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Reinventing Kevin Garnett
by Chris Palmer
July 15, 2002
ESPN The Magazine
In a single July day, The Magazine's Chris Palmer was exposed to both extremes of Kevin Garnett. The Timberwolves' happy-go-lucky kid is contrasted by a fierce, dangerously passionate competitor with a sharp tongue -- someone who might scare you silly if he didn't come pre-wrapped in cuddly YMCA-kid-next-door package. This is the Garnett you don't know about. Yet.
The day starts out with Kevin the Fierce. Well, sort of. I arrive at Hutton Gym on the campus of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., where KG is shooting his new And 1 spot. The commercial, which begins airing Monday night, is loosely based on the interrogation scene in Scarface, his favorite movie. The theme: KG calls into question his doubts and weaknesses by grilling himself mercilessly.
But KG is nowhere to be found. It's 10:30 and already 95 degrees. The production crew has crudely taped up a wall of plastic to form a makeshift hallway at one end of the gym. Outside, a huge generator is pumping in some seriously frigid air. Not that it's working. The plastic tunnel leads to a small stuffy room that will serve as the set's primary location: the interrogation room. By noon it's an inferno.
Garnett shows up at 12:30. He grabs a little something from the food-service table, then heads to wardrobe to pick something from his line. Director Chris Robinson holds what seems to be an endless stream of production meetings. Robinson has a list of about 100 scripted questions aimed at pushing Garnett's buttons. Production assistants scurry about, routing cable, shouting in walkie-talkies and banging the sides of monitors that don't act right. At 2:45 it is announced that cameras will roll in 20 minutes. An hour later KG enters the interrogation room.
He sits in an unforgiving steel chair at a table in the middle of the room. Robinson gives Kevin a few last-minute instructions before the cameras roll. "Relax, be yourself, be real," says Robinson.
"No doubt. Let's do the damn thing," KG replies. After Garnett gets settled, Robinson reads his prepared questions off camera. Garnett's answers are unscripted, shocking, refreshing and serious. What follows is part of the interrogation.
Q: Are you overpaid?
KG: Hell no. If anything I'm underpaid, with everything I do. That's a ridiculous question. I have to do everything for this team.
Q: Are you tough enough to play in the Western Conference? Maybe Minnesota should move to the East.
KG: Man, I've been in the Western Conference for seven years. Holdin' it down. Nobody there scares me. Look at my numbers. You know my rap sheet.
Q: What are your numbers?
KG: Twenty, ten and five. Twenty, ten and five. Three years in a row. And I'm rounding down. Who else has done that?
Q: What does that get you?
KG: It gets you what it gets you.
Q: Does it get you out of the first round?
KG: We'll get out of the first round when everybody does their part. Players, coaches, management, everybody. I can't do everything by myself. It'll get us past the first round if m-----------s do their part.
"I have to do everything for this team."
Q: Word on the street is that you're soft in the fourth quarter.
KG: F--- you talkin' about? That's not what I hear.
Q: What do you hear?
KG: That KG is the m---------ing s---. N----s know. My peers in the league know what I'm about.
Q: What have you learned about the fourth quarter?
KG: To not pass the ball if we're losing.
Q: Did it hurt you when your idols criticized you? [During the playoffs, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley were highly critical of Garnett for not "stepping up" in the fourth quarter.]
KG: That was just them being d---s. They were just looking for a camera. Besides, they're not my idols anyway.
Q: Has Kobe ever dunked on you?
KG: That's a stupid question. No. Kobe has never dunked on me in his life.
Q: Are you and Wally better than Kobe and Shaq?
KG: [Long pause] No … it hurts me to say it but we're not. I just … [sigh] ... we just aren't.
Q: Why did you skip college?
KG: At the time I felt like going pro was the only way I was going to make something of my life. Besides college ain't s---. It's like slavery, they're trying to f--- the kids. You gotta get your education but I made a decision for me.
This past season KG made the All-Interview first team. This might just put him in the Hall of Fame.
After taking the questions, Garnett was filmed pacing around the table, asking the questions, to complete the "KG grills KG" aspect of the commercial. By 6 o'clock, he was exhausted.
"What you just saw was all me," he said. "That's just how I'm feeling right now. Now is the time. This is me, what you see. I feel like it's time for all the bull---- to stop. I'm ready to do my part."
Moments later, KG was in his Ferrari Spyder heading home to shower and change.
Robinson, the director, emerged from the set with a look of disbelief. "Man, that's a serious cat," he says. "That was pure KG. You just saw his real passion." (That passion is a bit muted in the finished commercial, but viewers will still get the point.)
Nine hours after I arrived at the gym, I was out of there. After a quick pit stop at the hotel I'm scooped up by Michael Moore, KG's pal and business manager of his Official Block Family clothing line. Destination: Ruth's Chris Steak House. They close at 10, and it's already 10:15. When KG's in the house, they close when KG leaves. He's on a first-name basis with all the waitresses and the chefs keep the kitchen open until our posse of 10 is way past stuffed.
A few years ago the T-Wolves used to eat here as a team 35 nights out of the season. Last season they ate here once. "It ain't like it used to be," says KG. Anyway, the staff is glad to see him again.
KG takes a seat at the head of the table. He's sporting a brand new Sixers Moses Malone jersey from the '82-'83 season. His mood banged a U-turn since the shoot. Gone is the junk-spewing interrogation suspect. KG and his boys are on total joke time.
Don't tell KG he's soft in the 4th.
The conversation is boisterous and there's a comeback for every cutdown. Topics shift from the greatest rapper of all time to Iverson's infamous crossover on Jordan when Bubba Chuck was a rookie. The table declares Tupac the best deceased rapper and Jay-Z the king of the living.
"They could be on this topic for hours," says Moore. But when someone says Tupac could have run for president in his heyday, everyone decides it's best to change the subject. How about boxing? "Mike Tyson invented the 30-second knockout," declares KG's boy, DJ Set Free.
"Yeah, but he also invented the get-your-***-pummeled-by-Lennox-Lewis-and-get-knocked-the-hell-out-in-the-8th-round," KG quips.
He slaps shut his menu and orders the New York strip, lobster, a Caesar salad and a Coke. He's 7foot-1 and still growing. But his eyes are bigger than his stomach and he takes his leftovers home in a doggie bag.
After dinner, KG pulls aside one of his crew who has been especially quiet tonight. The kid looks way too young to hang with this crowd, but Garnett tries to make him feel accepted. His name is Michael Mason and he's 17. He's also KG's adopted son.
KG is feeling good and proceeds to rag one of the homeys for his recent lack of skill in the batting cage. He imitates all three strikes, nearly twisting himself into the ground in the middle of the restaurant. Next he's in somebody else's face about something, sticking his tongue out and doing some dance that's a cross between the funky chicken and a deranged bobblehead. But no one seems to notice. "We're used to it," says Free. "That's just him."
His friends will tell you this is when he's at his best. When he can be plain old Kevin. Not the Franchise. Not the Big Ticket. Not Da Kid or The Man. Just Kevin. The guy who thinks he's still on the asphalt playgrounds of Mauldin, S.C.
Our crew heads for the door 2˝ hours after closing. Walking out in single file, Kevin is about mid-pack when his eyes get big. He spots the candy dish at the front counter. "Mints!" he exclaims. He reaches one of his Spalding-palming hands in the bowl and scoops out a massive helping and stuffs them deep in his pocket. Enough to last a month. I go to grab a few when his five-finger crane scoops again. And again. He presses his jeans against his leg, revealing a bulge of mints in his pocket the size of a football. "Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about," he says, as he bobs out the door to the Ferrari waiting by the curb.
I had no idea I could fit in a Ferrari. But here I am in the passenger seat with room to spare. KG zips his hat backwards and comfortably dips into the driver's seat. "Here, hold this," he says as he tosses the doggie bag in my lap. He fires up the beast and the stereo nearly blasts my face off.
KG lets out a satisfied chuckle. I meant to do that.