BROOKLYN – It was late in a Brooklyn Nets’ practice before Game 2 of their playoff series against the Toronto Raptors when Kevin Garnett saw his opening.
“Where’s your jersey, Mase?’’ he bellowed to rookie Mason Plumlee. “Where’s your jersey at?’’
Plumlee turned towards Garnett and held out the practice jersey hanging off his waist, just as KG always has a practice jersey hanging from his waist.
It is one of the subtle lessons that KG teaches, lessons he feels are his responsibility to pass on to the next generation of NBA players, who he expects will pass it down to the next generation.
Kevin Maurice Garnett, 37, has won an NBA title, scored 25,626 points, grabbed 14,201 rebounds, assisted on 5,306 baskets and blocked 2,010 shots.
He will play his last game one of these days but he has no intent to leave the game. KG believes he has a higher calling than statistics and rings.
“I feel when a lot of the vets started to leave the game – what I call the core, sound players – I think they took a level of experience and quality out of the league, and I feel like at this point, yeah, I’m trying to be an example to the young guys,’’ Garnett told BrooklynNets.com in his most candid interview of the season. //brooklynnets.com>
“But more important, teach them the small things that I think are starting to leave our league: professionalism, the work ethic, the caring, the passion.’’
Garnett has just completed his 19th regular season and is in the midst of his 14th playoff campaign.
He was very productive in the first two games of the series against the Raptors, averaging 9.0 points on 54.5-percent shooting, a team-high six rebounds, one block, one steal and one assist in 19.5 minutes as the Nets split the first two games in Toronto.
Game 3 is Friday night (7:00pm; My9) in Barclays Center. The Raptors want to win back the home court advantage they lost after dropping Game 1. The Nets want to use their success in Barclays Center – they went 14-4 there since Jan. 1 - to full advantage.
Garnett came to the Nets this summer along with Paul Pierce and Jason Terry in a deal with one purpose: to bring the Brooklyn Nets their first NBA title in franchise history.
If it happens, Garnett and Pierce will join 33 other NBA players that have won rings with at least two franchises.
Epic indeed. To win in Boston and Brooklyn, two of the nation’s largest media markets with two of the most passionate fans bases, would be astonishing.
But if it happens, Garnett does not believe that would give him entre into the elite fraternity of New York City sports legends such as Broadway Joe Namath, Derek Jeter and Mark Messier.
“I look at it a little different,’’ said Garnett. “Jeter’s been here all 20 years with the Yankees. Messier is impeccable. Namath, dope. I don’t think I’ve served the years [here].
“Obviously I’ve given the league a countless amount of time, a lot of focus, but I don’t think I belong in that category. This is me talking. People who follow basketball will probably appreciate my craft and what I’ve done for the game. But I don’t want to discount those guys and their legacies and what they’ve done.
“Hopefully at the end of the day, I just want people to respect the fact that I enjoy and I live for my sport. I enjoy soccer. I enjoy watching other sports. But when it comes to basketball, this has always been my longtime girlfriend or wife. This has always been there for me. This is like my spinal cord.
“And I live for my sport. I support everything about it. I care about the well being of it and its current state and its post-state when I leave it. That [love], I don’t share for any other sport or any hobby.
My kids, my friends, obviously my family. Other than that, this is what I’ve dedicated my life, this is what my soul is made up of. When I sit back and think about what type of player I want to be known for, I want to be known for a player who gave everything.
“Everybody says that. But sometimes the actions don’t speak for it. At the end of the day when I look at the names like you just mentioned, I look at people who actually gave everything.
“You know, when I watch Jeter play I feel like I’m watching greatness. I feel like I’m watching a legacy before my eyes, just like when I watch Paul or when I watch certain guys play.
“If anything, I know this is a standard answer, but that’s what I want my legacy to be: ‘You know what, this guy gave everything he had and tried to dominate the game from every part of it, not just one part.’ ’’
While Garnett is delivering these impassioned thoughts on what the game has meant to him and how he hopes to be remembered, four times he taps me on the chest for emphasis.
Some athletes have an On/Off switch. Garnett has an Overdrive/Off switch.
He approaches every practice with an intensity, curiosity and commitment that astonish his teammates and coaches.
“Nineteen seasons and he stops practices more than any player I’ve known – questions, suggestions,’’ said coach Jason Kidd. “He has a standard he sets for himself. He keeps everyone around him honest.’’
This approach transcends basketball. Garnett guards his private life more fiercely than he defends the paint.
On this day, however, he is willing to discuss fatherhood.
“I won’t get too detailed into me off the court,’’ said Garnett. “I like to keep some things obviously private, but my girls will have respect for people and they will have respect for themselves and they will know what it’s like to work and have a work ethic.
“I’m very, very keen on respect for people and having manners and understanding how life works; that people don’t give you s*&t but you got to go out and earn everything you get; that you got to work towards something and it’s not always the way you want it.
“And pouting and things like that should not exist in this world; they can’t exist. So those are the things that my family, my kids will be. I know this. My job is to, obviously, to get them prepared for this rugged world we live in. And then after that, it’s about living and experiencing.’’
This begs the question of where Garnett got his life lessons.
Certainly his mother, Shirley Garnett, was the dominating force in his personal life.
Sam Mitchell, his former Minnesota Timberwolves teammate when Garnett came into the league in 1995 as the No. 5 pick overall, was his primary professional mentor.
“He was always professional,’’ said Garnett. “He was confident in who he was. He was a leader. He didn’t follow. True leaders can look at themselves and say they messed up or they weren’t perfect but they gave everything. They cared. They cared, man.
“I have a father somewhere. I don’t know anything about him. But when I think about what I want a father to be, when I think about what a grown man should be, those are the things I think about.’’
It is Garnett’s willingness to evaluate himself and ask questions of the world that has as much to do with his success as his 6-11, 253-pound frame and God-given athletic talent.
Whether it’s basketball, or his love for the Chelsea Football Club, or his thoughts on being an African-American male role model, Garnett is never satisfied with a superficial assessment.
He could walk away from the game at his choosing without any thought of the NBA’s future, but that would be the ultimate contradiction. Garnett has constantly referred to his game as a craft, a craft that must be perpetuated.
“I can’t help Mason if Mason is not receptive to light,’’ said Garnett. “Dark is stagnation. Life is movement. And I live by that.
“If you’re not open to change, if you’re not open to getting better and really being about it whole heartedly, I don’t see anything progressing. If a plant doesn’t take in light, it doesn’t grow. It doesn’t grow at all. And I teach them that.’’
So what happens when he decides the off-season workouts, highlighted by pickup soccer games in the yard behind his Minnesota home, have become too grueling?
What happens when he no longer has the flame to ask questions, support teammates, tutor rookies and take thousands of mid-range jumpers?
Garnett has purchased countless suits for rookies. He has hosted team dinners, such as the last one before the Nets broke training camp in October. He has placed innumerous calls to friends he’s made in the NBA.
What does KG do after his last shot? He has found himself asking that very question more in recent years.
“I don’t want to be synthetic,’’ said Garnett. “When you see [that drive] in a player, it’s a look like you’re looking in the mirror. You see it.
“I see it in Mason. That’s why I’m on his ass because one day I’m not going to be here and he’s going to have to push through. That’s the consistency I gave Big Baby [Glen Davis]. That’s the consistency I gave Kendrick Perkins.
“Those guys have gone off and been solid people for the organizations that they play. To me, I smile every time. I talk to those guys every 10 to 15 days and I smile to this day. Those are my brothers for life.’’
Garnett made this clear. He is not pondering retirement, nor has he started to sketch out a role that will allow him to help the young NBA players that want guidance to become stars on the court and solid men off it.
“We have business here,’’ he said. “There will be time to address those thoughts. But I think it’s essential. I don’t know what capacity it will be, but it’s needed, dude.
“Being around Reggie Miller, can you imagine being Reggie Miller and what he knows? Can you imagine being around a guy like Charles Barkley and what he knows? Shaquille O’Neal and what he knows? That year was perfect for me because I got to be inside his head.
“I played with Rasheed Wallace. I got to be inside his head. Sam Cassell, inside his head. These people who were so influential to the game, to my game, to me.
“This is how you get better. This is how you understand the league and this business. That’s how you understand how to be professional. I don’t know how I bring those things together. I know there’s a void there, I just don’t know in what capacity I fill the void.’’
With that, Garnett looks over and sees the Nets gathering for a film session.
“Pleasure talking, man,’’ Garnett said. “Time to learn. Time to let the light in. I can’t ask a teammate to do something I’m not willing to do. Got to look at myself first. You should always look at yourself.’’
Clearly, Garnett does.