Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Goodbye to a hero...

Where do I begin?

As a young boy, I loved playing all the sports. From baseball to soccer, I was there. I didn’t know much about the stats and players but like any little boy, I knew the superstars. I was especially a big fan of basketball back then. I knew the typical players, Michael Jordan, Shaq, Larry “Grand-ma-ma” Johnson, Penny Hardaway and the list could go on for days.

In Minnesota, basketball was Doug West, J.R. Rider and Christian Laettner. As you can see, we were in dire need of a basketball lifeline to turn things around.

This lifeline would come in the form of a 6’11 stringbean from Chicago via South Carolina. Straight out of high school (the first since 1975) and a ferocious player. Post moves, a jump shot and big man passing skills that mirrored a young Magic Johnson.

The Timberwolves were taking a chance that this young kid from Mauldin, SC would be able to revitalize Minnesota basketball. They knew the risks in taking a player right out of high school but what they didn’t know was that they were drafting one of the most driven and passionate players in NBA history.

From the start, you could see the hunger in his eyes. He was eager to learn and get to the next level as a player. He could have easily succumbed to having a bad attitude and being lazy (i.e. Rider and Laettner) but he didn’t. McHale, seeing this, got rid of both players. And at the young age of 19, Kevin Garnett was vaulted into the leading role of the new Broadway show called “Who’s going to save Minnesota Basketball?”

If you haven’t been under a rock for the past 12 years, then you know the story of his career. A great player who’s never been surrounded by veteran help. Well it’s true. Glen Taylor and Kevin McHale did everything but break KG’s legs to ruin his career. Now, many may argue that his huge contract handcuffed the Wolves from ever signing that big free agent, but if you look back at those vets who they couldn’t sign (my two favorites, Michael Finley and Gary Payton) they took huge pay cuts to play with the teams they signed with. Money was never an issue to them, so why couldn’t they get it done?

This is like asking, “Why does Paris Hilton do what she does?” You can come up with 800 different answers, but it really boils down to “who the heck even knows?”

Year in and year out, KG kept quiet and let his play do the talking. Year in and year out, the Wolves made the playoffs but lost in the first round. 7 years in a row to be exact. For a guy who is as competitive as KG is, it ate away at him inside every year. One man can only take so much before he starts to fight back. Until the last 4 or 5 years, Minnesota had only seen the man-child first nicknamed “Da ‘Kid” and then later nicknamed “The Big Ticket”. The man who would toss up the rosin into the air and onto the announcers and cause a huge white cloud and mess. The same man who would give fist pounds to the opposing players and then walk over towards section 116 and pound his chest and yell for the fans over there to get up. The same man who would stand at one end of the court after a time out towards the end of a game and raise his hands in the air as to say “We need you…I need you…get up and get loud!” Of course, we would all get up and scream our lungs out and “help” the Wolves to a win.

Often times after big wins, KG would run and jump up on the scorers table and throw his arms up to get the crowd going and show us that he was just as excited about the win as we were. He was and still is a man who can single handedly take over a game and bring his team back to life.

As he got older, you could see a change though. He was much more calm on the court. He said in an interview that he learned to pace himself in games and not exert all of his energy right in the first 5 minutes. Also with age, came urgency.

Each year that passed with a first round defeat, it got harder and harder for KG to take it. Eventually he moved to Pacific Palisades, CA to get away from Minnesota in the offseason. Every year after they were beat in the first round, it was the same question, “Will KG ever get the help that he needs to win a title?”

Finally, in 2004, he got that help. McHale and Taylor took a chance on clutch-master Sam Cassell and headcase Latrell Sprewell to help KG. They immediately meshed together and it carried from their first meeting together to their first game together. The 2004 season was absolute magic. Many may consider it to be the season that Kevin Garnett finally got to the superstar level. He won the All-Star game MVP with a 37 point performance in the double over-time win for the Western Conference, led the league in rebounding, led the Wolves to a 58-24 record and the Midwest Division title as well as the number 1 seed in the playoffs. Oh, and he also won the regular season MVP award. It seemed as if everything was falling into place.

The Wolves swept the Nuggets in the first round for their first ever playoff series win and then came the Kings. The Wolves battled hard with the Kings. Game 7 was on May 19, 2004 which happened to be Kevin Garnett’s birthday and the day before the 3 year anniversary of when Garnett’s friend and amazing man Malik Sealy was killed. My dad and I attended this game. To this day, it has been the most intense and amazing sporting event that I’ve ever been to. When I think about it, I still get goosebumps. From the minute we walked into the arena to the minute I jumped on someone’s back to scream “Beat L.A.” into a TNT camera, it was intense. “De-Fense” chants from the first second the ball hit the hardwood and this was shown on the jumbo-tron right before the Wolves came onto the court.

KG took over in the 3rd and 4th quarter. Sprewell and Cassell had already been to NBA finals games and KG knew that he had to do his part to try and get there. Anyone who watched this game was watching KG evolve into a superstar. I still remember seeing him cross over Chris Webber and drive the baseline for a monster dunk that sent the Target Center into a frenzy. He scored 10 straight points in the 4th quarter and led the Wolves to the NBA Western Finals against the Lakers.

We were all in uncharted territory. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. The Wild were playing Anaheim for the Western NHL finals and the Wolves were playing the Lakers for the NBA Western Finals. Looking back on it, I knew exactly what to do…cherish it. I had this sneaking feeling in the back of my mind that this wasn’t going to last forever. In sports today, dynasties are hard to come by so I was preparing myself somewhat.

I was right, the Wolves would later lose to the Lakers in 6 and the real Sprewell and Cassell showed up and took the place of the imposter Sprewell and Cassell who led us to the Western Conference finals. Cassell was traded and Sprewell was released and the Wolves dropped quickly back to mediocrity.

The next season was an absolute disaster. Flip Saunders was fired, to be replaced by McHale and for the first time in 8 years, Minnesota did not see playoff basketball. The writing was on the wall…in 48 “Cooper Black” font (look it up, it’s real). Flip was KG’s only coach (other than Bill Blair) and his favorite coach. Taylor and McHale all but refused to ever take a chance again on sketchy veterans and KG was back to square one. The Wolves got worse and younger and KG got older.

They traded away more than they would get back every year and Garnett started to voice his frustrations with the organization. For the first time, we started to hear how frustrated KG was with the organization. If you’ve got 9 minutes free, watch this interview with John Thompson and try and tell me that this man doesn’t care.

He started to distance himself further away from the organization and Minnesota in the off-season. It was tough enough to see him in Minnesota during the season let alone in the off-season where he spent much of his time in California. He was always around for charity events and other team/NBA sanctioned things but if he didn’t have to be there…he wasn’t there. One must look at this in the regular Joe-schmo sense. I used to work for Target and if I didn’t have to be there…I wasn’t there. When your job makes you want to be anywhere else but at your job, it’s time for a change.

Finally, McHale and Taylor have allowed for KG to make that change.

After two dismal seasons of “re-building”, KG now has a chance to win that ever elusive NBA title and finally solidify himself as one of the NBA’s elite players. He will be playing with Ray “Jesus Shuttlesworth” and Paul Pierce in the “easy” Eastern Conference and will be surrounded by the most amount of help that anyone can receive (save, Lindsay Lohan at one of the 48 rehab facilities in Malibu, CA).

While KG will be playing for a possible NBA title, the new look Minnesota Timberwolves will hopefully NOT be facing Cretin-Derham Hall in the second round of the High School basketball tournament this coming March. In all honesty, I am actually quite high on the new group of Wolves. Seven of them have actually played together before, which is better than most NBA teams currently. I’ll have an article on the new look Wolves here in a couple weeks.

I want to end with this…

Anytime a superstar leaves their team, it’s always sad. Anyone will tell you that KG was different though. He came to the Wolves at the age of 18. He grew up along with all of the kids in Minnesota and was like family to all of us. He stayed with us and fought to put Minnesota back on the map for basketball.

KG…good luck in Boston and on behalf of all of us in your Minnesota Family…Thank you.

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