For a guy who just announced his retirement after 21 seasons as one of the NBA’s hardest working, most intense, two-way players ever, people sure seem to be in a hurry to put Kevin Garnett to work again.
Less than a week since Garnett reached a buyout and ruled out returning to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 2016-17 season, Cleveland coach and KG pal Tyronn Lue was nudging him to join the Cavaliers staff. Doc Rivers, their boss during their time together in Boston a few years back, beat Lue to the punch — informally at least — when Garnett dropped by the Clippers’ training camp at UC-Irvine Thursday and spent time after the workout talking with Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the squad’s other big men.
Pitches to lure Garnett back into uniform probably have come already and certainly will continue, considering how long, lean and in-basketball-shape Garnett looks, thanks to a fitness routine ingrained as habit and aching knees that only bark silently.
ICYMI: The Clippers were all ears as KG helped out at practice yesterday. https://t.co/s7lGZc9iVH pic.twitter.com/qX0uyNfmOM
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) September 30, 2016
“I thought he would’ve been the first player in NBA history to play in his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s,” Lue told reporters in Cleveland Thursday. “He just turned 40 in May. I just thought that would’ve been great for him.”
A plan that would have brought the Wolves’ longtime franchise face into an ownership role lies fallow for now, rendered uncertain by former coach and team president Flip Saunders’ death last October. Team owner Glen Taylor, who declined to comment for this story, hooked up with a pair of new minority owners in July and, truth be told, Saunders’ vision for Garnett was as much about Flip broadening his base and nurturing his own slice of the franchise for another decade or more.
Certainly, given his career basketball earnings in excess of $340 million (according to basketball-reference.com’s math) and many millions more from endorsements and outside opportunities, Garnett has the means to invest in an NBA franchise or pursue just about any other entrepreneurial opportunity that suits him.
This much we do know: It will come down to Garnett’s desires, maybe some restlessness and whatever level of hands-on involvement he truly seeks. He won’t be puttering around the house in Malibu or Minnesota, marking time till he dons an extra-extra-long blue vest and welcomes shoppers to the big-box store.
Athletes ‘die’ twice
Garnett’s first 19 years prepped him for what would follow, on the court and more so off, turning basketball into an escape and a calling for him while stoking a fire that would burn hotter, longer, than all but a handful of NBA legends past or present.
His next 21 were played out in public, Garnett pursuing and excelling at precisely — by physiology, by temperament — what his creator had in mind for him. He ended his playing career last week and started the clock on his Hall of Fame induction in 2021 (alongside Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan), leaving in his wake three or four legitimate legacies.
There was Garnett’s bold move, untried for two decades at the time, to enter the NBA straight out of high school in 1995. It was a decision that, because Garnett made it look so doable, fast-tracked the pro arrivals of contemporaries such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard, infusing the league with young talent (and the occasional Darius Miles, Eddy Curry and Kwame Brown).
There was Garnett’s big money, the six-year, $126 million extension he signed before his third season that generally is credited with triggering the costly 1998-99 lockout. The NBA’s owners saw salary madness, grabbed at their wallets and cost themselves and the players billions of dollars in barely salvaging a 50-game schedule that season. But the madness proved profitable, Memphis guard Mike Conley’s new five-year, $153 million deal (factoring in inflation) is equivalent to Garnett’s $21 million average salary back then and — notably — no one ever accused Garnett of failing to live up to that huge payday.
There was Garnett’s volatility, the intensity that propelled him through game nights and practice days alike. In the beginning, he played more like his idol Magic Johnson, a ready smile revealing the joy and enthusiasm that came from tapping all those marvelous, maturing skills. Later the smile was absent, Garnett glowering as if he expected someone to show up and take away all he had earned. Some of his blue-tinged yapping on the floor was meant for himself, some of it bubbled over as vulgar taunts of his opponents. But there never was any doubt about where he was or what he was doing.
“One of our first games, we were warming up and Kevin just bumped the hell out of me,” said former Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, thinking back to their 2007-08 introduction and title run. “We were going through a layup line and he’s so focused and zeroed in on his routine, and he was doing his thing. He runs, he’s so intense, even in the layup line, he wants to lather up and get a great sweat before the game starts. That’s been his routine since Day 1.”
Then there was Garnett’s versatility, his place in a generation of power forwards that included Duncan and Rasheed Wallace, who made it OK for 7-footers to face up and stray from the post. It was an evolutionary step toward the stretch-fours we see today. And then Garnett took it to an entirely new level with his defense, expending as much energy as a lockdown specialist while stringing together 20-10-5 seasons at the other end like Larry Bird.
He could guard all five spots when needed, crouching to slap the floor in front of Steve Nash, meeting Shawn Marion above the rim and battling on the block with Amare Stoudemire. He was Bill Russell’s recent favorite to watch and, when you factor in the mediocre casts that surrounded Garnett in Minnesota his first 12 seasons and how much heavy lifting he had to do, you could make a persuasive case for Garnett as one of the league’s most underrated players ever.
Still, the calendar doesn’t lie. Garnett’s first professional life is over. He has another 40 or 50 years to go, to re-invent himself, to put to use all that basketball and interpersonal wisdom.
Bryant, with his L.A. base, seems drawn to entertainment projects. Duncan is a Spurs lifer, San Antonio’s front office letting him shape his own role. But Garnett’s next life has just begun.
Searching for his second act
Coach? Did someone say coach? Even the people who love and respect Garnett, who believe in his aptitude to master almost anything he tackles, never have imagined him as a clipboard-carrying, midnight oil-burning grinder on the sidelines.
“He won’t do it,” Rivers said in March 2015, soon after Garnett returned to Minnesota to end his playing days. “Because he just won’t allow himself. But he should. I think it’s a loss if he doesn’t. … We’ve had that argument for six years.”
Rivers had seen the impact of Garnett speaking up in practices, of drilling younger players with his know-how and revving them up with some of the fire and brimstone he totes around.
But the detail work and the long hours, longer than a typical player’s schedule, hold no appeal for him. Nor does the travel at this point, with daughters at home to raise, or the fact that he couldn’t slip into the comfortable anonymity that so many assistant coaches enjoy. Garnett’s response to coaching questions, at least as a full-time second profession, hasn’t changed since Rivers spoke about it 18 months ago.
“Hell no,” Garnett said back then. “Coaching’s what I won’t do. You can’t talk me into that. … That’s a big H-E-L-L-N-A-H. Nah.”
OK, so what does that leave?
Broadcasting: It’s possible Garnett spends some time in TNT’s or ESPN’s studio at some point. He talks in paragraphs, not just sound bites, and when he’s in the mood can paint pictures with his words and insights. “Pressure is 10 kids, two biscuits, no job,” he once said, deflating the notion of “big-game jitters” immediately. He never has had a problem with candor, nor has he been lacking in opinions, and at 40 he still has a playfulness and an excitability that could bounce well off studio colleagues.
“No, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on TV,” Garnett’s brother-in-law, music producer Jimmy (Jam) Harris told TheUndefeated.com last week. “I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to sit with him to watch a basketball game, but it’s hilarious. It’s unbelievable.”
Then again, Garnett has been known to let enough F-bombs creep into his conversations that, around an open microphone, he might burn through TV’s seven-second delay buttons the way his rosin tosses used to gum up courtside laptops.
Ownership: That was to be Garnett’s Golden Ticket to the NBA’s highest level. It would have afforded him the opportunity to add to his business skills, rub elbows as often or as seldom as he chose with the league’s power brokers and drop by the gym a lot or a little to work and talk with players, looking after his investments while staying close to what he loves.
That might still happen in some form and, with Michael Jordan already presiding in Charlotte and LeBron James speaking only about his ownership vision, Garnett would seem a legit candidate. But Taylor has been mum. And while Minnesota is the logical place for Garnett to make such a transition, the announcement of his retirement offered no information about any ongoing relationship between the team and the star player.
Outside enterprise: When he first arrived on the NBA season, Garnett brought with him an interest in fashion. He even bankrolled a line of casual and sports apparel known as “OBF,” for the “Original Block Family” of boyhood friends and relatives he kept close in those years. It didn’t last long, but it was a sign of a curious mind that wouldn’t have to limit itself solely to basketball to stay active.
Charity has been an outlet of Garnett’s too, most famously in the 24 houses he funded (one a month for two years) after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans. He and his wife Brandi live in Malibu, and have a network of entertainment and music contacts there with Harris and his projects.
“Probably running some type of big company that he’s very interested in,” Rondo suggested. “Whatever his hobby is. He’s big on family, he’s big on brotherhood. He’s talked about a couple things, I don’t know exactly. But his mind is business set and he wants to do something big. I’m sure he’s got his hands on a lot of things right now, and I’m sure with him hanging it up he’ll have things in place.”
But as longtime NBA coach George Karl said this week, “I don’t think we’re going to see Kevin Garnett out of basketball.”
Big-man consultant: Garnett could earn some hefty fees and transfer his hoops acumen and experience by hanging out a shingle as a coach-for-hire, not necessarily attached to any one team. That’s what Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and a select few have done, working with the likes of Roy Hibbert, Marcin Gortat, Robin Lopez, Stoudemire and dozens more. Stoudemire, with the New York Knicks in 2012, reportedly agreed to pay the former Rockets MVP $100,000 for two weeks of court clinic that summer. The high-level, high-priced tutorials occur most often in the offseason, but sometimes a training camp or an in-season consultation can tune up a slumping player, with his coaching staff’s blessing.
It wouldn’t even have to be limited to power forward and center play. Garnett’s approach to the game, his intensity, his preparation and the lessons he has learned over 21 years would be valuable, too, whether offered on a 1-to-1 basis or in some evangelical way to an entire team.
In a piece on the National Basketball Players Association, current Wolves players spoke about Garnett’s influence and mentoring work. Guard Zach LaVine’s comments were typical: “Those moments with KG where it was just us two 1-on-1, it was just life-experience stuff. He was such a great teacher, he was like a big brother, taught us NBA valuable lessons and then off-the-court lessons, life lessons. He hit the whole spectrum and you can’t replace a guy like that.”
The advantages of something like this for Garnett would be setting his own hours, working only as much as he wanted and keeping a toe in with multiple teams and cohorts. The down side would be not feeling attached to any one squad’s efforts, flying solo and never quite scratching the competitive itch that drove him as a player.
“Ha! I’m going with consultant,” Harris wrote in a text Thursday, choosing from a menu of Garnett post-playing possibilities. “Will give him a chance to be around the game on his own terms with people he can mentor as well as people he can learn from.”
Said Karl: “Kevin is one of the best professionals to ever play this game. Keeping him in the gym, in the game, would be a positive for any organization. Whatever title you’d want to give him — you want to call him consultant, you want to call him ‘director of ego management’ — he would be great to have around.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.