Mission finally accomplished for KG
Season after season, year after year, eight playoffs and eight eliminations, Kevin Garnett would open his postmortems with pretty much the same moves: a flop into a folding chair, head bowed, a moment of reflection and finally, a sigh, his broad shoulders taking a ride with the great intake-outtake of air and the weight of failure full upon them.
You know what a sigh is, don't you? So often, it is the universal expression of frustration, exasperation, exhaustion and suffering, more or less the Mount Rushmore of unwanted emotions for an athlete such as Garnett, striving again and failing again to realize his dream.
Garnett sighed Tuesday night, too, and even talked about it. Only this time, it was different. This sigh was welcome, a rite of passage, mission accomplished, an exhale to blow away the critics and the demons and the very large monkey on Garnett's back, once and for all.
This, he told reporters in the euphoric hour after the Celtics' 131-92 victory over the Lakers to win the 2008 NBA championship, was a sigh of relief.
"It's like that bully that you go to school with every day,'' Garnett said, launching into one of his "stories,'' a life-lesson metaphor that, for once, would have a happy ending. Happy? Make that jubilant, triumphant even.
"He's sitting there, with his feet up, waiting for you, to pat your pockets and mess with you. And one day, you say to yourself, 'You know what, this is going to stop today.' ''
So, bam! The bully goes down. With him, in Garnett's scenario, 12 years of coming up short, 12 years of coughing up milk money to someone else.
"You're sorta, kinda shook, because you know what, you just knocked the bully out and you don't know how he's going to come back,'' the Celtics' power forward said. "So the next morning you come in -- he's not there. It's like a sigh of relief. It's like getting rid of the bully. ... I knocked his ass clean out. That's what it feels like.''
Actually, there were a few expletives laced through Garnett's tale, aftershocks of the emotions that tumbled out of him when the Celtics ended their wait of 22 years for another championship and he ended his wait of 32 years for his first. For 12 of those, Garnett -- as versatile and impossible to pigeonhole as any player in league annals -- tried to build it with, and bring it to, the Minnesota Timberwolves. For the past year, six weeks shy of 12 months actually, he chased it and got it with the Celtics to cap a storybook season.
After being stuck the past three years on a team that played the minimum 82 games, Garnett and the Celtics won 82 -- 66 in the NBA's biggest single-season improvement, plus the requisite 16 in the playoffs. That isn't quite the same thing as going undefeated through an entire season, but it's about as close as you can get. For a guy who suffered through enough same dreary outcomes to make Bill Murray happy to be in Punxsutawney, this was an emancipation, a breakthrough of his personal glass playoff ceiling.
He ultimately did it his way, too. Not by taking over offensively down the stretch, the way his critics implored, but by sharing and making his teammates better. Not by banging inside the way some demanded or learning to be more selfish but by displaying his whole range of skills, from the turnaround jump shots to the alley-oop throwdowns, from his fundamentally sound passes out of double teams to his rebounds. And always, with defense.
Even then, with 26 points, 14 rebounds and four assists, Garnett was the player of the game in the biggest blowout (39 points) in the history of Finals clinchers. The player of the game in the biggest game of his life, a game so lopsided, there wasn't even a "down the stretch'' for him to avoid.
"Man, man, man,'' Garnett said, over and over in between catching his breath and reining in a mile-wide smile. "I just want to say, other than my kid being born, this has got to be the happiest day of my life right now. I'm going to be hoarse. I don't plan on sleeping for a week and months. If y'all are looking for me, personal friends, my number's about to change. Man, man, man.''
And then, another whew! Along the way in the giddiness at TD Banknorth Garden, Garnett gave shout-outs to his roots in "'Sota,'' Chicago and South Carolina, kissed the team logo at center court on the parquet floor, hollered "Anything's possible!'' to the rafters and laid his head on a staffer's shoulder for what looked to be a few silent sobs -- cries, like sighs, matter too. He even went gangster, a la Jimmy Cagney at the climax of White Heat, by yelling to his mother, Shirley, "Ma, top o' the world! Top o' the world!''
What, you expected anything different? As amped as this guy gets for a meaningless game against, say, Memphis in December, you had to figure on raw emotions and nonstop adrenaline in the wake of his defining moment. A moment that, if you read between the lines through the years, he sometimes doubted would ever come.
The Garnett who said "I'm a loyal cat ... I'm with you when you don't have nothing because you were with me when I didn't have nothing,'' was a 24-year-old, a virtual kid in October 2000, reacting to the harsh news of Minnesota's Joe Smith/illegal contract sanctions. By August 2006, that kid was older, wiser and a lot less patient. "I'm in it to win, man, I'm not in it to be coming back talking about next year,'' he said then. "My clock is ticking, man.''
Minnesota's inability -- with the exception of a 2004 run to the Western Conference finals -- to put the pieces around Garnett, through a miserable draft history, the failure to lure free agents and the difficulty of navigating the salary cap around his massive nine-figure contracts, led last July to his career crossroads. One former Celtic, Kevin McHale, had failed him but another, Danny Ainge, concocted and sold to McHale the seven-for-one trade that would replenish the Wolves, transform the Celtics and seal Garnett's legacy.
By the end, Garnett was wrapped up in a hug by, and wrapping up, the greatest Celtic of all. Bill Russell, who took a shining to Garnett's drive and intensity a decade ago, had promised during these playoffs to hand over one of his 11 championship rings if this newest Boston big man never won one. Who, after all, can wear 11?
That won't be necessary now. Kevin Garnett, NBA champion, has a nice ring to it, all its own.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.