The energy was different from what David was accustomed to with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. We didn’t know that he was trying to sell the game to China and that’s why he was trying to keep us in suits and ties off the court. He was trying to get us to say, “Hey, we’re professionals.” It came off like he was trying to control us. But it was nothing blatantly racial.
What’s your take on the current state of the N.B.A. game? The game is at another level. I know you said that you made the team with Vancouver, but I want you to get on a court, sprint corner to corner, stop on a dime and shoot a 3. I want you to do 10 of those. Then I want you to focus on how tired you are. Because these players do that for 48 minutes. I don’t think guys from 20 years ago could play in this game. Twenty years ago, guys used their hands to control players. Now you can’t use your hands. That makes defense damn near impossible. Can you imagine not hand-checking Michael Jordan? Naw. The fact that you can’t touch players gives the offensive player so much flexibility. Defensive players have to take angles away and stuff like that. But if you have any creativity and ambition, you can be a great offensive player in this league. The fadeaways, one-leg runners, the one-leg balance shots — that’s stuff that Dirk Nowitzki brought to our game. And now when I watch
play, it feels like he has taken that Dirkness and mixed it with his own talent. And Steph Curry revolutionized things with being able to shoot it from distance with such consistency. Klay Thompson. Dame Lillard. These guards changed the game. I don’t know if even the guards from 20 or 30 years ago could play in this time right here. It’s creative. It’s competitive. It’s saucy. You’ll get dropped! A [expletive] will cross you over and break your A.C.L. these days. The game is in a great place.
Garnett in 2007, his first year with the Boston Celtics, after 12 seasons with the Timberwolves.
The league hasn’t allowed 18-year-olds to play since 2006, but it looks as though
What do you make of the league having closed them in the first place? I did not like how they basically tried to make kids who could be in the league go to college. Colleges weren’t paying players, and they still ain’t paying players. I didn’t really see the benefit for the players of the league’s making them wait. Let teams mold that young talent. Because I’m honestly saying that Zion Williamson was a different player at Duke than he is at the New Orleans Pelicans. He was a lot more explosive. He seemed to have a lot more energy. He seemed to be a little slimmer. Can you imagine the Pelicans getting Zion at 18 and how he would be playing? You can set up a structure for these guys to come in and succeed at that age, as the Timberwolves did for me. You just have to manage the talent properly.
I know that since retiring, you’ve trained a few younger players. Who do you see now and think you could help his game? A lot of big men. James Wiseman. Joel Embiid. Jokic. Willie Cauley-Stein. Marvin Bagley up in Sacramento. There’s a bunch of guys who I watch and see things I can help with: face-ups, how they rip through and how they hold the ball. Anticipation on defense. A lot of these guys get into foul trouble because they’re not in the right position. I want to be able to share the gems that I was able to acquire over the years. Also, I went to the league and said I wanted to do this thing called “Uncle Kevin,” where I would go around and chop it up with youngsters and give insight, pointers, views. The league liked it. Nothing is for free, but maybe I’ll bring the “Uncle Kevin” idea back up with Adam.
I am extremely curious about that. What’s some Uncle Kevin wisdom? Man, when you come into some fame, everything changes. Your finances change, your mind-set changes, your lifestyle changes. Your mom and dad never made this kind of money. It’s so much change, and you’re living your life, but you don’t have a cheat sheet. I would say cut down the circle of people you know — friendships and business. You’ve got to cut down on unnecessary headaches, on thinking that you can help everything. You can’t. You have friends on drugs, or you see a friend going down a wrong path; you try to speak up, and they don’t want to hear it. So you have to let some things go.
Garnett, playing himself, with LaKeith Stanfield and Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems” (2019).
I imagine a lot of this comes down to having money. Yeah. You hear a lot of “Oh, man, an athlete had a gun, and da da da.” Well, a lot of people look at professional athletes as a mark. We don’t get to tell people: “Nah, I don’t have $200. I don’t have some bread to give you.” You have so many different people coming at you for all types of stuff. Some good, some bad. You have to filter it.
As far as your legacy, there’s your big Minnesota contract, there’s proving that players could successfully go pro at 18 and there’s the way you played. But what do you believe is your contribution to the story of basketball? It’s a sense of pride, a work ethic. I would be out there and be so energetic that I didn’t even know what to do. So I would Rahhh! I would roar or scream after something tremendous because that’s how I felt. When it comes to expression, I gave the league that monster face, you know what I’m saying? I used to play with so much tenacity that you felt it from your seat — every night. I brought excitement to the game. You don’t get a nickname like the Ticket — you don’t sell tickets — unless you’re doing something to make ’em all remember you. They didn’t call me the Freebie. They called me the Ticket.
Opening illustration: Source photograph by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.