Ring's the thing for Garnett -- but does he need it to define career?
Off one list, smack onto another.
When the Celtics got past the Pistons in six games to advance to the NBA Finals, Kevin Garnett stood up and excused himself from a room full of frustrated, slightly sad athletes of various ages. He no longer belonged there, a member of the all-NBA team of players who never reached the league's championship round.
The squad is strong enough without him, with Dominique Wilkins, Steve Nash, George Gervin, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Bob Lanier, Chris Webber, Alex English, Bernard King, Pete Maravich, Vince Carter and Dave Bing as a possible first 12. A second dozen of only slightly lesser skills or renown could be chosen from the NBA's other past and present Finals-deficient greats. There are handfuls like them across the mainstream sports, too, from Ernie Banks, Alex Rodriguez, Rod Carew and Andre Dawson in baseball, to Barry Sanders, Dick Butkus, Dan Fouts and Eric Dickerson in football, to Marcel Dionne and Mike Gartner in hockey.
Now Garnett has upgraded to the list of NBA greats who did, in fact, make it to the Finals but did not win. Like Boston teammates Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, he is in good company here, too, rubbing elbows with Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Elgin Baylor, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Nate Thurmond, Dikembe Mutombo, Chris Mullin, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki. Still, it's another of those rooms you'd rather not work, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres when you're hungry for a four-course meal.
For Garnett, then, this is the intersection of Good News Ave. and Bad News Blvd. Finally, after 13 seasons, he has made it to the better list. And now he is stuck there, for the next week or two at least. Or maybe longer. Much longer.
So the question becomes, Just how stuck is that? It might not seem right, discounting great players for the rings they never won. Yet it goes on all the time by fans, by the media, even by players themselves.
"I would trade all 25,000 points, all those fourth-quarter heroics, for a ring,'' Miller told me back in October 2006, his career capped after 18 seasons with the Pacers. "Does it legitimize? I don't know. But at the end of the day, you are judged by your wins and losses. Personally, I never got it done. Will that leave an empty [feeling] in my gut? Maybe so."
Whether it should or not is almost irrelevant. Whether it does or not, that's the issue. The quietest Barkley ever gets on those TNT studio laugh-fests, for instance, is when fellow panelists Kenny Smith and Magic Johnson start to tease him about not having a championship ring. It will follow Stockton and Malone at some level into the Hall of Fame, maybe all the way into their obits.
Fortunately, plenty of people in the game -- some who have won, some who have not -- give comfort to those who came up short.
"I used to think that way. But they give everything that they can,'' Hall of Fame center-turned-broadcaster Bill Walton said a few All-Star Games ago. Walton was the anchor of Portland's title team in 1977 and a key sub on Boston's 1986 champion.
"To me, it's the effort to win. That is all I care about,'' he said. "Winning a championship? That's the hardest thing. You need everything to fall into place. LeBron [James], his stature and his level of success is out of his hands. It's really the same with an Iverson and a Garnett."
Said ABC analyst Mark Jackson, an NBA point guard for 17 seasons who lost in his only Finals appearance in 2000: "I really don't believe in the 'validation.' I think Kevin Garnett is an all-time great power forward, just like I can name off the top of my head a Patrick Ewing or a Reggie Miller. I think it's unfair to say, 'Now this puts a [positive] stamp on a guy' just because he has a ring. It takes a lot to win a championship. You're talking about great teams, great years, great coaching. So I look at those guys like they've gotten it done. This is just icing on the cake.''