Of the four players who have made the jump directly from high school, none provides keys for success that are all that relevant to Garnett's situation. Moses Malone had 1� seasons to develop under the soft lighting of the ABA before he came to the NBA in 1976. Darryl Dawkins, like Malone, was physically mature when he came to the Philadelphia 76ers out of Orlando's Maynard Evans High School in '75, but he remained nothing more than a delightful diversion during his 14 years in the league. The case most comparable to Garnett's was that of Bill (Poodle) Willoughby, a willowy, finesse-oriented 6'8" player who passed up a scholarship at Kentucky and became a second-round pick in 1975. Willoughby didn't flame out; rather his career flickered and finally died out quietly after eight seasons and six teams.
Seattle's Kemp, the last no-college player to make it, is no Malone, but he apparently will have a terrific NBA career. However, Kemp was both physically and emotionally mature when he turned pro in 1989, and besides, he did have a year to adjust to life away from home while attending Kentucky and Trinity Valley Junior College, though he didn't play basketball at either school. "Don't forget it was his fourth coach with the Sonics [ George Karl] who reaped the benefits with Shawn," says Whitsitt. "People see an All-Star player right now, but Shawn made a lot of mistakes along the way. Anyway, the NBA that Kevin will face is much different even from the one that existed when Shawn came in. The dollars are greater, the media exposure is greater, and the expectations are higher. The team that drafts him will have to be prepared for the realization that he might fail. The odds are he will fail."
Clearly, the safe comment to make about Garnett is that he should take "a year or two" in college to grow up and learn some responsibility. But look at it from another perspective. Garnett has decided that he's not a student. He's not dumb, but neither is he motivated in the classroom, and, as Farragut Academy vice principal Arleen Daggs puts it, "He doesn't test well." There's something bothersome about the glib observation that Garnett "owes it to himself" to spend a year or two in college to more adequately prepare himself for the pro game, which is essentially what this year's star-studded early entrants have done. It's a hopelessly quaint notion, of course, but colleges are supposed to be about making the effort to earn a degree in four or five years. "When I went to Oklahoma State, I felt I was making a commitment to them," says Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, a senior who figures to go early in this year's draft. "But that's easy for me to say, because nobody wanted me early. And as for me going pro right out of high school, let's not even talk about that. Frankly, I don't know what I would've done in Kevin's position."
Well, rather than take up someone else's space in a college classroom, what Garnett has done is enlist in the real world. Every year hundreds of men—boys, really—younger than he head for minor league baseball and hockey teams, and almost no one spends a second worrying about them. For that matter, teenagers make a fulltime living digging ditches, working in steel mills, administering to the sick in hospitals and fighting in wars. Bouncing a basketball and staying in nice hotels is tougher?
In one respect, it is. As is the case with adolescent females on the pro tennis tour, Garnett will grow up in the spotlight, and he'll be making a lot of money while we watch. The kid will go from pinching pennies for the Super Hero sandwich at McDonald's to making...what? Forty million for seven years? Fifty million for eight? Money changes people, alters motivations, messes up priorities, attracts hangers-on, opens up possibilities with women for which Garnett is unlikely to be prepared. These are valid concerns for the NBA and for the team that drafts him.
Garnett believes that his life experiences have made him wise beyond his years and more prepared to make what he calls "the jump." He grew up in the seemingly placid middle-class town of Mauldin, S.C., a bedroom community of Greenville, but racial tension bubbled under the surface. The move from Mauldin to the bleak, gang-infested west side of Chicago (he met the Farragut coach at a basketball camp and decided to move to the area with his mother, Shirley) before his senior year came in large part as a result of an incident in which he and several friends were charged with assaulting a white student. Garnett participated in a pretrial diversion program for first-time offenders, and his record was cleared. He also learned to survive in Chicago. "I know I couldn't have done what Kevin did," says Garnett's best friend from Mauldin, Jaime (Bug) Peters. "I visited him there and, man, the difference," Peters says. In one respect, yes, Garnett is wise beyond his years.
But he's still a kid. You realize that when you hear the wonder in his voice as he talks about his heroes, Michael and Magic, or watch him with his old friends in Mauldin, walking around a mall, schmoozing young salesgirls, discussing what threads he will wear to the draft. "KG, man, you gotta get yourself one of those long red suits like Jalen Rose had on at last year's draft," advises buddy Baron Franks. It's a little scarier when you hear the kids discussing, in dead earnest, what kind of car (or cars) Garnett will soon be purchasing and realize that his soon-to-be-acquired millions is like so much Monopoly money to them.
In unguarded, private moments Garnett seems to realize what he's up against. After a nervous TV interview, he shakes his head and wonders, Am I really ready for this? He uses words like overwhelming and hard to believe when he thinks of the road ahead. Eventually, though, the 19-year-old bravado takes over, and he sees no reason why he won't be an All-Star in his rookie season.
That is the beauty, and the blindness, of youth. No, the world will not be hurt or even seriously distressed by Kevin Garnett—the question is whether we will someday say the same about him.