Late Tuesday, Charlie Villanueva’s Twitter feed looked like this:
If these are Villanueva’s words, they are disturbing. (I reached out to the Pistons’ forward to see if he’d chat more about the comments referring to Kevin Garnett — and to make sure no one hacked his Twitter account. I also reached out to a Celtics spokesman to see if the team or Garnett, who helped Boston defeat Detroit 109-86 on Tuesday, would address Villanueva’s allegation. I haven’t heard back but will update this post if and when I do.)
The first tweet, about wanting to fight and “expose” Garnett, will take some attention away from the second tweet, which I find more interesting. The notion that KG has “never been in a fight” taps into what is now an old criticism of Garnett: that he is a bully who selects safe targets who are often smaller physically and far below him in terms of NBA stature. It’s a long list at this point, one that earned him the top spot last season in a Sports Illustrated player poll of the league’s biggest trash talkers.
He punched Rick Rickert, a largely unknown second-round draft pick, during a pickup game in the summer of 2004. He taunted Jose Calderon all over the court in 2008, and not long after that, he bizarrely got on hands and knees and barked like a dog at Jerryd Bayless, then a rookie with Portland. He called Joel Przybilla a “fake thug” (in the papers, not on the court), referred to Tyson Chandler as “a soft dude,” was suspended from a playoff game last season for tossing an elbow at Quentin Richardson’s head, screamed profanities at Mark Pope after scoring on him in a 2000 game, scuffled with Anthony Peeler in the 2004 playoffs, slapped Andrew Bogut during a mini-scrum for a rebound (the slap got KG suspended, too), and on and on and on.
The complaint has always been that Garnett is something of a paper tiger — that he’d never pick on Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal this way, and that if a player who could match him physically actually stood up to him on the court, KG would walk away. (People use Zaza Pachulia’s work in the 2008 playoffs as an example.)
The bullying debate has never been that interesting to me. Lots of players talk trash to opponents of all statures, and lots of guys swing elbows when they get tangled up with opponents under the rim. Practice skirmishes are normal, and Kevin McHale, the Timberwolves’ vice president in 2004, laughed off the Garnett-Rickert fight as “not a big deal,” according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune story.
Certain snippets of Garnett’s trash talk, particularly the dog-barking at Bayless and the clapping in Calderon’s face, certainly approach “bad taste” territory. The defense of KG has always been that he needs to do these things to keep his intensity level where he wants it. I have no clue whether this is true, but I tend to defer to players when they talk about their emotions.
But these Villanueva comments, if true? They break a code of human-to-human behavior that extends well beyond basketball. Villanueva does not have cancer. He has alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that is not life-threatening but can result in hair loss all over one’s body. Villanueva has been a very public spokesman for folks suffering from alopecia, and has spoken often to children dealing with the early stages of the disorder — children who seem to take great comfort from the fact that someone who went through problems just like theirs is in the NBA and comfortable appearing on TV all the time.
Calling Villanueva a “cancer patient”? It’s indecent. It’s not the way humans are supposed to behave in any context.
It reminds me of an incident that happened two summers ago, and forgive me, because I’ve brought it up before here and elsewhere. In the summer of 2009, Garnett was in Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (I’m not sure why) when a Pacers assistant approached him and asked if he would introduce himself to Tyler Hansbrough and A.J. Price. Both were about to start their rookie seasons. Garnett was probably one of their idols. KG’s response? He walked right on by and said, “[Expletive] your rookies,” according to The Boston Globe.
The Garnett defenders held this up as an example of his old-school competitiveness. It was a signal that Garnett would have been at home in the “good old days,” when players on opposing teams didn’t exchange man hugs before games or mingle off the court. Times when players hated their opponents, or at least manufactured hate by refusing to interact with them. It was that hatred, KG’s defenders said, that allowed Garnett to find the competitive fire he needs to play the hyperactive defense that fuels Boston.
I don’t buy it. This was the offseason, and these were two rookies on a lottery team that wasn’t going to challenge the Celtics until KG retires. They were almost as much fans as they were opponents. The situation calls for a level of decency Garnett could not summon.
Let me be crystal clear: I am not saying, by any stretch, that Garnett is a “bad” person or does not know how to treat others. Garnett is accountable to the press, his teammates and coaches swear by him, and I know many folks who have interacted with him in locker rooms or restaurants and found him decent if not all that forthcoming.
I am saying that Garnett’s behavior has verged a few times outside the code of normal ethical conduct, and that being in the midst of a competitive basketball game doesn’t excuse it. The context does not excuse joking that Villanueva is a cancer patient.
UPDATE #1: The Pistons have confirmed to ESPNBoston.com’s Chris Forsberg that Villanueva posted the tweets. The team told Forsberg that Villanueva had no further comment.
UPDATE #2: Garnett released a statement late Wednesday afternoon in response to Villanueva’s accusation:
“I am aware there was a major miscommunication regarding something I said on the court last night. My comment to Charlie Villanueva was in fact ‘You are cancerous to your team and our league.’ I would never be insensitive to the brave struggle that cancer patients endure. I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment. I would never say anything that distasteful. The game of life is far bigger than the game of basketball.”