Jackie MacMullan, ESPN (http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/14172961/the-cruel-tutelage-kevin-garnett)
Garnett actually knew. Greatness — the pursuit of it — was slippery, elusive, dependent on myriad variables, like health, conditioning, team chemistry, luck. But some components shouldn’t be left to chance, and preparation was one of them. “Kevin had this belief that if you were the leader, you couldn’t miss one snap of practice,” says Doc Rivers, who coached Garnett in Boston from 2007 to 2013. “But I had this belief that you are 30-whatever and I need you for the whole season.”
And so in February 2009 the coach sat down his future Hall of Famer. Not to skip a game. Rivers just wanted him to miss a practice.
“Coach, you don’t understand,” Garnett seethed. “If I’m sitting, they will see weakness.”
When the Wolves acquired Garnett this past February, before Towns had been drafted, they took on a 38-year-old with a $12 million salary and a history of knee problems. Flip Saunders was the driving force behind the decision to bring KG into the fold, citing Garnett’s ability to flourish as a rookie under the watchful eye of former teammate Sam Mitchell, who is now the Timberwolves’ interim coach. The idea was to pay that experience forward. Garnett, who signed a new two-year, $16.5 million guaranteed deal after he arrived, is the first to concede that his value is no longer to produce on the court. The Wolves are banking on his intangibles: the work ethic, the experience, the ability to motivate. Garnett, for his part, says Towns reminds him much of himself at the same age. “His confidence might be a little higher than mine was at this point,” he says. “It’s modern day. Kids are exposed to so much more. Karl listens. He’s smart, but like so many young players, he likes to think he knows a lot. He’s got a lot of swag. So that’s what’s up. We’ll deal.”
Former teammate Chauncey Billups maintains that Garnett is the most unselfish superstar of his era and the most dynamic leader he has seen. Then again, if Towns is devoured by KG’s fire, he wouldn’t be the first. A partial list of ex-teammates who have endured the wrath of the Big Ticket includes Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Mason Plumlee, Ray Allen, Wally Szczerbiak, Rajon Rondo, Rasho Nesterovic, Patrick O’Bryant and Deron Williams. Some have survived to be welcomed into Garnett’s inner circle; others are forever dead to him. “If you don’t meet his expectations,” says Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, “he has no use for you.”
Nobody — not even Allen and Paul Pierce — were immune from KG’s outbursts. And although Garnett counts Rondo, whom he played with for six seasons in Boston, among his closest friends, he didn’t hesitate to boot the point guard from practice if he felt Rondo was going through the motions. According to Rivers, that happened more than once. “He’d tell Rondo, ‘Get the f— out! You’re not playing defense!'” Rivers says. “He told him the truth. Rondo needed more of that.”
“I always say, ‘I’m not stepping on someone who doesn’t want to be stepped on,'” Garnett says. “Because this is a no-nonsense league. If you’re not in it, and I mean in it today, then they will replace you tomorrow.”
In July, KG showed up in Las Vegas to watch the young pups in the NBA’s summer league and agreed to participate in an informal workout with Wiggins, small forward Shabazz Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng, each of whom wasn’t on the summer league roster. The players secured a gym, a bus and an 8 a.m. start time. But when the trio arrived at Bishop Gorman High, Muhammad’s alma mater, Garnett was already there, drenched in sweat, muttering to the basketball, bobbing and weaving like a championship fighter. He’d been there, according to Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, since 6 a.m.
“I thought y’all wanted to be good!” KG scolded his teammates as they filed in.
General manager Milt Newton says Garnett has created a positive tension, including for Wiggins, whose main drawback in his 2014-15 Rookie of the Year campaign was fluctuating aggression. When KG is around, Newton says, “there’s this anticipation of, ‘Are you going to get on me?'”
“As soon as he steps into the building,” Wiggins says, “everyone feels they have to play at a higher level.” For his part, Towns, from the first moment of training camp, has gleefully affixed himself to Garnett. He has delighted in sprinting the floor — full tilt — in tandem with him. Together they call out picks, swat balls into the stands and raucously celebrate breakaway jams. “Everything with Karl is high-flying, two-handed dunks and windmills,” Garnett says. “He’s hanging on the rim, swinging in the air, and I love it.”
Says Garnett: “I’m very real with these guys now. I tell them straight up how it is. I tell them there is only one thing that can mess this up: egos. I tell them because I lived it. Because that’s what messed us up with Steph.”
They linger most days after practice, because there is still so much to be done, so much to learn. One day the focus is on honing the prized elbow jumper; Garnett implores the rookie to take hundreds — no, thousands — of shots until it becomes second nature. The next day, it’s pump fakes and misdirections that will provide Towns with a straight line to the basket. There are countless drills for footwork, including one Garnett invented that requires players to maneuver around shoes pointed at various angles to mimic the opponent’s defensive position. “Attack the feet!” KG bellows, the line between mentor and coach graying by the instruction. “Attack the feet!” When Newton peeks in on these post-practice tutorials, he smiles. “School’s in session,” he says.